Stiff upper lip service

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The Independent Culture
Twelfth Night Trevor Nunn (U)

The question is - how we will we get the youngsters in to watch a spot of Shakespeare? It's not so beastly, really, but you can't get them interested, can you? One youth magazine gamely encouraged its readers to see Trevor Nunn's new film of Twelfth Night by selling it as the play that inspired the "Bob" episode from Black Adder. Well you've got to tempt the kids away from Nintendo somehow.

But how do you break it to them that even the most free-wheeling adaptation of Twelfth Night won't be able to accommodate the bulldozing tanks of this year's Richard III, or the flashy gun play of the forthcoming Romeo and Juliet? Perhaps we're asking the wrong questions here. Perhaps we should be considering how we break it to an adult that this film of Twelfth Night, with its lovely jostling storylines knocking against one another like bubbling pots on a crowded stove, has turned out to be a bit of a bore. Not for its absence of tanks, guns and death. For absence of life.

The picture is a production by Renaissance, the company that provides a sort of British Standard's kite-mark on screen adaptations of Shakespeare's work (Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V). But who wants that sort of official guarantee? Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night looks good on paper. "It's watertight", it has "prospects". Those prospects are represented by Nunn himself, by the likes of Helena Bonham Carter and Nigel Hawthorne, by Shaun Davey's tidy score, and by the vast Cornwall locations. It can't fail. Which is always rather worrying. Audacious and ambitious beats solid and dependable every time.

For anyone whose only encounter with Twelfth Night was in fifth-form English, the story concerns mistaken identity and misdirected laughs on a grand scale. Viola (Imogen Stubbs) arrives on the shore of Illyria after a shipwreck which she believes has claimed the life of her twin brother Sebastian (Steven Mackintosh). She gets thick with Duke Orsino (Toby Stephens) by masquerading as a spunky young blade called Cesario. And though Orsino has Cesario / Viola act as go between for him and the reluctant object of his affections, Olivia (Helena Bonham Carter), a clandestine attraction is blossoming in the margins; Orsino is becoming more enamoured of his new chum than he would like; and Olivia is also becoming more enamoured of Orsino's new chum than Orsino would like. And that's without the million sub-plots.

Twelfth Night isn't a badly made film, it just has no business in existing. Like a Robson and Jerome cover version, it neither adds to nor subtracts from your appreciation of the source material. Nunn finds a few ways of reflecting the play's themes in the mise-en-scene, but you wouldn't call his style imaginative, just nice, like the way travel agents are nice. When Olivia and Cesario/ Viola met for the first time in a dimly lit drawing room, the latter wanders by the windows so that she is occasionally caught in the blinding shafts of light breaking through the gaps between the curtains. It's as though she's playing peek-a-boo with Olivia, daring her to guess the truth. And that's... well, nice.

Some of the staging is excellent, too, such as when Orsino beckons Cesario / Viola into scrub his back in the bath, and both "men" close their eyes and let their faces settle into smiles of secret ecstasy, each unaware of the others' expressions and intentions.

And the moustaches are all really quite splendid. There are great bold moustaches like the wings of an eagle, and little wispy ones that might leave the upper lip at the slightest breeze. When the ship crashes, Sebastian and Viola are in the middle of a cabaret drag act in which they remove each other's face furniture. But Sebastian's is real, and when his sister reaches up to peel it off, the ship goes down. That's what happens when you meddle with masculinity. As she's heading for the ocean bed, Viola rescues her tiny hairy prop. That's some foresight. Thank goodness she had her wits about her, or we might have lost the wonderful scene where Orsino and Cesario / Viola lean in for a tender kiss and their moustaches, caught in a blaze of light, resemble two caterpillars crawling toward each other across the surface of a 60 watt bulb.

But moustaches aside, the film leaves little impression. The press notes tell us that the director of photography, Clive Tickner, shot the film through a tobacco filter to age it but it just looks like bad stock. Most of the cast are fairly sprightly and Nigel Hawthorne is outstanding as Malvolio, playing wounded with a blend of grudging comedy and grim tragedy. Helena Bonham Carter is the funniest thing here; however grave things get, she never loses the look of a girl who's just been told to tidy her room. And Ben Kingsley is rather moving as the supposed clown Feste, at least until he starts haunting court yards and countryside, crooning like Harry Secombe.

There's no doubt that Nunn understands the play's subtext; he'll come up with an image here and there that is almost trenchant. But mostly he gives us no indication as to why he has chosen film as the medium for this production. As a movie, it would look great on the radio. That would mean no moustaches, of course. But it's a sacrifice I'd be willing to maken

On general release from Friday