Dylan Thomas wrote Under Milk Wood (first broadcast by the BBC in 1954) as a "play for voices". It has been made into a film once before, in 1972, with Richard Burton as the "first voice", Elizabeth Taylor as the coquettish Rosie Probert ("come on up boys – I am dead") and Peter O'Toole as blind Captain Cat. Kevin Allen's bold new adaptation shows tremendous visual imagination in places and has plenty of ghoulishness, scabrous humour and eroticism along the way, too. The challenge for the film-makers, though, just as with the 1972 feature, is how to match the sheer brilliance of Thomas's writing. The images here always follow the words, a few paces behind.
Even if the source material resists easy cinematic adaptation, the film has some very strong elements. Rhys Ifans' "first voice" narration sets the atmosphere perfectly. Ifans (who also plays blind Captain Cat) doesn't try to imitate Richard Burton. His delivery is calmer and more measured than Burton's mercurial, intensely dramatic rendition. It is effective, though, in conveying the ghostly quality in the writing. We have the sense that the narrator is the necromancer, summoning spirits in the small Welsh town. The shots of gravestones reinforce the idea that he is conjuring up a town of the dead.
Early on, as we eavesdrop on the strange dreams of the townsfolk, Under Milk Wood has the feel of a horror movie or a very dark thriller. Neighbours are lusting after one another or plotting murderous misdeeds in their sleep. The images of the "lulled and dumbfound" town by night have an air of foreboding. Everything, from Captain Cat's seaweed-covered, long deceased old shipmates to the rusty tin baths, toys, babies' teats and bric-a-brac shown floating downstream, suggests loss and decay. The roving camera work and big close-ups of Captain Cat's blind eye add to the sense of strangeness. The use of filters, focus-pulling and tinting make even the daylight scenes seem eerie.
There isn't room here for any great depth of characterisation. Most of the protagonists are seen only fleetingly. Charlotte Church gives a breezy, attractive performance as the voluptuous single mum, Polly Garter, smiling conspiratorially at the camera as she throws roses to her admirers, or telling us: "Nothing grows in our garden, only washing. And babies." She even gets to sing briefly about all the men she has loved over the years, foremost among them Little Willie Wee who is "dead, dead, dead".
At times, Allen struggles to combine the skittish slapstick elements with the darker elements in the storytelling. Where the film risks coming unstuck is in his crude comic riffs on ideas contained in the writing. For example, Thomas makes it clear that Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard is extremely bossy. Allen takes that as licence to portray her as a dominatrix who likes to dress in Nazi outfits, spank her men and pour hot wax on them. A housewife has a giant phallus as an ornament on her sideboard. PC Attila Rees is shown naked in his bedroom, doing strange things with his policeman's helmet. The scenes in the tailor's shop have a grating Hi-de-Hi!-like cheeriness to them. Whether No Good Boyo's sunglasses or Organ Morgan's Benny Hill-like hair, the overstated costume design sometimes risks making the film seem like an overwrought sitcom.
The film both celebrates and satirises Welshness. It includes plenty of beautiful choral music and singing ("Praise the Lord, we are a musical nation") as well as scenes of the community coming together in the church or pub. The Welsh-language version of the film was recently chosen as Britain's foreign language Oscar candidate. However, this isn't just a paean to the land of our fathers. Allen doesn't hold back on depicting the grotesquerie of the Wales that Dylan Thomas evoked.
In a distant way, Allen's version of Under Milk Wood can even be seen as a companion piece to the director's earlier film, Twin Town (1997), starring Rhys and Llŷr Ifans as two renegade brothers in late 1990s Swansea, leaving chaos in their wake. The film, notorious for its scene of a decapitated poodle, was described by one politician as "sordid and squalid, plunging new depths of depravity". At the time he directed it, Allen bemoaned the influence of Dylan Thomas on perceptions of Wales, complaining in one interview about the way "Swansea really does hang its existence on one peg – on one fraudulent, professional Welsh drunk (albeit a great poet)". Thomas, he suggested, "sold the image of Wales right down the f**king river".
So there is an irony in Allen now making his own screen version of Thomas's most famous work. However, what clearly appeals to him in Under Milk Wood is the play's barbed irreverence. This is not a quaint or pious Welsh heritage vision of life in a small 1950s seaside town. Llareggub ("bugger all" spelt backwards) may seem pretty enough and its inhabitants may appear to be typical small-town types: tradespeople, retirees, chattering housewives and the like, behaving as if they are characters in a live-action version of Camberwick Green. What is apparent, though, right from the celebrated opening monologue ("to begin at the beginning, it is spring, moonless night in the small town"), is the seething restlessness that lurks not far beneath the surface. This is a community in which gossiping, nosiness and snobbery are taken to extreme, and sometimes very malevolent, lengths.
The film consists of dozens of surrealistic tableau-like scenes with the narration just about holding them together. At least, even when the more wayward visual gambits don't quite work, Allen pays scrupulous attention to the writing. It may not be the recommendation that he is looking for but this is a film you can watch with your eyes closed and still enjoy.
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