The inevitable unpleasantness in Equus, which is promised from the second or third scene, manages to be more horrifying than I expected. At the beginning of the film, it’s possible to steel oneself for it, but by the end, it becomes a lot more like the sensation of striking one finger against the other. At the beginning, the viewer knows the finger is going to be struck, by the end, he or she is feeling it on both. Peter Firth’s amazing performance–and Firth really is amazing–contributes, but it’s also the script and the direction. The conclusion–Equus is described all over as a mystery, but it really isn’t: once the father makes his opaque confession, it’s all very predictable. And it played out exactly like it figured, but it was still exceptionally effective. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Sidney Lumet use violence in this way before.
But the end of the film isn’t that inescapable event. The event drowns the viewer, so he or she is gasping for air during the ending, more than a little distracted. And Equus‘s end is an end to a different film. A shorter one, focusing on Richard Burton. Regardless of Firth’s acting accomplishments here, his character isn’t particularly compelling. Obscured, he’s interesting. Even in the therapy scenes–which look, at times, enough like Ordinary People I wonder how many times Redford saw this one–he’s somewhat interesting. But Lumet does these flashbacks–with Firth playing the character at every age. It’s effective, but distracting from the main force of the film–Burton.
With his unbecoming, unkept hair and his tired face–and with Lumet shooting his bald spot every chance he gets–Burton is champion. As the psychiatrist, encumbered with an empty, unhappy life of his own passive design, Burton pulls off the impossible. He’s got six or seven scenes–from the play’s staging, obviously–speaking directly to the camera. This film is Burton’s, Burton’s story, Burton’s to succeed or fail with. And his performance is just wonderful. It’s so good, it’s worth rewinding to watch a speech again.
Lumet goes for a haunting close to Equus and it kind of works. It works well enough to smooth over the problems with Firth’s character’s close (given how much time’s spent on him, he gets the short end). The music–and the editing–and Lumet’s really odd camera angles for this one–all contribute. The supporting cast, particularly Colin Blakely and Joan Plowright, are great. Given Shaffer’s adapted his own play, odds were never good for a proper filmic refocusing, but it doesn’t matter. Even with the obese script, Burton and Firth and Lumet are all in top form… Burton better than.
Directed by Sidney Lumet; screenplay by Peter Shaffer, based on his play; director of photography, Oswald Morris; edited by John Victor-Smith; music by Richard Rodney Bennett; production designer, Tony Walton; produced by Elliot Kastner and Lester Persky; released by United Artists.
Starring Richard Burton (Martin Dysart), Peter Firth (Alan Strang), Colin Blakely (Frank Strang), Joan Plowright (Dora Strang), Harry Andrews (Harry Dalton), Eileen Atkins (Hesther Saloman), Jenny Agutter (Jill Mason) and Kate Reid (Margaret Dysart).