A Twelfth Night Film Review or What You Will

Twelfth Night, being arguably one of William Shakespeare’s most iconic play and being held at the same esteem and regard as Shakespeare’s various other renowned masterpieces such as Othello, Macbeth and Much Ado About Nothing, has justifiably been adapted into countless forms of productions. Whether it be through films, a theatre play or a silent production like it was back in 1910s or when you will, its been done.

One of such adaptations was the 1996 film directed by Trevor Nunn which featured a predominantly English cast, most of which have been considered “all star” actors and actresses including Helena Bonham Carter, who plays Olivia, and whom Trevor Nunn has already experienced collaborating with previously a decade ago in his British 1986 Lady Jane film.

Twelfth Night is interestingly enough not Trevor Nunn’s only attempt to adapt a Shakespeare’s play into a form of production. In fact, Trevor Nunn, having been the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, is no stranger to working with one of Shakespeare’s universally acclaimed plays and is so in awe of his work that he has been known for calling Shakespeare his “religion”. Nunn has adapted several of Shakespeare’s well-known works mentioned above like Hamlet and Macbeth into modern theatre productions while working with the likes of legends like Sir Ian Mckellen and Dame Judi Dench or who you will.

Shakespeare is Trevor Nunn’s alleged religion

Film Adaptation vs Original Book: The Advantages

Trevor Nunn is quick to utilize and cherish all the new features that presenting Twelfth Night as a film exclusively provides him with. These included various filming strategies and techniques such as both diegetic and non-diegetic sound, camera techniques and mise-en-scene.

While back in Shakespeare’s times, in a traditional theatre or where you will, audiences would have to view the whole play from a considerable distance and squint their eyes or lean desperately forward to improve the broad view in which they are forced into viewing the play from. This is a different case, however, for films which are allowed to experiment with controlling and manipulating how much and how viewers sees things play out in the adaptation.

Close up shots, for example, was perhaps one of the more heavily utilized camera techniques in the film where it could and was effectively utilized by Nunn for various reasons. These reasons included emphasizing a certain atmosphere (Viola’s worried expression is manipulated to be the main focus with a close up shot to reinforce the sinister feeling created and supported by eerie music when the antagonized guards arrived), to displaying a character’s emotion more vividly or why you will.

Like the picture below, in Trevor Nunn’s 1996 film, the final confrontation between both Viola and Sebastian, after having been separated for nearly the whole duration of the film, is successfully dramatized with a close up shot. The emotions and facial expression of the two core characters are clearly displayed in this shot and instantly demands the attention of viewers due to being manipulated into essentially becoming the main object of this frame.

The siblings’ frontal expression is vividly apparent in the film while the characters’ face can barely be made out in a theatre production from what would’ve already been considered a rather close seat.

This snapshot above of the perspective of what would already been considered a rather close seat of the 2013 theatre production presented by the Pop-Up globe of Twelfth Night is a testament to how hard it would have been to make out the faces of characters, much less their expressions and facial acting if Trevor Nunn had made a theatre production instead. Thus Nunn’s 1996 film was effective in bringing the reunion scene between Viola and Sebastian to live was thanks to the presence of camera techniques which is an exclusive feature of films.

In terms of mise-en-scene and the ability to have multiple intricate setting rather than being limited to one stage, they were another advantage Trevor Nunn was quick to seize and cherish in his film adaptation of Twelfth Night. In fact, if one pays specific attention to the background of where things are set in Nunn’s version, one would discover that mirrors and pianos are two very popular objects that continuously show up throughout the film.

Teasing the audience was not uncommon in Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night and this was the case in the symbolism in him frequently including pianos and mirrors in various shots and scenes. A mirror, for example, can be alluded a major aspect of the film where there are “two versions” of one person, which in this case is Viola, with the other being her brother, Sebastian. Having earlier mentioned Nunn’s usage of camera techniques to his advantage, Nunn brings his mirror symbolism to a close with the shot above which, yes, mirrors (see what I did there?), a previous shot in the film where Sebastian looks into the mirror, but only this time, he sees his counterpart (Viola) in the flesh. This too plays a part in adding effect and emotional power to the scene of their reunion.

On the other hand, a piano, has interestingly been said to be a symbol and have been used in the past to measure and represent how “marriageable” someone was. And that was most certainly a central theme that ran throughout the film, the idea of forbidden relationships, marriage or what you will.

This ranged from what would’ve been a traditionally disapproved and accidental homosexual relationship between Viola and Olivia and also Orsino’s attraction towards Cesario (Viola) despite him consciously regarding her as a male and not knowing that he was in actuality still chasing after a woman, to how it would have been deemed a betrayal and disrespect to her master (Orsino) for Viola to accept Olivia’s advancements and marry whom she clearly knew she had been sent to help bring back and not steal from Orsino. Viola being stuck in this situation that is “too hard a knot” and something “O Time, thou must untangle” is hinted at when she is seen playing the piano at the start of the film which in fact, is not part of the original manuscript by Shakespeare.

Pianos can be spotted being littered shamelessly across the film as a not-so subtle symbol by Trevor Nunn

Changes and Deviation From Original Script

This leads us to another interesting aspect of the film which was Trevor Nunn’s decision to not strictly follow Shakespeare’s format of how the plot flows and even adding new scenes. An example of this was the film beginning with Sebastian and Viola dressing up as musicians whose gender is constantly left uncertain with their “revealing” of each other’s stereotypically manly or womanly physical traits to be fake .

One such trait was the presence of a mustache, which if one observes carefully, is the last thing Viola and Sebastian “reveal” to be fake while dressing as a musician before the storm, which we know from Shakespeare’s original narrative would lead to their separation, hits their boat. This, once again, add weight and even more symbolic meaning to an already abundant-in- emotions climax of the film where the two sibling are reunited.

The climax of the film is foreshadowed by Nunn’s addition of a new scene to begin the story.

Final Verdict

Trevor Nunn’s adaptation bathes in the luxury of being able to utilize exclusive filming techniques ranging from camera shots to mise-en-scene to add a unique touch of symbolism, foreshadowing and a focus on maximizing viewer’s emotional weight. Additional scenes were also added under Nunn’s discretion to contribute to an overall refreshing take on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night that was not afraid to step into untouched ground unlocked through its format as a film to obtain a more emotional and powerful climax that would’ve otherwise not been achievable.

An innovative and powerful adaptation of a Shakespeare classic by a Shakespeare-worshiping director, who manages to effectively juggle around making a film both entertaining and yet overflowing with deep meaning and symbolism, and is completed with a cast made of a star-studded list, Twelfth Night (1996) can be confidently described as symbolic, emotionally powerful and different or how you will…


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