Review by Ed Nguyen
Frances Barber, Christopher Ravenscroft, Caroline Langrishe, Anton Lesser,
Abigail McKern, Richard Briers, James Simmons, Christopher Hollis
Directors: Kenneth Branagh, Paul Kafno
Audio: English 2.0 Stereo
Video: Color, full-screen
Studio: A & E
Features: Inside an Illyrian Winter, Shakespearean timeline
Length: 165 minutes
Release Date: August 30, 2005
music be the food of love, play on."
Shakespeare needs little introduction. The
works of this master playwright have been performed onstage and analyzed for
centuries and doubtless will receive likewise adulation for many centuries to
come. Even among movie-goers,
Shakespearean works lately have enjoyed a resurgence of interest.
Some credit for this praiseworthy cultural renaissance in our multiplexes
must surely be given to the efforts of England's actor-director wunderkind
Branagh burst into the cinematic limelight in 1989 with his boldly epic
rendition of Shakespeare's Henry V.
Immediately hailed as the heir
apparent to Sir Laurence Olivier, Branagh has since directed multiple other
screen adaptations of Shakespeare's plays, including 1996's triumphant Hamlet.
Other inspired directors have followed suit with further modern
revisionist treatments of Shakespeare - Richard
III, Titus Andronicus, The Merchant
of Venice, and Othello being among
the adapted works.
this outpouring of Elizabethan verse upon the silver screen was a 1996 version
of Twelfth Night starring Helen Bonham
Carter. A pleasant if modest
effort, this film was actually preceded eight years previous by Branagh's own
well-received interpretation. Branagh's
1988 stage production of Twelfth Night
was re-created for Thames Television and is the version which appears on this
DVD offering from A & E.
Night, or What You Will, as with many lighter Shakespearean works, deals with
mistaken identities, character in disguises, and romantic overtures.
Certainly, the whimsical alternate title suggests the story's playful and
none-too-serious tone. The central
action transpires in the semi-mythical land of Illyria, transformed for this
Branagh production into a picturesque winter wonderland (Branagh sought to
create a Dickens-like Christmas setting, albeit with a Chekovian quality of
melancholy to balance the story's more comic elements).
Twelfth Night opens, Viola (Frances
Barber) has just survived a shipwreck and has washed ashore upon a strange land.
Alas, she fears that her twin brother Sebastian is lost to the raging
storm. With the apparent ruination
of her past life, Viola determines that her future should lie in this realm,
this Illyria in which she now finds herself stranded.
Perchance Viola might pursue service in the court of the Duke of Illyria.
To conceal her true sex and nature, Viola further intends to masquerade
under the androgynous guise of a eunuch!
the Duke of Illyria (Christopher Ravenscroft), is revealed soon afterwards in
his courtyard. He mopes in the
midst of a snow flurry, his heart yearning for the lovely but unattainable
Countess Olivia (Caroline Langrishe), who currently mourns a death in her
family. Nevertheless, with his
loyal attendants Curio and Valentine by his side, the Duke presses forth to win
the lady's heart. To this effect,
he engages the services of a young eunuch, Cesario (none other than Viola in
disguise!), to woo the hand of the lady in his stead.
Unbeknownst to Orsino, Cesario/Viola is smitten with the Duke, her
amorous admiration for him compelling her to do his every bidding, even if such
obeisance should entail eventually losing him to the Countess.
lo, new twists are added to the storyline.
Olivia, charmed by Viola's lyrical words, falls for the Duke's
sweet-tongued emissary of love, clearly catching the young lass unawares:
"Fortune forbid my outside have not charm'd her!"
And, out of the swirling mists one evening emerges none other than
Sebastian, brother to Viola, once supposedly lost but henceforth no more.
As Viola's identical (but fraternal) twin, Sebastian's presence will soon
be cause for much confusion and bewilderment in the affairs of these
romantically-inclined Illyrians and perhaps to Sebastian's unexpected benefit,
as when he is surprisingly extended the good graces of Olivia, who mistakes him
for Cesario: "If it be thus to dream, still let me sleep!"
So is the seeming wonderland of Illyria unveiled in almost surreal
fashion, with the wintry environs merely enhancing the dreamy, fantastical
quality to the human misunderstandings to follow.
characters have their roles to play in this farce. Sir Andrew (James Simmons), a kindly if dimwitted squire, is
set upon the Countess by the ulterior connivances of her drunkard of an uncle,
Sir Toby Belch (James Saxon). Malvolio
(Richard Briers), loyal steward to Olivia, is regarded by Sir Toby and his
fellows, including Olivia's servant-woman Maria (Abigail McKern), as a
troublesome and rigid nuisance to be duly dispatched:: "Marry, sir,
sometimes he is a kind of Puritan." Malvolio
will serve as the play's comic-tragic character, a pompous fellow, "sick of
self-love," whose foible of unwavering propriety and virtuous pride earn
such disdain from Sir Toby and friends that they ultimately plot to bear false
witness upon Malvolio, accusing him of certain "midsummer madness" to
strip him of his lady's favor. Above
all watches Olivia's jester, Feste (Anton Lesser), a celebrative fool and yet
not such a fool at all, for in his eyes, 'tis better to be "a witty fool
than a foolish wit." Filled
with aphorisms, paradoxes, and witticisms, Feste is perhaps the wisest of the
denizens of Illyria as he observes the merriment and deceptions afoot: "God
give them wisdom that have it; and those that are fools, let them use their
intimately familiar with the text of Twelfth
Night will note some minor changes in this production.
A few lines here and there have been deleted (and even at least one
extremely minor speaking role, too). Furthermore,
as is often the case with modern productions of Twelfth
Night, the first and second scenes have been transposed. Sebastian's initial appearance likewise has been reshuffled
to a later stage in the play, presumably for greater dramatic impact.
A couple of musical interludes have also been assimilated into the body
of the play (with "The Twelve Days of Christmas" being an obvious
inclusion). During these
caterwauling or drunken revelries, the Shakespearean text is sung to music,
generally conforming to the actual instruction of the play.
the end, is a play about the search for love or happiness in spite of life's
tribulations or sorrows. In
parallel fashion, Olivia mourns in solitude for a recently-departed brother
while Viola has the presumed death of her brother on her mind, too.
But whereas Olivia has chosen to withdraw from society in her
bereavement, Viola boldly faces her plight and proceeds forth with her own life,
albeit in unusual manner. The play
does ask that viewers accept a few incongruities, one being that fraternal twins
of opposite sexes are identical. But,
Twelfth Night is a comic-fantasy after
all, perhaps not to the extent of A Midsummer's Night Dream but a comic-fantasy nonetheless.
around 1601 (about the same time as Hamlet),
Twelfth Night is today considered
among Shakespeare's more mature comedies. It
is a play to be cherished and enjoyed, and while Branagh's production on this
DVD is more theatrical than cinematic, it more than satisfies.
Certainly, this Twelfth Night will suffice until which time Branagh follows through
upon his desire to re-make the play for the big screen.
this is what you get with 1980's videotape-quality television broadcasts (and
British at that). The picture is
mildly pixelated in some early, darker scenes and somewhat soft with
intermittent traces of image bleed elsewhere.
Colors are occasionally muddy. Image
definition is clear at times, indistinct at other times.
Still, for a videotape mastered to DVD, Twelfth
Night looks reasonably well.
sound quality is also about average for a television program.
Dialogue is always discernible, but the music occasionally sounds a tad
distorted. This program being a
stage production, there are no aural fanfares to be found here.
And sadly, there are no subtitles or closed captions, either.
Such an unfortunate omission consequently requires that the viewer be
either dexterously attentive or else prodigiously familiar with the text lest he
be assuredly discombobulated by the complicated Shakespearean verse.
are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon
an Illyrian Winter
(21 min.) is an interview with Kenneth Branagh.
The actor-director talks about his Renaissance Theatre Company, which
performed the production of Twelfth Night
seen on this DVD as part of its first season repertoire (the stage show
originally opened in December 1987 and was a solid success). Twelfth Night being
a personal favorite of Branagh's, the actor enthusiastically discusses the
characters in the play, his use of artistic license and freedom within the
production, and the lilting score by Patrick Doyle (with some music contribution
from Paul McCartney!). All in all,
this interview serves as a fine introduction to the play and is recommended for
all viewers before watching the main feature itself.
only other extra on this disc is a timeline of William Shakespeare's life with a
chronology of his better-known plays.