TWELFTH NIGHT: OR WHAT YOU WILL
 

Directed by Trevor Nunn. UK. 1996.


Talking Pictures alias talkingpix.co.uk
 
 


 
 

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In Illyria, Orsino (Toby Stephens), a nobleman, is saddened because he cannot have the love of Lady Olivia (Helena Bonham-Carter) who is mourning the loss of her brother. Meanwhile, twins Sebastian (Stephen Mackintosh) and Viola (Imogen Stubbs) both survive a terrible shipwreck off the coast, but each thinks the other has died. Viola takes the guise of a man and goes to work in the household of the nobleman, falling in love with Duke Orsino. Meanwhile Olivia is taken with Viola who calls herself Cesario. This is the premise of one of William Shakespeare's most appealing comedies, Twelfth Night: Or What You Will, updated from Elizabethan England to late 19th century and brought to life by director Trevor Nunn. It is one of the best interpretations of Shakespeare that I have seen on film. 

Reminiscent of other Shakespearean cross-dressing comedies such as As You Like It, Twelfth Night is mostly about the ins and outs of romantic love but it is also about pride, "overweening ambition", disguises, and mistaken identities. The play contains some of Shakespeare's most memorable characters: Sir Toby Belch (Mel Smith), Olivia's drunken uncle, his friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Richard E. Grant) who is also trying to court Olivia, Olivia's gentlewoman Maria (Imelda Staunton), Feste (Ben Kingsley), the house clown, and Malvolio (Nigel Hawthorne) the prudish steward. Nunn has assembled a cast that more than does justice to the play. Imogen Stubbs as Viola actually looks like a handsome young man and has a sense of purity and innocence that makes her instantly likeable. Helena Bonham Carter brings warmth to the character of Olivia who like Orsino seems to be in love with the idea of love not the reality. Some have noticed a similarity between the character of Olivia and Queen Elizabeth and interestingly, Olivia is addressed by Feste as "madonna", the only time the word is used in all of Shakespeare, perhaps a wry comment about the myth of the Virgin Queen. 

The main story involves a love triangle between Orsinio, Viola, and Olivia but the minor characters have more than ample time on stage. Malvolio is both a comic and a tragic figure, said to caricature Sir Christopher Hatton, a courtier, romantic pursuer of the Queen and rival of the Earl of Oxford. Hatton was so fawning Elizabeth called him her "sheep" or "mutton" and this allusion is present early in the play as Malvolio is called a "rascally sheep-biter", harking back to Hatton's letter assuring Elizabeth that "The sheep hath no tooth to bite while the Boar's (Oxford) tusk doth raze and tear." Malvolio is a puritan who rails against people having fun, a trait that earns him the enmity of Sir Toby and Maria. To strike back, Maria engineers a joke on Malvolio. She forges a love letter supposedly from Olivia telling him that if he wants her to notice him, he should dress in yellow stockings and crossed garters and, as he woos Olivia dressed in his strange attire, Malvolio cuts a ridiculous figure (incidentally this is the same costume worn by Henry VIII when he danced with Anne Boleyn, Queen Elizabeth's mother, at a masked ball, before he had her beheaded for adultery). 

While there are many great performances, the star for me is Ben Kingsley who is totally convincing as Feste, a fool but a knowing one who functions as an objective commentator of the scene around him, exuding an air of righteous superiority. His portrayal of the priest Sir Topas who interrogates Malvolio in a darkened room has overtones of the 1581 trial and execution of Edmund Campion, a Jesuit priest who was executed by the English government in 1581. In his speech of less than fifty words, which appears to resemble nothing but nonsense, there are no less than five phrases which refer directly to Edmund Campion and his 1580-81 mission to England. 

Richard Desper has pointed out that the mock trial scene works as a parody of the government persecution of Catholic martyrs. "The playwright," he writes, "demonstrates for us a world turned upside down, with clowns passing themselves off as men of learning, while men of learning …are pressed to deny what they believe to be true to serve political ends." The ending is too delightful to give anything away but it reminded me of the Ingmar Bergman comedy Smiles of a Summer Night, where mismatched couples get together at a summer cottage to sort everything out. Malvolio is pitiable in trying to redeem a shred of dignity but we feel for him when he exits saying, "I shall be revenged on the whole pack of you". As he leaves, he is the only person suffering in a sea of happy faces, those on screen as well as those at home.

GRADE: A
 

Howard Schumann
 
 
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