The fussiest Shakespeare buff should find little to fault in Trevor Nunn's gorgeous and playful adaptation of Twelfth Night. The most popular and oft-performed of the Bard's comedies has sailed along for four centuries on the glories of mistaken identity, confused passion and matchless poetry, and Nunn does them all high honor in the play's first-ever filming.
Nunn, the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company for eighteen years, has assembled a cast featuring some of Britain's most spirited classicists--Helena Bonham Carter as the grieving beauty Olivia, who resists the tug of love in the name of her dead brother; Toby Stevens as the lovesick duke Orsino; Nigel Hawthorne, who equals his memorable "mad" King George with a beautifully nuanced performance here as the pretentious steward Malvolio; Mel Smith as the lovable bawd Sir Toby Belch; and Ben Kingsley as the clever and cunning "fool" Feste. Shakespeare's main plot is dominated, of course, by Imogen Stubbs's Viola, who, after believing her twin brother has perished in their shipwreck, must disguise herself as Orsino's male page "Cesario," provoking much romantic complication in mysterious Illyria and the comedy's fervent meditation on the meanings of gender.
In the age of Madonna, The Birdcage and androgyny unleashed, this element might be the one that hooks contemporary art-house audiences. But Nunn and his actors wisely pay equal attention to Twelfth Night's other concerns: the brevity of youth, the hovering cloud of mortality and the lure of music--Shakespeare's eternal "food of love." In the play's fertile subplot, spiced with Elizabethan "low comedy," plump Sir Toby, Feste and supercilious Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Richard E. Grant) undermine the preening Malvolio, so the playwright's message about the wages of vanity also remains intact.
Cinematographer Clive Tickner captures the sweet melancholy of the piece in almost every sunlit shot, and costume designer John Bright merits a special mention. This Twelfth Night is meant to happily encompass many eras, and Bright's bold choices reflect that--from Olivia's sumptuous brocade gown, circa 1580, to Feste's tattered rags, which you can see this afternoon in the alleys of Capitol Hill, to Sir Andrew's jaunty straw boater, straight out of 1910. Once immersed in Shakespeare's high art, we don't really need to be reminded again of his timelessness. But Bright's splendid work does the job deftly, without belaboring the point. How now, voters. Bring on an Oscar for this master of wardrobe.
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Meanwhile, moviegoers, get thee to the cineplex with all haste. Because only rarely has Shakespeare come to the screen with this much verve, style and wit. Kenneth Branagh's upcoming, four-hour Hamlet may promise more blood and gravity, but Trevor Nunn's buoyancy enflames the heart.
Twelfth Night. Screenplay by Trevor Nunn, based on the comedy by William Shakespeare. With Imogen Stubbs, Helena Bonham Carter, Nigel Hawthorne, Ben Kingsley and Mel Smith.