We saw an excellent production of this play nearly twenty years ago, and it had not occurred to me that this would be made as a normal film rather than being a stage adaptation. So I was a little startled when it opened with the inside of a ship, in stormy weather. We saw the twins Viola (Imogen Stubbs) and Sebastian (Steven Mackintosh) singing a a double act, shortly followed by the shipwreck which separated them, before any dialogue begins.
This is followed by what I later realised is scene two of the original script. Viola is devastated at (she assumes) the loss of her brother, and decides that it’s safest to dress up as a man. She plans to seek employment at the court of Orsino (Toby Stephens), the Duke who is in love with a lady called Olivia (Helena Bonham Carter) - but Olivia’s father and brother have both died recently, and she has renounced the company of men.
The famous opening line, ‘If music be the food of love, play on…’ then shows Viola, already disguised as the man Cesario, playing for Orsino. After that, the story moves forward (if I recall correctly) in the order of the original play, but with the addition of relevant scenery, interspersed with some songs.
I had assumed at first that the setting was in the 16th century, contemporary with Shakespeare. I was then startled by the use of a bicycle in one of the early scenes, something that was not invented until much later. So I adjusted my time-frame, and realised it was set as if in the late 19th or even early 20th century.
It always takes me a few minutes for me to get into Shakespearean dialogue, but it wasn’t too difficult, and I was soon absorbed in the story. The overall plot is well-known: Orsino loves Olivia, but she falls in love with the supposed Cesario who is really Viola, and Viola herself falls in love with Orsino. There’s a fair bit of comedy inherent in this, but extra comic relief is provided by the drunken Sir Toby (Mel Smith), and the fool Feste (quite unlike any Feste I have previously seen or imagined, brilliantly played by Ben Kingsley). There’s also the pompous Malvolio (Nigel Hawthorne) who has both a comic and a poignant part to play.
I was amazed at how alike Viola and Sebastian looked, and thought they must be close relatives, only to discover later that the two actors are unconnected. Imogen Stubbs is a credible Cesario, with quite a bit of low-key humour in the way she moves, and facial expressions. Helena Bonham Carter is excellent as Olivia, and Nigel Hawthorne as Malvolio was inspired casting, in my view.
It’s not laugh-aloud comedy for the most part, and is quite bawdy in places, but I’ve always liked ‘Twelfth Night’, and thought this an extremely good adaptation. It’s rated U in the UK, PG in the US. Shakespeare’s plays have quite a bit of innuendo and this play has its share, but younger children wouldn’t get them. I doubt if anyone below the age of about eleven or twelve would be particularly interested anyway.
However this would be an excellent version for secondary/high school or university students studying this play, to see realistic backgrounds and scenery, and to see far better the context (albeit a few centuries too late).
Recommended to anyone who would like to see something a bit different.
Review by Sue F copyright 2018 Sue's DVD Reviews