Twelfth Night

Rated R –language
Twelfth Night stars Imogen Stubbs, Helen Bonham Carter, and Stephen Mackintosh.

This, the most popular of Shakespeare's comedies dates, scholars believe, to 1600 or 1601 and was probably first performed in 1602. Its gender-bender plot is reminiscent of modern films like The Birdcage, To Wong Foo, and others, and Twelfth Night is full of mistaken identities, misdirected passions, high comedy, low tricks, and unexpected poignancy.

The film opens on a ship on the Mediterranean, with identical twins Viola (Imogen Stubbs) and Sebastian (Steven Mackintosh), entertaining passengers and crew when a storm causes them to wreck off the coast of fictional Illyria. Viola washes up on Illyria, which is at war with her country, and becomes convinced that her beloved brother is dead. She learns that she is near the home of the young countess Olivia (Helena Bonham Carter), who is also in mourning, for her recently deceased father and brother. To underscore her grief, Olivia has sworn to have no contact with men for seven years, and in particular is rejecting the amorous advances of the young Duke Orsino (Toby Stephens).

Desperate to survive and to keep the spirit of her twin brother alive, Viola disguises herself as a boy, transforming herself into "Cesario." She finds employment with the Duke Orsino and is soon sent to woo Olivia on the duke's behalf. Olivia remains unmoved by Orsino's attentions but finds herself instead attracted to young "Cesario," who in turn begins to fall in love with Orsino. As Viola says, "My master loves her dearly; And I, poor monster, fond as much on him. And she, mistaken, seems to dote on me." When Viola's twin, Sebastian, suddenly appears alive and well, this triangle gets complicated in the extreme and to great comic effect.

While Orsino, Viola, Olivia, and Sebastian are preoccupied with their romantic destinies, Olivia's household is equally occupied with a power struggle between the ill-tempered, repressive steward, Malvolio (Nigel Hawthorne), and her boisterous and bibulous uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Mel Smith), accompanied by his vacuous, misfit friend, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Richard E. Grant), and Olivia's maid, Maria (Imelda Staunton). For his own financial ends, Sir Toby encourages Sir Andrew to woo Olivia, while plotting Malvolio's humiliation. Throughout, Feste (Ben Kingsley), the most enigmatic of entertainers, comes and goes between the two households, sparing no one he meets his barbed insights and his loaded, laconic wit.

As part of the current Shakespearean revival, this is one of the best. Highly recommended.

Photo by the film's distributor

1997, Jon Kennedy