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Big Trouble in Little Illyria

Helena Bonham Carter
Candle With Care: Helena Bonham Carter lights the way as Olivia in Trevor Nunn's adaptation of "Twelfth Night."

Photo by Alex Bailey

At last, the movies do Shakespeare right

By Richard von Busack

WE'VE HAD Shakespeare diced for the consumption of kids, as a mom cuts up meat into bite-sized portions for her brat. We've had directors knocking their brains--and ours--out trying to convince us that Shakespeare is "relevant" (flacks pushing Baz Luhrmann's Romeo & Juliet were calling Shakespeare "a 26-year-old writer," as if he had age in kinship with, say, Kevin "Clerks" Smith). We've had Al Pacino in Looking for Richard asking people on the street if they'd ever even heard of the guy, and acting bemused when he got no for an answer. Attuned as we may be to stories that open up like refrigerator doors, Shakespeare is never going to dazzle sixth-grade reading levels, even if you dress the players like Martians. Why is it hard for a crowd that spends so much time on the Stairmaster to appreciate the fact that not every pleasure in life is easily grasped?

The Trevor Nunn­directed Twelfth Night provides a welcome alternative to the "relevant" Shakespeare. The tricky tale (a love story of anagrams: Viola courting Olivia) features Helena Bonham Carter as Olivia, the poor deluded countess who, mourning for her dead brother, has banished men from her sight. At her court arrives a comely young soldier named Cesario--actually Viola (Imogen Stubbs), a young woman in disguise. Comic relief comes in the form of Olivia's servant problem; she is perplexed by Malvolio (Nigel Hawthorne), her sourpuss butler, and by the couple aching to prank him: the maid Maria (Imelda Staunton) and the drunken Sir Toby Belch (played with gross hauteur by Mel Smith). Bonham Carter's performance is almost as commendable as Hawthorne's, who shows up at his lady's chamber cross-gartered and smiling like a taxidermed coyote.

Nunn, a director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, trims the verbiage masterfully; nothing seems left out, and nothing seems extraneous, either. Only the key casting of Ben Kingsley as Feste is problematic. This melancholy, metaphysical clown (monk as much as mountebank) pronounces a lovely diminuendo note for the ending with his reading of the actor's creed, "We'll strive to please you everyday," but Feste grounds the levity of the film, as do the autumn light and the formal black of the clothes (the film is set in late-Victorian surroundings). Kingsley is not much of a caperer, and the few scenes of physical merriment seem strained. That, however, is my sole cavil with this bewitching film, an exquisite adaptation that demonstrates the eternal qualities of these writings that late-20th-century marketing strategies will be unable to corrupt.

Twelfth Night (PG; 125 min.), directed and written by Trevor Nunn, based on the play by Shakespeare, photographed by Clive Tickner and starring Helena Bonham Carter and Ben Kingsley.

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From the November 7-13, 1996 issue of Metro

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