Film Review: Nunn’s Twelfth Night
Nunn’s Twelfth Night (1996) is a modern take on the classical Shakespearean comedy. Created during the so-called renaissance of commercialized Shakespeare film in the 1990’s, elements of this play reflect both its predecessor as well as a more modernized style. From a variety of dramatic shots to quickly changing musical scores, contrasting elements of film are used to deepen the sense of drama. Many parallels are also present in the play, carefully placed to emphasize the irony of the play.
What I found noteworthy in Act I was the background music in the opening scene. Once Viola awoke on the beach, a soft orchestra was played as she reminisced over her brother, who she believed had drowned. However as the guards galloped in, the whole mood of the scene changed; in a matter of seconds the audience got the feeling of great urgency simply by changing the score to a fast paced orchestra. This, paired with quick tracking shots of the survivors running through the forest, establishes the setting and the mood (while giving important background information not explicitly stated in the play) in one montage.
There is a powerful parallel also present when Viola first sees Olivia mourning. After questioning the Captain, it is revealed that Olivia’s brother has recently died, mirroring Viola’s situation. Conveyed by flashes between medium and long shots, we are given the impression that even though they have never met, Viola and Olivia are not that different. This scene serves as a precursor to the dramatic irony that Twelfth Night consists of, mostly later on when Olivia falls in love with Viola (disguised as Cesario).
As the film progresses, both contrasts and parallels seen between many of the remaining scenes. When the drunken party is playing music in the kitchen (at 45:00), the same song is played in the background of the scene when Viola and Duke Orsino play a game of cards. This time, the music is a connection between the two scenes instead of a tool used to create contrast as discussed previously. The main difference in the two scenes is the mood. In the scene with Duke Orsino and Viola the background is a reddish hue, giving the viewer gets a sense of warmth and intimacy.
This is intensifies the dramatic irony, as it is obvious to the audience that Viola is in love with Orsino. When the scenes change, it is a stark contrast. Drunk Fester is singing the same song that was playing in the previous scene, but paired with the setting a much colder atmosphere is given. The background has a blue tint and is set in a bare kitchen. However, the acting and close up shots of the listeners’ faces reveal that the Fester’s song also holds some meaning for them.
While this overlap of Act II Scene III and the first half of Act II Scene IV was well done, I was surprised to see that the entirety of Act II Scene IV was not kept as one scene in the film. The second half of Act II Scene IV (as written in the original play) took place much later in the movie and was staged as an argument between Cesario and the Duke. Compared to the intimate moment they shared earlier in the cozy living quarters, this scene took place outdoors with the ocean crashing angrily in the background. This, along with the blue lighting and the rocky setting, gives viewers the impression that Viola is feeling negative emotions. She is distraught and unable to contain her love for the Duke any longer. From the directors and filmmakers perspective, it is understandable that the second half was pushed to later on in the movie, to preserve the slow pacing during the first half of Nunn’s Twelfth Night.
In my opinion, Nunn balanced the original play with the demand for commercial Shakespeare movies well. He managed to keep the light mood of comedy, while making use of the many elements of film. This included dramatic events that not only set the pace of the movie, but heightened a sense of dramatic irony for the viewer, which is what gave Twelfth Night its riveting feel.
Shakespeare plays “Twelfth Night”: https://www.playshakespeare.com/twelfth-night/scenes/1054-act-ii-scene-3
Nunn’s Twelfth Night 1996: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twelfth_Night_(1996_film)
Shakespeare and Film, A Norton Guide, Samuel Crowl