Acclaimed director Trevor Nunn's film is a classic adaptation of the third of Shakespeare's mature comedies (the others being Much Ado and As You Like It). Twelfth Night is the darkest of these three plays, beginning with Orsino's famous opening soliloquy and continuing its conflicted heroines, the cross-dressing Viola (Imogen Stubbs) and the moody Olivia (Helena Bonham Carter), both of whom are mourning lost brothers. The puritan steward, Malvolio--played masterfully by Nigel Hawthorne, whose appearance recalls famous Malvolios from play posters of bygone eras--is seething with sexual frustration, revealed only when tricked into it via a letter supposedly written by Olivia, yet penned by the tricky servant, Maria (Imelda Staunton). Maria's plotline is wonderfully augmented in this film by the clowns, Sir Toby Belch (Mel Smith), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Richard E. Grant), and Feste (Ben Kingsley).
Nunn's adaptation is distinctive in three ways:
1. his realignment of scenes to emphasize similarities in seemingly disparate circumstances (e.g. the theme of madness, wherein Viola's lost brother Sebastian (Steven MacIntosh) wonders if he is mad even as Malvolio has a nervous breakdown in the dark room). The cuts he makes in the original text are equally appropriate to the change of medium: the story is essentially intact, with an opening non-Shakespearean twist that emphasizes shipwreck as the originating event.
2. Ben Kingsley's emphasis on the revenge motivating Feste--the fact that this seemingly merry fool has a thin skin when Malvolio upbraids him, and lords it over the broken steward at the end of the play. Though this darker interpretation of Malvolio is not the usual happy-go-lucky goof seen too often on North American stages, the text itself does warrant this way of seeing him, and it gives the character much more complexity.
3. The homoerotic attraction between Duke Orsino (Toby Stevens) and Cesario (Viola in disguise)--again, warranted by the text itself--is more fully developed than in many productions, and again, it increases the complexity of Orsino's character even as it emphasizes Viola's intense desire for him even as she is unable to break out of the identity she has created for herself in Orsino's court.
Beyond all this, the film is lush in its use of color, its landscapes and interiors--a delight to anyone who understands and appreciates the complexities of Shakespeare's characters. One only wishes Nunn would continue making films of this sort. I'm waiting for a good adaptation of The Tempest!