Marisol Calzada: Film Review (Twelfth Night 1996)

Trevor Nunn was the director of the film, Twelfth Night: Or What You Will. It’s an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which is a romantic comedy about siblings that become separated in a shipwreck, mistaken identities, and true love. It starts off at sea during which a storm begins leaving twin siblings, Sebastian and Viola, shipwrecked believing that the other one has died, and thus each starting a new life when each is separately washed up to the shores of an ancient country called Illyria. Sebastian decides to lay low with the help of his new friend, Antonio. Believing that being a woman in Illyria would be a threat, Viola disguises herself as a man by dressing in her brothers uniform, cutting her hair off, and pasting a false mustache on her face, and going by the name Cesario. She ends up befriending the Duke of Illyria, Orsinio, who is madly in love with Lady Olivia. A problem arises when Lady Olivia falls in love with Cesario (actually Viola), and Viola falls in love with Orsinio. Not being able to tell either on that she is a woman, Viola creates scenes that are very entertaining and humorous to the audience watching.

Nunn, who was previously the Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and later of the Royal Nation Theater, was more than qualified to adapt such a great Shakespeare play to film. Prior to directing Twelfth Night, he had directed musicals, dramas, and operas for the stage, as well as being nominated and winning multiple Tony Awards and Laurence Olivier Awards. His experience with successfully transforming literature into scripts for the stage allowed him to transform Shakespeare literature into film. He ultimately chose to uphold the integrity of the play by keeping it set in Illyria, but took the freedom to update the play’s time and overall setting to the 19th Century. He also chose to reorder the sequence of some scenes in order for back-story of the play to make sense on film. The naturally comedic feeling of this Shakespeare play ultimately allowed Nunn to create a film from his interpretations of the film while upholding the films integrity by keeping the key elements of the plot intact.

The modern stories of disguise are rarely realistic, which is why Nunn chose to add the beginning scene where it is determined that Sebastian and Viola are professional performers; thus making the audience believe that Viola’s disguise later on would be credible.

It is critical that casting is done properly and that only actors that understand the importance of rhythm in Shakespeare’s writing are chosen. Nunn’s previous experience with the RSC provided him with an advantage in casting because he knows the importance of not only the actors rhythm, but also the chemistry between the actors, especially when there is any form of romance in the story. Helena Bonham Carter was the perfect actress for the role of Olivia. She was able to capture the essence of the sweet and naïve character that has fallen for the woman disguised as a man; this simply and effortlessly adds to the comedic feel of the story. Imogen Stubbs (Viola) and Steven Mackintosh (Sebastian) make for a great pair on the screen. The chemistry and bond that real life siblings would have cannot only be seen on the screen, but the sincerity of the relationship can be “felt” through the screen. Not only was the casting perfect because of the bond the two actors created on screen, but also because the two actually look alike and could genuinely pass as siblings in real life. Nunn definitely used this to his advantage and filmed them in such a way that magnified and showcased their striking similarities.


In Shakespeare’s romantic comedies, there is fairytale-like feeling to them. This was echoed in the setting of the film as well as the editing. The castle that Olivia lives in reminds us of the castles that were in the fairytales that we grew up with such as Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast; this can play into our idea of true love.


Overall the movie is a great interpretation of a very popular Shakespeare play that does justice to Shakespeare’s language, writing, and vision. Nunn did a very good job of making the story his own as well as having creative freedom with the setting, all without disrespecting Shakespeare’s work. Ultimately it simplifies Shakespeare’s language and allows younger generations to be captivated by Shakespeare’s works.

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