There is no darkness but ignorance, says Feste to the incarcerated Malvolio in Act IV of Twelfth Night - words that, like so many of the Bard's dazzlingly plain throwaways, have somehow ricocheted down the centuries and struck quite unexpected targets. If you look at the statue of Shakespeare in Leicester Square, you will find them carved into the scroll that dangles from his stone hand. If you browse through Ezra Pound's Pisan Cantos (written when the poet, like Malvolio, was locked up), you will find the same phrase, charged with rancour and nostalgia, used to evoke Edwardian London.
You will not, however, find Feste's maxim in Trevor Nunn's screenplay for Twelfth Night (U), partly because a lot of the play's incidental badinage - some of its most delicious writing (words are very rascals) - has been cut or modernised, but possibly because it would have seemed a trifle odd for anyone on screen to maintain that there is no darkness but ignorance when murk is drowning every frame. Much of the first encounter between Viola (Imogen Stubbs) and Olivia (Helena Bonham Carter) is so tenebrous that a sceptic might suspect industrial action on the part of the lighting crew. Nunn's is a very nighty Night.
The reason for all the encircling gloom is, as they say in GCSE essays, thematic. Bright schoolchildren can spot the deep note of melancholy which resonates through the comedy, and lots of stage productions have emphasised its Saturnian strands. Nunn has evidently noticed the sorrow, too, and let it bleed into every scene, as if he were trying to push the tone beyond gentle melancholia and right into full-blown clinical depression. (As the late Frank Zappa once observed, if a thing's worth doing, it's worth overdoing.)
Occasionally this approach pays dividends; it is often more of a downer, and sometimes the film is just downright sad.
Rather than rest on Shakespeare's laurels by beginning at the beginning with music as the food of love, Nunn has come up with a tacky little back- story sequence about our heroine's shipwreck off the coast of Illyria - a misconceived aid to comprehension for the darkly ignorant that almost scuppers the film before we've heard so much as a syllable of Shakespeare's verse or prose. We do hear other text, though - an embarrassing cod-Jacobean voice-over which spells out the life histories of Viola and Sebastian (Steven Mackintosh), who are performing a drag act (cute, eh?) for their fellow passengers just as the ship hits rock. This narration also pumps up the notion that Illyria is at war, to no very good end other than providing an occasion for some doomy soundtrack music.
And the film's marital or pre-marital business is not a lot more beguiling than its martial side - no shame at all to Imogen Stubbs, who makes a fine Viola, spirited and sincere (she speaks the lines "A blank, my Lord..." very beautifully), if an impossibly sexy Cesario. Neither the intimacy of cinema nor the more-or-less realistic production style (it's set at some point in the late 19th century: Viola wears a soldier's uniform and a hairdo no sergeant would allow, Olivia is a Pre-Raphaelite tootsie) is kind to the play's transvestism and identical-twin conceits. The confusions between Viola and Sebastian are more tiresome than they seem on stage, and since Viola has nothing but a rather fetching tuft of hair above the lip to render her butch (Nunn has changed her disguise from "eunuch" to "boy"), Orsino (Toby Stevens) tends to seem like an idiot as well as an irritating fop. There's hardly a sexual spark anywhere in the romance, even at the oddly inconsistent moment when Viola and Orsino sit together in the inevitable darkness, listen to a glum song by Feste (Ben Kingsley), close their eyes and nearly snog.
Mercifully, the comic scenes are more engaging. While they're never more than pallidly funny, unless you're easily creased up by Ben Kingsley doing a Benny Hill salute or talking in a Peter Sellers Indian accent (some sort of inter-textual gag about Gandhi?), they have psychological substance that breezier interpretations might have missed. Nigel Hawthorne is a painfully neurotic Malvolio; Mel Smith transforms that bullying old creep Sir Toby into an anxious, strangely likeable man; and Richard E Grant's Aguecheek is startlingly good - he keeps the energy of the caricature yet also makes him real.
Add to this trio Kingsley's dignified, unaccountably anguished Feste, who seems more like a licensed depressive than a licensed fool and stalks through the plots like a bad conscience, and you have the elements of a distinguished if sombre production. But it's clumsily paced, it has no magic and it's neither one thing nor the other: Nunn hasn't rethought it from the foundations up like the recent Richard III, but he hasn't left well alone, either. The final insult is that the words of Feste's valedictory song have been tampered with, subtly but irritatingly; and as he ends it, he looks to the camera and gives a little chuckle. Heigh- ho. At least one person leaves the film laughing.
Chain Reaction (12) is a dopey thriller produced by Andrew Davies: he made The Fugitive, and this has broadly the same plot, about a good guy on the run from everybody. Apart from a fairly amusing special-effects sequence in which a great deal of Chicago is blown up, its main point of interest is the chance to note how baggy and figure-concealing Keanu Reeves's casual wardrobe is, and to speculate about his weight-gain since Speed. Its premise is some hogwash about a conspiracy to hush up a process which can turn water into high- energy fuel. Morgan Freeman, who can lend a touch of gravitas to any old rubbish when he's trying, evidently wasn't.
The original title for When the Cat's Away (15) is the more tongue-twisting, and slightly less misleading Chacun Cherche Son Chat. When young Chloe (Garance Clavel) loses her black cat Gris-Gris, she doesn't feel liberated, like a playful mouse, she collapses into lonely obsession. Pretty much the whole film is taken up with her hunt for the missing feline around the beat-up district in which she lives, and her parallel efforts to beef up her romantic life. The mood is sunnier than you might expect: Cadric Klapisch, the young director whose third feature this is, has the same confidence in slight stories and the comedy of muted eccentricity that characterises some American independent features (he trained in New York). For the most part his film is diverting enough to prove that confidence justified, although there are times when its lack of consequence starts to seem ... inconsequential.
Nico-Icon (no cert), a German television documentary about the beautiful zombie who sang with the Velvet Underground, acted for Fellini and pursued a bizarre solo career droning Teutonic anthems and old Doors hits to ever- decreasing audiences of rock'n'roll necrophiles, is often too arty by half: fancy graphics, unorthodox interview technique. It doesn't matter. The story it tells is as morbidly fascinating as any history of doomed bohemia, and the witnesses are first-rate, from Paul Morrissey (the urbane director of films signed by Andy Warhol) to James Young (the keyboard player and lapsed academic who wrote an exceedingly funny book about how ghastly it was to tour with her). Nico's countryman Walter Benjamin once wrote of artists who court the purity and beauty of failure; he'd have found this film a riot.
From Troma films, the company which graced the world with Surf Nazis Must Die and The Toxic Avenger, comes Tromeo and Juliet (18), a free updating of Shakespeare's feud to modern New York which makes West Side Story look like West Side Story. It begins with a dead squirrel and goes on to embrace nipple-piercing, finger-slicing, computer-porn (As You Lick It), masturbation, meat-processing, cow costumes and a scene in which a man tries to scoop his brain up from the pavement and back into his gaping head. Lemmy from Motorhead plays the narrator. Unforgivably puerile and emetic? True. Funnier than Twelfth Night though.
Cinema details: See Going Out, page 14.
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