Twelfth Night is available for streaming from Amazon.com for $8.99
DVD of Twelfth Night available from Amazon.co.uk for £3.99
DVD of Twelfth Night available from Amazon.com from $15.74
Note that prices quoted are indicative and subject to change. Check the prices on the Vendors’ pages at the links above.
Our Bottom Line:
This is a really fantastic version of this play. It isn’t the most accurate; if you’re looking to study it, go and watch the BBC Collection edition instead. But for me it captures the heart of the play; the comedy, the pathos, the hints of madness that Shakespeare goes on to explore more thoroughly in plays like Lear and Hamlet. It’s all there.
Our Review (*****)
After Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night was the second Shakespeare play I ever saw, and was also the first I ever had a leading role in. It therefore has a rather special place for me, and this film does in particular, being the way I was introduced to the play. I may, therefore, be rather biased when I say how wonderful this production is. Unlike in most stage productions, we actually get to see the shipwreck that starts everything off. We open with some added text, with Feste (Ben Kingsley) narrating events as the twins perform to the other passengers on the ship, before the ship begins to lurch from side to side being thrown on the waves. We see Viola being thrown overboard and Sebastian jumping after her, the two struggling to reach each other underwater and being dragged apart by the water, and Antonio jumping in to save Sebastian. Although all this stuff isn’t strictly necessary to tell the story, it makes sense to take advantage of the possibilities film offers to enhance the text, and the added narration, which could have been very grating, fortunately fits in with the feel of the language throughout the play.
Unlike many other versions of Twelfth Night available on DVD, this really is a film, rather than just a recorded stage version. They take full advantage of being able to show us the scenery described, with Viola walking back and forwards from Orsino’s palace to Olivia’s house along beautiful coastal cliffs, Antonio and Sebastian discussing Sebastian’s past by a real harbour, and the drama of Act 2 Scene 4 being amped up as it’s played on a rocky clifftop in a raging storm. They are also able to cut between different scenes, which helps the flow of the film and leads to some nice contrasts between the drunken revelry of Sir Toby and co. and the quieter, romantic scenes between Viola and Orsino. There is also a great cut at one point from Sebastian’s awestruck “…And wrangle with my reason that persuades me to any other trust but that I am mad” to Malvolio’s desperate “I am not mad!”. The only real downside with this is that the script is heavily cut and moved around a lot, so if you’re looking for an accurate version of the text you won’t find it here.
Imogen Stubbs plays Viola, the cross-dressing heroine of the play. For once, she actually is reasonably convincing as a man, and one can actually see how
Olivia would fall for her. The moustache is a particularly nice touch, as are the occasional flicks of her newly short hair. She’s a joyful Viola, taking full advantage of her disguise and the fun she can have with it, seeming to enjoy teasing and even flirting with Olivia. She’s wonderfully amused on discovering that Olivia loves her and that “I am the man!”, chuckling to herself as she says this. Her frustration as she tries to persuade Olivia to move on and love Orsino rather than “Cesario” is very amusing, as are her attempts to fit in with the men in Orsino’s court, trying to cover her coughing as she smokes a cigar, accidentally beating him at snooker and subtly moving the fencing instructor’s hand down as it touches an inappropriate place. However, there are also some very poignant, touching moments. Her expressions as Orsino tells her “Women are as roses, whose fair flower being once displayed, doth fall that very hour” are wonderful, filled with longing and regret, and her rendition of the “patience on a monument” speech is beautiful. It’s easy to see why Orsino is so fascinated with this “boy”.
Orsino himself is played by Toby Stephens, and perhaps the most memorable thing about his performance is the amount of spectacular eyebrow action. We can’t blame Viola for falling for him- no-one could resist the one-eyebrow arch, which happens frequently, or its moustache equivalent. His Orsino is hilariously self-obsessed, drawling every line as he lies sprawled on his chaise longue, and seeming to love the sound of his own voice. In the final scene his threats of murder to Olivia, and then Viola are toned down, and he seems to be more an overgrown toddler throwing a tantrum as he doesn’t get what he wants. Despite being so utterly insufferable, he can be irresistibly charming when he wants to be. The chemistry between Stephens and Stubbs is wonderful, with every scene between them overflowing with sexual tension. Every production of this play has to decide how far to take the romance between Viola and Orsino before he realises that she’s a girl and therefore it’s socially acceptable for
him to be attracted to her. This production goes about as far as it possibly can, with the two of them leaning towards each other during Feste’s “Come Away Death” and being interrupted on the brink of what one imagines would have been a fairly passionate kiss.
Feste watches all of this with a rather knowing eye, and we get the definite sense that he’s pretty aware of what’s going on. It definitely seems that he’s worked out that Viola’s really a girl. However, he obviously doesn’t know about the twin, and there are some very funny moments as the all-knowing fool is bewildered by the sudden change in behaviour of this boy-who-is-really-a-girl-but-actually-is-a-boy-because-it’s-her-twin-brother. Ben Kingsley was the first Feste I ever saw, and I
have still never seen one who rivals him. He is funny, charming, mischievous, and occasionally malicious, but through every moment he’s onscreen he exudes a powerful sense of wisdom. He is not dressed in jester-like motley, but a simple dark coat and scarf. This is a fascinating character, as he is part of the action, but is simultaneously somehow set apart from it. Kingsley captures that slightly otherworldly element; he is the all-seeing eye, watching from the cliffs as the survivors wash onto the shore, and narrating the shipwreck. In a nice bit of symmetry, he also closes the film; the final shot is of him dancing and laughing into the distance just after finishing the “Hey ho, the wind and the rain” song.
I could, if I had the time and space, write great long paragraphs on the performances of every actor in this film. But given that I have neither of those things, I’ll summarise from now on. Nigel Hawthorne is a fantastic Malvolio, capturing the narcissistic snobbery of the character through most of the play, the ridiculous comedy of the “yellow stockings” scene, the desperation of the “dark room” scene, and the broken man he becomes by the end of the play perfectly. A particular highlight is his clenching of a naked female statue’s buttocks as he imagines Olivia being in love with him. Helena Bonham Carter’s Olivia, while not nearly as funny
as Mark Rylance’s version of the character in the recent Globe production, is far closer to how I generally picture the character. She is beautiful, clever, strong-willed, but capable of behaving just as ridiculously and making as much of a fool of herself as everyone else in the play. There are also some really touching moments between her and Feste, a relationship which it is nice to see developed well. Mel Smith is vile as Sir Toby: funny, enjoyable to watch; and as manipulative, self-serving, gluttonous and downright cruel as that character can get. Richard E. Grant’s Sir Andrew, in contrast, while a seemingly ridiculous, foolish character by outward appearances, is given some real depth; we can actually feel sympathy towards him in this version. The line “I was adored once too” which is often used as a throwaway comedy line, has some real weight and pathos here, and at the end of the play after being rejected by Sir Toby, he graciously accepts his failure to win Olivia, kisses her hand, and exits with a quiet, sad dignity. Imelda Staunton’s Maria, while joining in on the games of the subplot, also has a great sadness about her which we glimpse occasionally, usually in shots where we see her alone and with her guard down. Her marriage with Toby seems not to be a marriage for love, but a way to escape her dull life.
To sum up, then, I think this is a really fantastic version of this play. As I mentioned before, it isn’t the most accurate; if you’re looking to study it, go and watch the BBC Collection edition instead. But for me it captures the heart of the play; the comedy, the pathos, the hints of madness that Shakespeare goes on to explore more thoroughly in plays like Lear and Hamlet. It’s all there. They take advantage of the film medium to explore the play and show things that couldn’t possibly be shown on stage, to great effect. The cast is superb, the scenery is stunning, the costumes are beautiful, and it makes for a fantastic evening’s entertainment. I watched the film again with a non-Shakespeare friend yesterday who planned to disappear into his computer, but ended up getting sucked in and watching (and seeming to enjoy) all 134 minutes of it. Highly recommended, whether you’re a Shakespeare fan or not.
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