Sunday, 6 June 2010

My God Hath Seen.

Back when I was still a lowly uni student, a friend of mine gave me a copy of Equus, the play, to read, as she felt that I would like it. And I did. Very much. Peter Shaffer's play is fantastic, though the only time I have ever tried to see it on stage, we got the wrong day. Silly us.

It was, however, with some hesitation that I approached Sidney Lumet's 1977 production. I kept walking past it in my local DVD store, thinking about getting it out but never actually doing it. On a particularly tired afternoon, however, when the thought of the stairs to the basement containing so many, many more films was too much to bear, and all of those titles staring at me from the shelves were making me somewhat nauseous, I pulled it out blindly, recognising the title, the director, and the lead actor and thinking, what the hell, it can't be that bad, right?

Peter Firth is TOTALLY hotter than Daniel Radcliffe...

It wasn't, either, though I do think it pales in comparison to the play itself. I think what the play (and, I assume from my previous experiences with the stage, a performance of the play) has that the movie doesn't is that ability to delve into something entirely surreal without losing believability. You can put impressionism bluntly on stage and you don't entirely divorce from reality because there is an understanding from the audience that said impressionism (or expressionism, or Brechtianism, or any other form of unrealistic ism) is necessary due to the constraints of where you are. You can't cut from a therapists office to a field, you can't bring a horse on stage and gallop it around, and so you have to make do, you have to give the idea that you are in a field, or riding a horse, and these leaps of faith flow into the psyche of the character, particularly in the case of Equus and Alan Strang.

Alan (Peter Firth) is a seventeen year old boy, brought up by an opinionated father who cowers meekly in the face of his hyper-religious wife, Alan's mother. He is brought into a psychiatric facility run by Martin Dysart (Richard Burton) after blinding six horses. And Alan is crazy. He talks in riddles, he tries to play with tired Martin's mind, he tries tricks and diversions, and he screams. But Martin has seen it all before. He takes Alan on as a favour for a friend who feels he will be intrigued by the case. And as it progresses, he is. Martin is drawn into Alan's psychosis and forced to examine himself, slowly following along the same, crazy path.

Burton does well, looking every one of the fifty-odd years he was when the film was made. He looks as tired as his character, as exasperated, and finally, as intrigued, and as insane. Firth is scary as the young man at the centre of the drama, speaking little (though sometimes volumes) as he parades around, and pulling off a terrific psychotic scene completely naked - a terrifying feat for anyone who might ever have acted. Shaffer's adaptation of his own source material feels very stagey, something Lumet does very little to discard. Much of the narration comes from behind Martin's desk, something that could very well have been lifted out of a proscenium arch and transplanted on a studio set. But the words remain as clever and as powerful, the story as strong. Nothin could take that away from the original. Fittingly, Burton, Firth and Shaffer were all Oscar nominated for their roles - and they are probably the only elements that deserved such attention, for there was nothing particularly striking about anything else within this picture. Sure, everyone else executed their roles competently, but what could have been a great film became only a little more than mediocre. 3.5 stars.

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