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posterTwelfth Night: Or What You Will

(United Kingdom, 1996, 134 minutes, color, 35 mm)

Directed by Trevor Nunn


Helena Bonham Carter . . . . . . . . . . Olivia
Richard E. Grant . . . . . . . . . . Sir Andrew Aguecheek
Nigel Hawthorne . . . . . . . . . . Malvolio
Ben Kingsley . . . . . . . . . . Feste
Toby Stephens . . . . . . . . . . Orsino
Imogen Stubbs . . . . . . . . . . Viola
Nicholas Farrell . . . . . . . . . . Antonio

The following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Pennsylvania State University:

TWELFTH NIGHT, one of the warmest and wittiest of Shakespeare’s plays, has seen remarkably few screen treatments. Before the BBC, there were only a handful of versions: a respectful 1955 Soviet TWELFTH NIGHT, David Green’s American television "Hallmark Hall of Fame" version of 1957, and another BBC version in the early 1950s. Before that, the slate is just about blank, except for a 1910 silent version by Vitagraph studios. During these years, there had been a dozen MACBETHs, a fistful of HAMLETs, and more ROMEO AND JULIETs than you can shake a codpiece at. Why is TWELFTH NIGHT so infrequently adapted? Trevor Nunn’s energetic 1996 tilt at this noisy, affectionate tale shows that a lush, full-bore screen treatment of TWELFTH NIGHT was long overdue.

The comic agonies of Viola and Sebastian’s separation seem made for the screen. Countless delays, mistaken identities, missed connections, and goofy coincidences are the thing that great screen comedies like HIS GIRL FRIDAY and A NIGHT AT THE OPERA are made of. Perhaps that’s the answer—TWELFTH NIGHT is among the most inherently cinematic of any of Shakespeare’s plays.

Trevor Nunn’s artistic upbringing in the Royal Shakespeare Company (18 years as artistic director) surprisingly did not include directing TWELFTH NIGHT. But the Company’s huge productions of works such as THE LIFE AND TIMES OF NICHOLAS NICKLEBY, and his stints on the West End and Broadway with mega-theater like CATS, LES MISERABLES, and SUNSET BOULEVARD made him comfortable with the busy, crowded stages of TWELFTH NIGHT. TWELFTH NIGHT is no chamber comedy, but a sweeping, gender-bent symphony of gags, deceptions, and love lost and regained. Nunn’s version shows him to be a deft theatrical juggler, whose gift is to toss up a dozen major roles among plots, subplots, and plots-aborning, and keep all balls in the air. TWELFTH NIGHT’s facets are many and glittering.

Nunn saw in TWELFTH NIGHT an age-old fascination with gender identity that was bubbling up once more in films like THE CRYING GAME and THE BIRDCAGE. His leading performers do not disappoint him as he renders this tale of fictional country Illyria’s court fancies and follies. Imogen Stubbs makes a hoydenish Viola, her cross-dressing a thin mask for a very direct sexual personality, while Steven MacKintosh as Sebastian is a handsome, athletic fellow who can buckle a swash when he has to, but who can set women’s hearts ablaze as well. It is Helena Bonham Carter as Olivia, however, who carries Nunn’s vision to the furthest corners of Shakespeare’s Illyria. Innocence personified, she is also desire incarnate, a stirring combination when she meets Viola/Cesario. Ben Kingsley plays the wise and impish Feste, alternately singing some of the best songs in Shakespeare, and responding to questions in the voice of an Indian Gurkha soldier. Nigel Hawthorne, as the yellow-stockinged Malvolio, comes close to reprising his title role as the benighted monarch in THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE.

Nunn’s breezy approach to Shakespeare makes for many startling choices. TWELFTH NIGHT begins with some great backstory—the dramatic storm that separates Viola and Sebastian. But Nunn’s brashest choice is to set the play in Cornwall in the nineteenth century. The strict mores associated with the Victorians give the play an even fresher, more transgressive feeling. The contrast between, say, mourning dress and lust moderates love and loss, light and dark, in a way that is, in fact, very Shakespearean, regardless of the setting. TWELFTH NIGHT brims over with sex and intimations of sex, both heterosexual and homosexual. The film did poorly in the United States, at a moment when Shakespearean adaptations were a going business. Perhaps the hypocrisy between Victorian ideals and pronouncements, and the marvelous infirmities of the flesh that Shakespeare puts on stage in TWELFTH NIGHT uncomfortably reminded Americans of our own self-deception about the sexual variety within our culture and ourselves, about our own frustrated desire to explore Illyria.

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

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