WILL AND ME: Twelfth Night; Or What You Will (1996) Review
TWELFTH NIGHT; OR WHAT YOU WILL (1996) REVIEW
CAST: Imogen Stubbs, Helena Bonham Carter, Toby Stephens, Ben Kingsly, Nigel Hawthorne, Mel Smith, Richard E. Grant, Imelda Staunton, Peter Gunn, Steven Mackintosh.
Director—SIR TREVOR NUNN
Producers—STEPHEN EVANS & DAVID PARFITT
Writer—SIR TREVOR NUNN; adapted from the play by WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE
One of the bard’s most superior of all his comedic pieces, Twelfth Night (or “What You Will” as a subtitle) takes place in the country of Illyria, during the outbreak of civil war. (A subplot that isn’t actually in the original play, nor is it a necessary plot device in the film at all! It is barely even mentioned throughout the flick!)
During a violent storm, a young woman by the name of Viola (Imogen Stubbs) washes up on the shore of the land and decides to turn over new leaves after discovering that her twin brother Sebastian (Steven Mackintosh) assumingly drowned during the storm. Disguising herself as her dead brother, Viola seeks employment with the island’s love-struck ruler, Duke Orsino (Toby Stephens), becoming his personal servant, a soldier (of sorts) and a part-time messenger, delivering loves notes to the duke’s dream girl, Lady Olivia (Helena Bonham Carter). During one delivery to the lady’s manor, Viola is put in an awkward situation when Olivia falls in love with her, falling for the disguise of a youthful messenger. In no time, a love triangle forms, with The Duke loving Olivia, Olivia loving Viola (disguised as a boy), and Viola developing fallings for her employer the longer she works for him. As time progresses, we are left with the suspenseful question: Who will go for whom? Will Orsino end up with Olivia? Will Olivia ever discover Viola’s true identity? What would happen if Viola exposes other self to a land based around strict rules? It’s a story that you have you guessing till the very end. A story full of love, hope, laughter….and yellow stockings!
Since the day I first discovered the works of William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night has been, undoubtedly, my favourite out of all of his plays. It’s a symphony of landmark characters, memorable moments of farce, imaginative settings and many great philosophical discussions and songs about the importance of love. (Twice as better as how love is discussed in Romeo and Juliet. But then again, that was a tragedy based tale after all!) As far as I can recall during my years of watching and reading the bard’s work, Twelfth Night has got to be one of the most colourful Shakespearean comedies, offering the opportunity for anyone seeing or reading it to allow their imagination run wild and let themselves be transported from reality to a world where boredom is non-existent. To allow the audience member or reader to feel as if they can touch the trees, smell the air and interact with the characters themselves. (Funny enough, if you were a London citizen watching this at The Globe Theatre back in the Elizabethan era, interacting with the characters would have actually been possible!)
As well as offering an audience member a great deal to play with (no pun intended), the text of Twelfth Night also offers opportunities for just about every actor, producer and director to create a memorable production. Whether it be film, television or the stage, the possibilities with what a creative mind can do with the script are endless. Just about every director can use the bard’s words to give birth to a production that could one day sit alongside Citizen Kane or Waiting for Godot as one of the greatest films or plays (or revival in this case) ever viewed. And with Trevor Nunn’s production of William Shakespeare’s comedic play Twelfth Night….
….he missed the mark completely! (Or to describe it in a more specific image: If creating the best interpretation of Twelfth Night in existence was a game of archery, Nunn’s approach resembles an untrained and socially awkward archer who fails to fire his arrow at the target, and instead, accidentally fires in the other direction towards the audience standing behind him!)
Nunn is one of the most accomplished of all theatrical directors on the stages of Broadway and London’s West End, turning a great deal of his projects into entertainment gold. And yet, put a camera in his hand, and he manages to suck the life and joy out of the project! From the moment the film begins with a prologue (not from the original play) spoken in non-Elizabethan text by Feste (played by Sir Ben Kingsly), you know that everything is not going to live up one’s expectations. You instantly get that feeling that this is going to be yet another Shakespeare based film where the director struggles to make the transition from stage to screen by making all the wrong cinematic choices! (When I watched the film for the time, I pretty much felt that I had another Richard Loncraine polluting my DVD player!)
The positive side to the film is the casting of Ben Kingsly, Helena Bonham Carter, Sir Nigel Hawthorne (as the play’s most memorable character, Malvolio), the recently deceased Mel Smith (as the Falstaffian role of Sir Toby Belch), an almost unrecognizable Richard E Grant (as Sir Andrew Aguecheek), Imelda Staunton (Maria, Olivia’s female servant) and Peter Gunn (the secondary villain from Hannah Montana: The Movie playing the role of Fabian, a close friend of Sir Toby), who bring wonder to the film and a sense of enjoyment and bliss. And the location used to represent Illyria (Padstow and Lanhydrock House in Cornwall) is really beautiful to look at, especially with Clive Tickner cinematography, making the land look bright and whimsical. A sort of Wind in the Willows type feel. But sadly, the negatives of the film are far too strong and irritating to be ignored, thus ruining the hope of this being a great film to watch.
The film’s downfall is primarily Nunn’s poorly thought out choice to put most of the focus on the comedic characters, Malvolio, Toby Belch, Feste, Maria and Sir Andrew. With the main plot regarding Viola’s journey from lonely castaway to cross dresser to participant of an accidental love triangle, Nunn downplays it heavily, allowing the developing romance between Viola and Orsino to be bland, unfeeling and almost non-existent, and Viola’s story of loss, risk, romance and adventure to be unexciting and boring. But with the play’s famous subplot involving Belch and Sir Andrew seeking revenge on Malvolio by tricking him into wearing yellow stockings in front of Olivia, the film seems to spend much more time on that. The main plot is approached with an “I don’t give a damn” attitude, whilst the sub-plot is given the full artistic treatment, with a great deal of the detail and time being spent on it.
It is no secret that just about every fan of the play suggests that Twelfth Night should have been about the story of the yellow stockings than Viola (with even King Charles the First of England, during his unfortunate reign from 1625 to 1649, going as far as picking up a copy of the first folio of Shakespeare’s plays, and turning to the page featuring Twelfth Night where he scribbled out the current title and renamed it “Malvolio”.) And indeed, the sub-plot is perhaps the funniest moments of farce ever written during the early 1600s, but the reason why it’s so great is because it is all caused by the presence of Viola. A lot of the comedy moves along smoothly because of the events of Viola arriving on the shore of Illyria and interacting with Olivia and the other inhabitance. The plot is based around the supporting characters reacting to what the lady of the house is doing than just reacting to each other without much cause. If it were indeed an entire play just about the adventures of a fat drunkard, a coward, a singing clown and a slightly bemused lady-servant playing a prank on a pompous steward in love with the lady of the house, it wouldn’t be as memorable as it is today. All it would be is a boring story of pro-bullying and full of clichéd Commedia dell’arte moments. And Nunn’s film adaptation of the play is a great example of why Viola must be the main focus point of the story in order for the plot to humiliate Malvolio by faking a love note from Olivia to work effectively. With too much focus on the comedic characters, the show will just be dull and unlikable.
The only time that the Viola’s story actually gets interesting is towards the end with the—SPOILER ALERT—discovery that Sebastian (the twin brother) survived the sea storm, and when the main characters (Viola, Olivia and Orsino) get together to become lovers (with Olivia deciding to wed to Sebastian, for he resembles the man Viola disguised herself as.) After many hours of it being a film just to support the dumb theory that the Malvolio story makes a better main plot, Nunn randomly decides to start putting all the creative effort into the last few minutes of the story (possibly due to the sub-plot coming to a close and he needed some other way to make things interesting in the absence of the comedic characters), trying to making us think that we saw a film as romantic as Romeo and Juliet. But sadly, for those who do actually have brains compared with the critics who gave this flick undeserved praise, it is all too clear that Nunn’s dedication to the arts was absent during the Viola scenes, and immaturity was all too present during the yellow stocking scenes. (And even then, the subplot, like the main plot, is unbelievably down played! All the comedy from Belch, Malvolio and the others are censored too much, leaving us with a look of bemusement rather than amusement!)
The loves scenes are rushed, the story of Malvolio’s downfall is unfunny and scene hogging, the direction is dull and Nunn should really stay the hell away from the silver screen and focus more on his theatre work. He does not limit his cinematic possibilities, and instead, does a Richard Loncraine by cramming in everything, choosing not to take the time to think what works and what doesn’t work on screen. Nunn’s film is nothing but a dull experience that should have the Razzie Award for Worst Picture and Worst Director years ago.
When the film ends, and Feste sings the memorable ballad The Wind and The Rain, Nunn tries to make the audience thinks that we saw a comedy filled with memorable moments, a brilliant cast of characters and a heart-warming tribute to the text of one of the greatest dramatists who ever lived. But in reality, all we saw was an insult to Shakespeare and a waste of our time.
Twelfth Night; or What You Will….not worth your money, nor your undivided attention!