“Twelfth Night” is an OK Shakespeare adaptation, a handsome, agreeably performed rendition that fails to ignite much laughter or any real emotion. Renowned theater director Trevor Nunn’s third motion picture outing is British from stem to stern, as opposed to numerous other recent and forthcoming takes on the Bard, and the play, which involves some central disguise and gender-bending, is at least unfamiliar as screen fare. Commercial prospects look modest.
Taking considerable liberties with the text and bringing the action up to what look to be the 1890s, Nunn has cast this tale of private grief and sexual confusion, denial and longing against an autumnal backdrop that makes the mirth more melancholy than expected.
Intrigue stems from the separation of young twins Viola (Imogen Stubbs) and Sebastian (Stephen Mackintosh). After a shipwreck, Viola washes up on the shore of an enemy country, Illyria. Presuming her brother to be dead, she disguises herself as a boy, essentially by applying a mustache and lowering the pitch of her voice, enters the employ of the handsome Duke Orsino (Toby Stephens) and begins courting, on the Duke’s behalf, a lovely countess, Olivia (Helena Bonham Carter), who herself is in mourning over the deaths of her father and brother and has sworn off men for seven years.
But Olivia becomes rather taken with her pert, blond visitor, even as “Cesario” falls for her own dashing boss. It takes considerable time to set in motion all the necessary gears for this serious whimsy to achieve liftoff. But just as it does, the midsection, involving several people in Olivia’s orbit her obnoxious, scheming uncle Sir Toby Belch (Mel Smith), her repressive and repressed servant Malvolio (Nigel Hawthorne), her maid Maria (Imelda Staunton) and dimwitted suitor Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Richard E. Grant) settles in and proceeds to overstay its welcome.
In this version, at least, the low comedy of “Twelfth Night” proves singularly unfunny and unedifying, with the exception of Hawthorne’s bright turn as Malvolio, which becomes superbly antic once the miserable old toad is mistakenly convinced that the lady he serves might actually love him.
Otherwise, however, it’s a long haul to the dizzying climax, when Sebastian returns and all the misunderstandings and crossed lines are adroitly sorted out to nearly everyone’s perfect satisfaction. If the entire film had held the rich and buoyant quality of the final reels, it would have been a merry entertainment indeed. But only this late section truly comes to life, and not quite enough to redeem the simultaneous impressions of moderate tedium and silliness that the long central hour imparts.
Shot in Cornwall amidst the browning leaves and wet, overcast skies of late fall, pic possesses an appealing, somber look for this sort of semi-farce, one matched nicely by the grave countenance of Bonham Carter, who conveys a no-nonsense personality that is gradually eroded by love.
But most of the energy is supplied by Stubbs, who may not look much like a man but carries the key role of Viola off with contagious spirit. Mackintosh’s Sebastian is a perfectly plausible physical match for her, and Ben Kingsley brings some nice readings to his rather mysterious role of Feste, the commentator on the convoluted proceedings. But the numerous other cast members are rather less than engaging, even off-putting.
Pic’s handsomeness does not entirely disguise its having been done on a tight budget. British production company Renaissance Films previously produced Kenneth Branagh’s “Henry V” and “Much Ado About Nothing,” as well as “The Madness of King George,” but new item doesn’t promise to live up to the international success of its predecessors.