Pastoral bawdy is not, perhaps, the most persuasive mode of drama for a modern audience, but it is nevertheless the milieu into which viewers are plunged for the majority of “Under Milk Wood,” Kevin Allen’s cinematic reimagining of Dylan Thomas’ multi-character radio play. Thomas fans with an appetite for endless scenes of hearty romping featuring regrettably song-prone villagers will have little cause for complaint, but commercial potential will be otherwise restricted beyond the film’s home turf. (Its U.K. release in October, meanwhile, was confined to a single screen.) The film reps a reunion for Swansea-based Allen and his “Twin Town” star, Rhys Ifans — an element of likewise limited appeal outside Wales. The submission of a simultaneously (and identically) shot Welsh translation as Blighty’s bid for the foreign-language film Oscar belies the pic’s minor status as a local curiosity.
Dramatizing Thomas’ posthumously performed and published “play for voices” for the big screen wasn’t exactly a walk in the park even in 1972, with the live-wire talents of Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Peter O’Toole at the disposal of director Andrew Sinclair. For the 2015 edition, Allen must contend first with a more low-key cast — which need not have been a bad thing — and second with no less a factor than the passage of time. The humor in “Under Milk Wood” hasn’t weathered the passing of the years well: Of all genres, comedy tends to age least gracefully, and what once would have played as risque now seems more mundane.
By the standards of 1950s media, “Under Milk Wood” is daringly earthy. Borrowing lines from a piece the 17-year-old Thomas wrote for his school magazine, and later augmented with material from his 1940s short story “Quite Early One Morning,” it must have seemed a breath of fresh air when first performed on BBC radio in 1954. Drawing as much on Chaucer as it does on Freud, the celebrated piece has never been what you’d describe as an obvious candidate for a film adaptation, but the success of various stage versions seems to have sustained its legacy. For a contemporary audience, its furtive thrustings are rather more quaint, but it’s less of an issue in print or audio, where we can more easily make the imaginative leap backward in time. On screen in 2015, it’s a more baffling proposition.
Shot with a camera-and-lens combination that an optometrist wouldn’t hesitate to diagnose with astigmatism, the peripheries of this picture glow, sparkle and warp throughout. Whirls of saturated color and Vaseline-blurred focus mimic the visual effects of a migraine. This disorienting visual style is doubtless entirely intentional and aims to complement the woozy witching-hour qualities of Thomas’ purplish prose, but it’s too manic a technique to sustain at feature length without compromising the goodwill of even the most generous-minded f/x enthusiast. D.p. Andy Hollis has previously done excellent work in classic British television comedy in a variety of visual styles, ranging from mock doc (“The Office”) to highly kinetic cinematic pastiche (“Spaced”), but either his brief or his choices here represent a misstep.
The plot, such as it is, concerns the fictional Welsh fishing village of Llareggub, a name which, in a devilish display of lexical mischief, spells “Bugger all” backward. (The idiomatic U.S. equivalent might be “Nowheresville, USA” — or “Ellivserehwon,” perhaps.) In Llareggub, the inhabitants are a roiling mass of impulse and unspoken desire. As their dreams are realized in a psychedelic haze, we see that they mostly revolve around shagging their neighbors, an aspect of the original that has been amped up in Allen’s version.
The heritage value of Thomas aside, Ifans will be the main draw here, doing triple duty as co-producer, one of two narrators, and the onscreen incarnation of Captain Cat, the salty seadog plagued by visions of his drowned crewmates — an ensemble realized as a sort of low-budget equivalent of the Davy Jones mob from Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise. Welsh singer-turned-actor Charlotte Church’s presence may also pique some curiosity, but in truth her performance as pert young mom Polly Garter is, like the work of most of the cast, obscured by the film’s florid visual style and fruity versification.
Partly funded by the Welsh TV channel S4C, both- English and Welsh-language takes on the film were shot back-to-back, allowing the latter (regionally released and televised in 2014) to represent the U.K. in the foreign-language Oscar race. Still, it’s the English-lingo version that best represents the original work of Thomas, who, after all, wrote exclusively in English. With or without an Oscar nomination, the pic’s international prospects are limited: Funded as part of several celebrations of Thomas’ centenary, this “Under Milk Wood” is ultimately a niche offering.