Twelfth Night

(Trevor Nunn, UK, 1996)


Writer-director Trevor Nunn's adaptation of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, updated to the 1890s, has a terrific introduction.


Two shipboard performers, apparently female, unmask each other as male. But then a fake moustache is ripped from the first, revealing a woman. And just before the moustache of the other can be likewise tested … there is a disaster at sea.


Henceforth, these twins Viola (Imogen Stubbs) and Sebastian (Steven Mackintosh) will lead separate lives, believing each other to be dead. Viola disguises herself as a man named Cesario in order to serve as a trusted page to Count Orsino (Toby Stephens) – whom she grows to fancy. Orsino, however, pines for Olivia (Helena Bonham Carter), who becomes attracted to Cesario.


This comedy of manners and masks takes a long time to recover the zest and imagination evident in the opening scene. Nunn is firmly in the Kenneth Branagh school of jolly Shakespearian fun: there is a lot of huffing and puffing from the cast, arbitrary flourishes of lyrical camera work and crashing music, and far too much screen time given to a horribly hammy bunch of comedians (including Nigel Hawthorne, Mel Smith and Richard E. Grant).


The Bard himself must shoulder some of the blame for the sloppy excess of this production. Wasn't he perhaps a touch over-fond of clowns, fools and humiliated fops dancing around the edges of some of his plots? Ben Kingsley, however, brings immense charm and presence to the part of the all-seeing joker Feste – and his frequent singing is an unexpected delight.


Much of this film misses the mark, and easily loses the interest of the audience. But, at the very end, it improves somewhat – recapturing the poignancy and warmth of its initial, separated soul-mates premise.

© Adrian Martin January 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search