Twelfth Night (2018): a passion project both fuelled and frustrated by textual fidelity

Whilst the stripped back, modern-day domesticity of Shanty Productions' Twelfth Night has clearly been influenced by Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing (now six years old - how did that happen?), a more immediate and apt point of comparison is the version of The Merry Wives Of Windsor directed by Fiona Laird for the RSC last year. The aesthetic and performances in Laird's production were overtly influenced by the brand of reality-soap hybrids currently populating such small-screen channels as ITV2 and E4 in the UK, with a healthy dollop of seventies British sitcom stirred in - the latter emphasised further still by the camerawork during the live theatre broadcast.

Adam Smethurst's screen adaptation of Shakespeare's more highly-regarded comedy is regularly at its strongest when wholeheartedly embracing precisely these influences. With South East England standing in for play's setting of Illyria, Twelfth Night could easily at times be retitled The Only Way Is Sussex. This is especially true of the scenes focused upon the younger and more privileged Illyrians, such as when Olivia (Shalini Peiris) makes her first appearance stepping from the back seat of a shiny black car hiding behind fashion sunglasses and wrapped in a fur-lined coat. Orsino (Ben Whybrow) is similarly transformed into a spoiled millennial, delivering his famous opening speech whilst moping on the balcony of his trendy apartment overlooking his pool, his attendants-cum-drinking-buddies enabling him to wallow in his love-lorn condition through acoustic guitar improv.

The sitcom influences are never far away either, most clearly in the scenes involving Malvolio, played by seasoned Shakespearean actor Antony Bunsee, whose enjoyment in the role is both obvious and infectious. By turns a priggish party-pooper, lovestruck dupe and ludicrous buffoon, Bunsee effortlessly brings Malvolio to life in a way which demonstrates both a wonderful skill for physical comedy and an insightful understanding of a character too often reduced to a second-rate baddie. The double act of Simon Nagra and Dominic Coleman as Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek respectively is also satisfying throughout, Coleman in particular imbuing Aguecheeck with a foppish feebleness that elevates any scene he appears in.

Smethurst's decision to shoot his film as a full text version of the play is both admirable and ambitious, especially when considering this the debut feature both for him and his production company. But it's a choice which too often results in issues which undercut the film's many strengths, conflicting with the enjoyable nature of the contemporary setting and influences on Twelfth Night. Ironically for a story with duality at its core, Smethurst seems intent on making his film function as two distinct versions of Shakespeare's play at the same time for markedly different audiences.

For a start, with a running time of two hours and forty five minutes, Twelfth Night is both overlong and at times far too slow. Whilst some ardent Bardolaters might jump at the chance to experience Shakespeare's play performed uncut and untampered with on screen, it's hard to imagine the same young people drawn to the film's contemporary aesthetic having the inclination or the patience to sit through a version nearly three hours long. Smethurst's fidelity to his Shakespearean source also leaves him struggling to truly leave his mark as a filmmaker on Twelfth Night. There are signs early on of this being a sociopolitical take on the story as Viola (Sheila Atim, who also plays her twin brother Sebastian in a strong double performance) washes up on a south coast beach as one of several shipwrecked refugees; but Smethurst sadly abandons this potentially interesting contextual choice, making no further reference to it for the remainder of the film's running time.

There are also moments where either cuts or amendments to the source would have avoided parts of the action feeling so out of place in a modern-day setting, such as when Viola in her disguise as Cesario duels with Sir Andrew. Smethurst offers no explanation as to why the pair use antiquated swords, particularly jarring when brandished by Viola wearing a twenty-first century puffer jacket. The director allowing himself more freedom to adapt Shakespeare's play for his chosen setting would undoubtedly have resulted in issues such as these being easily resolved.

Twelfth Night ends up as a flawed film of Shakespeare's play that is nonetheless very easy to like, thanks to both the talent in front of the camera and the obvious passion of those behind it. Despite the relative problems, Shanty Productions' abilities in bringing Shakespeare to the screen are regularly apparent here. If Smethurst returns to Shakespeare for a future project with his production company - something I sincerely hope he does - then hopefully he'll give himself more scope to put his own stamp on whichever play he chooses, and let his voice as a filmmaker become all the more distinct.

Twelfth Night is available to stream on iTunes and Amazon Prime Video.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a contributing editor at Film Intel. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. When he's not writing about films here, Ben is usually writing about films - mostly Shakespeare adaptations - for his PhD. He's also on and Twitter.

They Shall Not Grow Old: There has never been a more vivid representation of Ebert's 'empathy machine'

I am very fond of Roger Ebert's quote about films being empathy machines (I used it just the other day in fact). So much so that it's worth posting here with a bit more of the context.

Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else's life for a while. I can walk in somebody else's shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief.

Peter Jackson's revolutionary They Shall Not Grow Old is a film made for that quote. Taking archival footage from the First World War, Jackson and his team have stitched together a compelling Documentary artifact, a technical marvel and maybe the best example yet of an empathy machine.

Another quote, this time from Batman: 'People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy'. This is what They Shall Not Grow Old provides. It is a dramatic depiction of war, perhaps the most dramatic available. Jackson presents the grainy, almost experimental, footage of World War One, but corrects the timing and frame rate so that the participants move smoothly across the screen. He goes further by adding colour and sound. The sound is incredible. Sometimes it is merely contextual and other times these people - ghosts from history; your father or grandfather or his father - speak to you. Their lips read by experts and their lines delivered by actors, the effect is the emotional apex of war on film.

Whilst the technical skill of what's involved here is unquestionable, Jackson's choices of what to include, from the BBC's archive, also bear mention. There is a deliberate attempt here to both unearth the reality of war in colour, moving pictures and also to show scenes which typify it as well. We see jovial training and arriving at the front, before that gives way to rat-infested pits, the latrines and the remains of the dead. Jackson doesn't flinch, as he might; colour and sound is reserved not only for camaraderie and shared mealtimes, but for death and explosions.

It has been easy to knock Jackson over the last few years, but history is written by a series of people who looked at something accepted as 'how things are' and questioned whether that was really true. Jackson has done nothing less than change the image in our heads of the First World War. In doing so he has recreated empathy with people who could previously perhaps best have been seen in the inside of a text book and are now, once again, as human as you or I. A nagging feeling says to me that They Shall Not Grow Old is not eligible for many year end awards, because most of its footage was not shot specially for the documentary. Don't be fooled by the results of such ceremonies. There is unlikely to be a more important film this year.

By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.

Widows: the battle between plot and film

It feels too easy to reduce Widows down to the unusual battle between mainstream writer Gillian Flynn's script and director Steve McQueen's fine art background being mashed together into a heist film. And yet, sometimes, the easy answers are the right ones. The pairing of Flynn and McQueen looked slightly odd from the start and, post-screening, it still feels like a match that has struggled to gel. There are scenes here that look like early Tarantino; but Flynn does not have the genre nous of Tarantino the writer and McQueen is not as interested in probing genre visuals as Tarantino the director. The result can sometimes end up feeling like a post-Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs film that has not seen Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs.

You can see how the two key behind-the-camera talents here have collaborated to good effect on occasion. Without McQueen, Flynn's script may not have escaped the lure of Gerard Butler as the leading man. Without Flynn you can imagine a scenario where McQueen might have abandoned established heist movie conventions altogether. When the balancing works Widows is impressive. There are a number of scenes where something happens in the background; a chasing car; a passing runner. McQueen foregrounds characters and ups tension in one swoop.

Each one of the three leads (Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki and Michelle Rodriguez) have clear, if perhaps obvious, motivation. Davis is being chased by mobsters. Debicki pines (or does she?) for her previous life where everything was provided for her. Rodriguez has kids to think of but, more than that, wants to get on and succeed; an early scene where her shop is taken off her because of her husband's debts sets the tone.

The tension in the film boils down to the battle between the plotting and everything else; character, social comment, visuals and more. The plot cannot keep up. Time and time again obstructions are raised for characters to overcome. Then they just disappear. The crew need a driver. Then they have one. 'We need to move like men', Davis says, after Rodriguez has struggled to carry a big pack. The problem is never mentioned again. The group need to understand what some blueprints represent. Then Debicki gets a 'boyfriend' who happens to be able to explain it all. Perhaps, when you come down to it, you could boil most films down into that sort of description, but Widows blatant plot conceits are the sort that grate. If you can't spot who the group are going to need to steal from from very early on then you aren't trying.

McQueen sometimes helps and sometimes hinders. There are tender character moments and quiet scenes that stop the point-by-point movement. But then there's a scene where Davis inadvertently discovers a key reveal, which harks back to something we saw earlier in the film. Not only is the reveal palm-to-face obvious, but McQueen then cuts back to the same scenes we saw earlier in the film, just in case we hadn't got it. It's paint-by-numbers, make-sure-the-audience-is-keeping-up, directing, a world away from Shame or 12 Years A Slave.

The troubles of the film boil down to another late reveal regarding Veronica (Davis) and Rawlings' (Liam Neeson) son. Depicted another way, this could have linked several threads in the film, commenting on social justice and disenfranchisement, the destruction of family (which, admittedly, you can read the film as explicitly being about) and more, as well as providing vital background as to why several characters behave the way they do. Instead it feels throwaway; completely detached from the narrative being told; it does not seem to have huge place here or impact on what we see in the two hour runtime. It summarises an uneven film that is not without vision and emotional character moments - that scene has both - but equally never ties all that it offers together into rounded entertainment or genre-as-comment.

By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.

Colette: French sexiness, by British people

Colette is a pretty and often engaging look at Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, the French author active mainly during the early 20th Century and nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1948.

What it is not is a 'French drama'.

Shot in Hungary and at various UK locations, produced by Brit Stephen Woolley and directed by Brit Wash Westmoreland, with two British stars, Colette never nails the feeling of 1900s Paris, nor embraces the sensuality and sexuality the subject matter lends itself towards. It feels like a free-spirited French topic, as seen through the eyes of us over the channel and the repressed up-tightness we are so famous for.

This leads, inevitably, to the unfortunate guessing game where you wonder what might have been. Were Colette's story to be put into the hands of Pedro Almodóvar or Desiree Akhavan or Olivier Assayas, to name just three tantalising possibilities, then you wonder if something all the more daring, more lascivious and in-touch with its material might have been produced.

As it is, Westmoreland (who co-wrote the script with husband Richard Glatzer, who sadly passed away in 2015) organises what is here adroitly, if not with any great spunk. The leads, Keira Knightley and Dominic West, crackle with some level of significant spark and, given that they are surrounded by a fairly thin supporting cast, Westmoreland does well to rarely let them off screen. Indeed; no-one develops significantly beyond the central pairing and it is difficult to think of a scene that does not feature at least one of the couple.

West's Willy is genius, particularly placed in our modern context, #MeToo and our muddy sexual politics. Willy is resolutely not as a monster would normally be painted, but monster he is. He controls his throng of ghost writers by ransoming their work with his name and squandering the proceeds on lavish luncheons. But Westmoreland never presents it as such. There is never the wink or the nudge that what Willy is doing is evil. He just does it. On at least two occasions he explains to Colette that his affairs are 'just what men do'. A late significant action he takes as part of the act of saving himself is so blasé that he could well simply be quaffing the copious amounts of wine he consumes in restaurants. Here is your monster of today as this film sees it; unhidden, preening, presenting what he does as perfectly natural.

Knightley is much more subtle, but her character stands up to Willy in the moments where the drama demands it. Otherwise, hers is a journey of somewhat quiet awakening, punctuated by moments that show the film's strengths and where it falls short. A passionate, physical affair at about the half way point is given the lace curtain effect and fumbled even more once West gets involved. Its resolution is punctual, without any European flinging of tables and chairs; heightened emotion made British. A later love of Colette though gets much better shrift, though it is still short. Colette, by now exploring her sexuality more fully, embraces love rather than lust and the film finds something of a comfort point; walks in French (English) countryside with meaningful conversations on gender roles and the monster in the sitting room.

By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.

Watching films with a two-and-a-half year-old (a poem) (yes really)

I have recently been reading a lot of the poetry of contemporary poet Brian Bilston (discovered via none other than this parish's Ben Broadribb). In an attempt to both a) write something in his inimitable style, (because it's great and I like a challenge), b) at least partially provide an excuse (at least to myself) for a lack of posting, c) write something about fatherhood and films, and how fatherhood changes films and d) to just... write something, here's a poem about watching films with a two-and-a-half year-old. The title took ages to think up.

Watching films with a two-and-a-half year-old

I've watched more films on a plane than in a cinema this year,
A two-point-five year-old son means there's just no time for Cape Fear.

Watching films up on high isn't exactly ideal,
But they do have those mini wine bottles and those blankets you can steal.

Still, there's plenty of 'screenings' happening in our house,
Totoro almost daily, and the odd one with Disney's mouse.

Some are watched for an hour, some only for five minutes, or two,
The two-point-five year-old saw 101 Dalmatians whilst he was having a poo.

I've watched more films on a plane than in a cinema this year,
And some would say that's a tragedy, (though I'd settle for a good Comedy, or even the new version of King Lear).

Kubo and The Two Strings was perhaps a bit too dark,
But I think he'd forgotten about it by the time we arrived at the park.

Song of the Sea is one our favourites; dad, son and mum watching Cartoon Saloon's best,
One of that crowd decided to take everything off but his vest.

I've watched more films on a plane than in a cinema this year, and that's a trade worth making,
There's less movies now but plenty more hugs and afternoons of messy baking.

Yes, sure there might be the occasional potty accident,
But there's also a huge smile when you create a den, or a DVD-box tent.

The best ones might not get watched as often but they're still fulfilling a purpose,
'Empathy machines' and man, you look at him and think... 'it was all worth it'.

By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.

Journeyman - DVD Review

'As emotionally punishing and dramatically satisfying as Considine's directorial debut Tyrannosaur'

Mark Kermode likes to remind his audience every so often that Jaws may be a film with a shark in it, but it isn't a film about a shark. This isn't a review of Jaws, so I'll leave it up to you whether or not you want to discover what Kermode thinks Spielberg's film is actually about - preferably after reading this review, if you don't mind.

The reason I mention this is because Journeyman has a similar relationship with boxing: the central character may be a boxer, but the film isn't actually about the sport. The title refers to Matty Burton's (Paddy Considine) status as a proficient and popular fighter who has never managed to make it truly big - we learn early on that his WBO title was won on a technicality rather than a definitive victory. But it soon takes on an additional and far more weighty meaning as Matty suffers a devastating head injury, from which both the medical and personal roads to recovery are long and far from easy.

It's a shame then that Considine as writer and director takes a bit too long to realise Journeyman isn't a boxing story, making the first fifteen minutes of his film an unremarkable opening chapter which establishes Matty's professional life and concludes with a boxing match that fails to engage in the way boxing's legacy on the big screen proves that it can. The dialogue here at times feels particularly stilted: brash opponent Andre Bryte (Anthony Welsh) ominously describes the match as a "life-changer" for Matty several times in multiple scenes, telegraphing for anyone who might have missed it that this is the point at which a major plot development is going to happen.

It's to Considine's immense credit therefore that, beyond this opening section, Journeyman shifts up several gears to deliver an experience as emotionally punishing and dramatically satisfying as his directorial debut Tyrannosaur. The film never holds back in showing the aftermath of Matty's injury for him, his wife Emma (Jodie Whittaker) and their infant daughter Mia, the couple struggling to come to terms with the challenges they now face both individually and together.

Whilst Considine's direction feels far more assured here than earlier, it's the flawless performances he and Whittaker deliver which make the film such a compelling, heartbreaking watch. Considine in particular makes Matty's transformation in the weeks and months following his injury both sensitive and believable; slowly bringing back enough of the version of the man he plays at the start, without ever hinting that an artificial fairytale ending might be on the cards.

That said, Journeyman does allow sentimentality creep in as the story nears its conclusion, something which fans of Tyrannosaur may find more difficult to accept than the more hard-hitting scenes of the film's middle act. But, thanks to the fine work of Considine both in front of and behind the camera, the film has by this point earned the emotional conclusion it offers.

Journeyman was released on UK DVD, Blu-ray and digital download on Monday 30th July.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a contributing editor at Film Intel. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. When he's not writing about films here, Ben is usually writing about films - mostly Shakespeare adaptations - for his PhD. He's also on and Twitter.

Lear's Shadow: 'Unaccommodated' Shakespearean appropriation

In a year in which acting heavyweights Anthony Sher, Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins are set to give us a trio of ‘superstar’ Lears on stage and screen, it’s refreshing also to have the chance to experience films like Lear’s Shadow, an independently made two-hander willing to approach King Lear with both boldness and humility. Brian Elerding’s film highlights the enduring relevance of Shakespeare’s tragic play not by making that goal its explicit purpose, but by taking Lear’s relevance as an accepted truth and applying that truth to tragic circumstances extraordinary in their impact yet ordinary in their potential occurrence.

‘You know, I’ve always wished that I could just do the main plot’, says Jack (Fred Cross) at a point soon after running through dialogue from 1.1 of Lear in a rehearsal room with Stephen (David Blue), an actor in the theatre company of which Jack is the director. From this point on in Lear’s Shadow, that’s exactly what the two men do, piecing together a ‘Lear-only Lear’ as they describe it by running through a handful of scenes from the play focused on the titular king. From a filmmaking perspective, this decision by writer and director Elerding also makes pragmatic sense: in a low-budget production such as this, just over an hour in length and with only two characters on screen for most of that time, attempting to cover every plot element of Lear would likely have set the film up to disappoint if not fail altogether.

Jack justifies his wish by expressing a desire to gain greater understanding of Lear as a character, feeling that the play’s subplot prevents him from doing that. Initially therefore, having the two characters play out only Lear-centric scenes appears to give Elerding the opportunity to do what Jack feels he’s never been able to do. In fact, Elerding doesn’t ‘try to do Lear without the subplot’ (as Jack puts it) at all. Instead, he introduces a subplot of his own in place of Shakespeare’s delivered through modern-day scripted dialogue spoken by Jack, Stephen and later Rachel (Katie Peabody), Jack’s daughter. Importantly, it’s a subplot which neither attempts to recreate the Gloucester story from the play nor to contemporise the main Lear-centric plot. Elerding’s script is better than that, subtly but powerfully resonating with themes from Shakespeare’s play as facts and hints about what has happened to these characters leading up to the hour or so we spend with them are interwoven with the director’s chosen scenes from the play. As such, Elerding’s use of Lear is reminiscent of Kristian Levring’s 2001 film The King Is Alive, in which a group of tourists stranded in the Namibian desert resort to rehearsing the play as a distraction from the desperate situation in which they find themselves. Elerding’s appropriation of Lear shuns Levring’s nihilistic and self-destructive perspective, however, utilising the play instead to present an intimate exploration of the complex relationships between colleagues, friends and family still in the immediate throes of personal tragedy.

Adapted for the screen by Elerding from his Ensemble Shakespeare Theater Company play of the same name, Lear’s Shadow retains the essence of theatrical performance without ever feeling simply like a filmed stage production. The play was first performed in 2017 with the audience sat at rehearsal tables surrounding the performance space as if ready to take part in a table read1; Elerding’s use of close-ups and mid-shots throughout his film, especially at times of heightened emotion, emulates the way in which the theatre audience would have been in close proximity to his characters when experiencing the original play. The director ensures his camerawork never distracts from the performances of his cast, choosing the moments to employ relatively more cinematic shooting techniques carefully. At one point, Jack and Stephen discuss whether or not sound effects are needed to bring the storm scene of 3.2 to life, with Jack declaring the best version of the scene he ever saw was Lear standing fully lit centre stage, simply making you believe the storm surrounded him. Moments later, the camera slowly pans around Jack as he delivers Lear’s opening speech of 3.2 in the middle of the rehearsal space, Elerding’s understated camerawork and Cross’s raw performance eloquently proving the character’s point. Mention must also be made of Ryan Moore’s original score heard at key points throughout, which is consistently cinematic whilst never feeling intrusive, melancholic without ever becoming melodramatic.

In almost every scene from Lear included in the film, Jack takes on the role of Lear; Stephen meanwhile shifts between a number of roles, at times playing multiple parts one after another in the same scene. It’s a smart choice. Sporting a wire crown and cheap red cloak over his everyday dress, and with a prominent black eye beneath his spectacles, Cross as Jack makes for a formidable yet vulnerable Lear, oscillating between ‘the dragon’ (1.1.123) of the early moments of the play and the ‘foolish, fond old man’ (4.7.60) of the later scenes impressively and, at times, without warning. Blue meanwhile deserves equal praise, believably presenting Stephen as an actor both willing and able to switch between multiple roles to drive Jack as Lear, keeping him focused on what they’re doing in the rehearsal room and not on anything else that may or may not be going on outside it.

Away from their Shakespearean performances, the dynamic between Jack and Stephen is authentically realised by Cross and Blue. The pair’s relationship has clearly been fraught in the past (professional grievances and personal bugbears make their way to the surface on a number of occasions) but it’s also clear that both men understand and care about each other deeply – something which feels as though it matters more during the brief time we spend with them than it has at any point in their lives before then, making it all the more important that Cross and Blue successfully convince us of that fact throughout. Whilst the character’s role is relatively small, Rachel turns Lear’s Shadow from a two- to a three-hander at the right moment, adding just enough to our understanding of the story as a whole without becoming a crude expository device or deus ex machina. Katie Peabody shrewdly uses her limited screen time to effectively craft Rachel into the quasi-Cordelia Jack’s Lear requires.

Whilst the division between Shakespeare’s scenes and the dialogue written by Elerding is overt, the film is at its best when the boundaries between Jack and Stephen and the Shakespearean roles they play are at their most blurred. As the two men perform sections of 1.4 – Jack as Lear, Stephen alternating between the Fool and Goneril – Jack becomes increasingly infuriated as he delivers Lear’s speech, in the play seemingly in response to Albany (not present in Jack and Stephen’s version) but delivered as an apostrophe to 'Nature … dear goddess' (1.4.267). As Jack yells the final words, ‘Away, away!’ (1.4.281), Stephen looks visibly moved by his anger, unable for a few seconds to respond or even to comprehend Jack’s outburst; but it’s not clear if this reaction is in role as the Fool, or as Goneril, or whether at this point Blue has moved back to simply playing Stephen. Perhaps Blue is playing both Stephen and the Fool, or Stephen and Goneril – maybe even all three. Sublime moments such as this are the reason that Lear’s Shadow never needs to set out to prove the relevance of Lear, allowing Shakespeare’s text and Elerding’s direction to exist concurrently to craft a single moment of simultaneous conflicting, enigmatic, yet utterly human emotion.

Lear's Shadow is currently on the festival circuit, although no screenings within the UK are scheduled at the time of writing. The film will also be made available through online streaming services in the future.

1 Ellen Dostal (2017) BWW Review: Ensemble Shakespeare Theatre Transforms Tragedy Using Theatre in LEAR'S SHADOW

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a contributing editor at Film Intel. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. When he's not writing about films here, Ben is usually writing about films - mostly Shakespeare adaptations - for his PhD. He's also on and Twitter.