VIOLA: Parminder Nagra
FESTE: Zubin Varla
DUKE ORSINO: Chiwetel Ejiofor
MALVOLIO: Michael Maloney
SIR TOBY BELCH: David Troughton
OLIVIA: Claire Price
SIR ANDREW AGUECHEEK: Richard Bremner
MARIA: Maureen Beattie
ANTONIO: Andrew Kazamia
SEBASTIAN: Ronny Jhutti
DIRECTOR: Tim Supple
OK, it’s more than time I got back to Twelfth Night. In a couple of weeks my blog is going to start to languish even more than it has been, as NaNoWriMo sets in – so.
The Anglo-Indian Twelfth Night directed by Tim Supple (2006) made some really, really … interesting choices. Abstractly, I like some of them … concretely, I don’t think I like more than one or two, and those don’t balance the scales. It’s beautiful to look at – Netflixing it again I’ve taken a ridiculous number of screencaps – but.
It has a modern-day setting, or perhaps the end of the British Raj, or a combination of eras (a classic car, but cd’s, and 60’s-style rock). It begins with “If music be the food etc.”; a young woman is singing for Orsino (something operatic and, as far as I know, non-Shakespearean). And it’s right here, right away, that the strange choice of atmosphere begins to become evident: the singer looks afraid. Jumping ahead in the film, I don’t think there was reason provided for her to be apprehensive, as Orsino never got violent, including when he doubled back on himself with “‘Tis not so sweet as it was before” – but she still looked very unhappy when he stopped her. (And then she is never seen again. Which could be ominous, if you want to look at it like that.) The scene is filled with close-ups and cuts and flashes of other people and times – it couldn’t be more clear that this is going to be Different.
They cut the first scenes of Act I into each other somewhat, and I didn’t keep track of what went where, but we see the rather alarming Orsino emoting against a lurid sunset. As he speaks of Olivia, we see a portrait shot of her, sitting cool and gorgeous against a dark background. And then we see a house somewhere, the family being rousted from it in the night, a young Indian man and woman escaping through a window. The pair either stow away on a ship or buy an escape aboard it (I have no idea if they were supposed to be there), and then the ship apparently sinks (which I think was represented by a flare of light – like a 60’s low-budget TV show, and yes I mean Doctor Who) and then Viola is aboard a fishing boat being leered at by a handful of sailors. Not the captain, though; he is the good and true captain he ought to be – although he is lightning fast at pocketing the handful of gold bangles she takes from her arm at “For saying so, here’s gold”. (Maybe those three sailors were eyeing the rest of the bangles, and not so much her. Or, more likely, both.)
The captain helps Viola in her transformation: we see him negotiating with a salesman in a men’s clothing store, gesticulating over a picture of Viola and Sebastian together (in order to duplicate Sebastian’s outfit), while Viola sits bereft among the suit jackets. She cuts her hair and binds her breasts and goes off to serve the Duke – which, as seen in other productions (Nunn, at least) involves washing his back – although this scene involves oil, and I haven’t seen another production that features a full rear nude scene for Orsino (Chiwetel Ejiofor). That may have been part of the case for Viola’s falling in love with him so quickly … and it is compelling evidence, along with the gratuitous archery sequence (“rich golden shaft”, indeed). Other than that, I was after the first time I watched hard pressed to recall many of his scenes. (Or Sir Andrew’s (Richard Bremner), for the matter of that.)
As the captain speaks of Olivia, there she is again, as Orsino pictured her – and then images of her father, who fades as the captain tells of his death, and then the brother – the first time these two were ever shown in any of these adaptations. (That would be a fun credit on one’s CV – “I played Olivia’s brother in Twelfth Night.” “But -?”) Then follows the image of a car, big and expensive (I would guess a Rolls Royce – I think there’s a hood ornament – but I’m probably wrong) and with horrific damage to the front end – evidently what took the brother’s life. I don’t mind the glimpses of the dead, here and of the twins’ father, but I don’t see that they’re necessary or helpful. The waking dream Olivia falls into at one point – in which she hears a piano being played, and finds her brother at the keyboard – combined with her breakdown later just makes her very unbalanced: Sebastian isn’t going to have it easy.
We meet Sir Toby for the first time slumped facedown on a photo album opened to photos of his dead nephew. Maria chides him for coming in late – which feels odd, since he’s obviously been unconscious where he is for a little while. Mary is Scots, and by moments passionate with Sir Toby; for what it’s worth Olivia and all of her household – and Sir Andrew – are white while the rest of the cast is Indian (though I can’t say that was played as a Romeo-and-Juliet factor, or indeed played up at all; it felt kind of incidental). In fact, Sir Toby is played by David Troughton, son of Patrick and father of Sam. I love that family.
I do not, however, love this Sir Toby. Or anyone else, for that matter. Or the production. At all. Most of the, to me, unfortunate choices in the film add up to the mood of a grim thriller, a gritty picture about the Indian mafia with a grafting of screwball comedy. Without changing a word of the script (as far as I could tell – though many, many words were cut and some Latin prayers were added to give Olivia more of a fanatically grieving air) (coals to Newcastle), it managed to come off like a cable underworld drama. Nearly every drop of humor or joy was sucked out of it by the lighting (very dark, little daylight), the pitch, the tone – even the costumes. I think I smiled a couple of times at Michael Maloney’s really very good Malvolio, but in truth the comedy of that scene and what little was added by the use of modern technology (I’ll come back to that) made the scene an aberration in the middle of the movie, the only scene played for humor – – for the rest I was a little horrified.
All the performances were good, and some were very good – that’s one thing I absolutely cannot fault. Parminder Nagra was a natural with the language and a pleasure to watch (almost the only real pleasure); Claire Prince played a lovely, distracted Olivia; Maureen Beattie’s Maria was a spitfire, although … not a nice person, shall we say. Ronny Jhutti played a sympathetic, if somewhat shady, Sebastian – although his joyous reunion with his sister was undermined for me not only by the muted delivery of the lines but even more by their vastly different profiles: maybe this Olivia really was mad, if she was able to mistake Sebastian for Cesario with that nose. Or maybe it was meant to be a truly icky they-all-look-alike-to-me thing.
I kind of liked the conceit that Viola and Sebastian were on the run when the ship they were fleeing on sank (or was sunk); one of the quick flashes Supple used throughout showed Sebastian Sr. as Viola’s brother was talking about him to Antonio, and that instant, Ronny Jhutti’s tone of voice, and Andrew Kazamia’s reaction were all that were needed to paint the picture: Father Sebastian was a despotic general, with a great many enemies even years after his death. It was nice that this was conveyed with line reading and one image. However, the main impact of this idea was to further propel the movie out of the realm of “comedy” and into “independent gritty drama”.
It’s the culmination of the Malvolio-bashing that tears it, though. Toby and Maria are depressed by the whole thing as they wish themselves quit of the enterprise – Maria to the extent that she breaks down and sobs in Toby’s arms (which makes Feste’s fooling about, “bringing back” Sir Topas and such, more inappropriate even than usual). Things don’t pick up from there; yes, Olivia is thrilled that Cesario is, apparently, abruptly receptive, but that leads to Orsino’s discovery of his apparent betrayal by Cesario, uglier here than usual.
And yes, Viola and Sebastian are thrilled to be reunited – but their reaction is solemn and tear-filled. And then Olivia, who should be on top of the world, casts a glance at the altar to her brother at which she’s been drooping all movie long – which she despoiled to “return” Cesario’s ring and to give him the locket with her image – and bursts into tears, fleeing from the room (to be followed and comforted by, interestingly, Orsino). This just a little while after the drunkenly violent kidnapping of Malvolio, and capped by Malvolio’s furious and vengeful re-emergence – it was a grim ending. Olivia in tears, Viola and Sebastian (bruised and battered) near it, Maria last seen in tears and Sir Toby none too happy himself, and covered in blood when he goes off – he tries to kill Sir Andrew, or give a good appearance of it, and Andrew’s already bloody; Fabian uncomfortable, Feste cold and hard and alone – the only one remotely amused by any of it is Orsino, as the trick played on Malvolio is revealed. He’s just in there trying to deal with it all; he takes command to a small degree. Dark and gloomy and violent and threatening – the whole thing wasn’t any fun at all.