Tag Archives: Peter Firth

Equus (1977, Sidney Lumet)

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.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

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).


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Tess (1979, Roman Polanski)

I don’t mind sitting three hours for an unhappy ending. Actually, I think most long films have unhappy endings, don’t they? However, I did not sit through the three poorly acted and written hours of Tess expecting to have to tolerate a scene with the sun rising at Stonehenge and some bullshit insight into the finiteness of nobility. Oh, good grief, the Stonehenge finale was in the book… (I’m cruising Wikipedia as I type).

Argh.

I was going to start out this post with a discussion on the long, mediocre film. Whether or not the film truly improves over time, or if through the long viewing time, the brain’s quality receptors somehow get burned out. Whether or not the taste buds go dry. Unfortunately, Tess‘s absurd third act–when the unlikable, emotionally abusive husband the audience has just spent forty-five minutes despising, becomes the hero; the somewhat amusing and somehow honorable scoundrel becomes the villain, of course, at the same time–ruins my previous analysis. The analysis only works if the film is consistently mediocre. Tess putrefies at the end. (A reasonable comparison would be Wim Wender’s Until the End of the World, which is two hours longer than Tess–five hours–and never swings high or low, just stays steadily unremarkable).

However, Tess is not a wholly unpleasant experience. The cinematography is beautiful (though one can’t help but notice it’s lifted from Barry Lyndon, which did it better too) and the scenery, for much of the film, is glorious. Polanksi couldn’t shoot in England, so he used the French countryside. While the English countryside is beautiful in its own way, there’s an inherent dreariness to it. The French countryside is simply glorious and when the story becomes dreary, the muddy skies look fake.

Nastassja Kinski is nice enough to turn in an unspeakably bad performance, so bad it’s comical, especially since the subtitle writers of the DVD I watched couldn’t understand her awful English accent and frequently got lines quite wrong. Also terrible is Peter Firth as the husband, but Leigh Lawson is good as the scoundrel. The switch in characters’ personalities is actually not as annoying–oh, it’s still bad–as when we’re expected to remember people who were in the film for four minutes and never in a close-up. There’s period where Kinski visits a friend who I thought was the mother until five or six minutes into the second scene. The film’s writing is terrible, but if the Stonehenge finale isn’t Polanki’s fault I’m not going to go blaming him for all the other tripe in the script.

What a lousy way to spend three hours… though, as Tess was nominated for Best Picture, it’s nice to know the Academy was almost as full of shit in the late 1970s as it is today.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Roman Polanski; written by Polanski, Gérard Brach, and John Brownjohn, based on a novel by Thomas Hardy; cinematographers, Geoffrey Unsworth and Ghislain Cloquet; edited by Alastair McIntyre and Tom Priestley; music by Philippe Sarde; production designer, Pierre Guffroy; produced by Claude Berri; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring John Collin (John Durbeyfield), Leigh Lawson (Alec Durbeyfield), Tony Church (Parson Tringham), Nastassja Kinski (Tess) and Peter Firth (Angel Clare).


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