Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night or What You Will (1996) is a witty, heartfelt rendition of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy. Nunn brought the story to life through excellent casting, giving the audience background information, and physical closeness to the characters.
The true highlight of the film for me was watching Helena Bonham Carter as Olivia and Imogen Stubbs as Viola/Cesario bring their characters to life in a somehow comical, yet relatable way. Cesario’s hilariously frustrated attempts to avert Olivia’s ardent affection was a joy to watch. Bonham Carter gives an authentic performance of the almost irrational passion for Cesario, and even her sudden reversal of love towards Sebastian is believable. Nunn makes use of a short voiceover to give us insight into Olivia’s mind as she first falls for Cesario, which quickly turns into her speaking aloud to herself- but sets up the idea that we are listening in on her thoughts.
Nunn’s rendition of Twelfth Night for the screen had many advantages- one of which being that the audience can truly view and understand the backstory behind the text. Most pointedly, the very first scene not only sets up Viola and Sebastian’s loving relationship, but explicitly shows us the events (a shipwreck) that would have happened before the first act. It also sets up Feste as a sort of observer and narrator of the action as he watches afar from a cliff. Secondly, the audience truly gets a sense of the effort behind Viola’s transformation into a man by having scenes of her cutting her hair, binding her breasts, stuffing her pants, and pasting on a moustache both at the beginning and later on in the film as a reminder of her daily struggle. Even a scene showing Viola hastily remove a man’s hands from her hidden breasts reveals her constant danger of being revealed. Thirdly, the arrival of Sebastion is foreshadowed in a flash forward of him alive in the sea, preparing the audience for a change of events.
Another decision that Nunn made, and that the medium of film allowed, was the arrangement of scenes and cuts back and forth between the action in order to give a sense of real time. The different shots allowed the audience to see characters reactions in real time (such as when Sir Toby and Sir Andrew watch their prank on Malvolio unfold in the hedges), and builds tension as we see events unfold in different places at the same time.
I found that Nunn makes special use of the physical closeness that the camera offers to characters. Specifically, he builds palpable tension between Viola (as Cesario), and Orsino in instances such as the bathtub scene. The tender nature of Viola washing her master’s back reveals her desire for him, and her inner struggle to remain in disguise. They are often in close physical proximity, speaking mere inches from each others face. Because of this, I could feel the danger of Viola being revealed, her inner desire and struggle, and his confusion at their obvious (potentially romantic) connection.
Finally, Nunn builds a beautiful reunion between brother and sister through use of camera, music, acting, and backstory. As previously mentioned, Viola and Sebastion’s relationship is established in the first scene- making their reunion emotional and believable. His use of camera and editing keeps brother and sister in separate frames in distant shots as they first see each other- emphasizing the distance and separation the two have faced. Gradually, the shots move closer so we can see the emotional reactions of the actors, but there is still a sense of distance as they are kept in separate frames. This, to me, represented their hesitance to accept the reunion as real, in case they be disappointed. Finally, as the music builds, and the camera moves right up to their teary eyed faces, they embrace in a heartfelt conclusion to the homecoming.
I did not find Nunn’s direction to be revolutionary, the use of the camera was fairly standard (no extreme close up’s, minimal use of the camera as a character, etc.), and he kept fairly true to Shakespeare’s original text (there were large dialogue cuts of course, but the important plot points remained). He didn’t make special use of location shooting; there were minimal sets, some outdoor shots, nothing particularly grand or elaborate. However, this did not take away anything from the film for me, as I found the film’s greatest assets to be its homeliness and it’s wit.