The movie offers a distinguished ensemble cast, handsome production values and an intelligently "cinematic" screenplay that artfully rearranges and intercuts scenes from the original text to clever effect. And, of course, there is the play itself. Shakespeare's playful presentation of gender-bending role-playing -- and, by implication, inherent bisexuality -- is guaranteed to make Twelfth Night seem all the more relevant for an audience familiar with such sexually ambiguous icons as Madonna, Michael Jackson and Dennis Rodman.
But Nunn, a veteran director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, has failed to provide the spark that would ignite the fireworks. Overall, the film leaves you with the impression of watching a world-class repertory company on an off night. You can admire the professionalism, and even enjoy many of the performances, without being exhilarated or even consistently amused.
Just in case you need to brush up your Shakespeare: This is the comedy about Viola (Imogen Stubbs), the plucky young woman who disguises herself as a man after being separated from her twin brother during a shipwreck. She dons the disguise as a means of self-preservation while wandering about the coastal kingdom of Illyria, a place where, apparently, an attractive female would do well not to rely on the kindness of strangers while traveling alone. Calling herself Cesario, Viola lands a job as page to Duke Orsino (Toby Stephens), a melancholy hunk who pines for the love of the beautiful Countess Olivia (Helena Bonham Carter). Unfortunately, Olivia recently lost her own brother -- and her father -- so she is in no mood to entertain the romantic overtures of even the most passionate suitors. She repeatedly rejects emissaries from Orsino, claiming that she will remain in mourning for at least seven years. But Orsino will not be denied. So he sends Cesario off to do his wooing. Complications arise when Cesario is all too successful in this assignment.
Nunn has transported Twelfth Night, somewhat arbitrarily, to the late 19th century. This really doesn't add much to the play, though it does give Nunn and production designer Sophie Becher the opportunity to showcase some attractive period costumes and Gothic revival architecture. The updating also allows Sir Toby Belch (Mel Smith), Olivia's hard-drinking uncle, and his buddy Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Richard E. Grant), another of Olivia's rejected suitors, to tinkle at pianos while carousing with Feste (Ben Kingsley), the wise fool who impudently comments on the greater foolishness of those around him.
Malvolio (Nigel Hawthorne), Olivia's prudish steward, is determined to dampen any high spirits evidenced in his lady's household. So, naturally, he becomes the target of an ingenious joke sprung by the carousers. With the help of Maria (Imelda Staunton), Olivia's maid, Belch and Aguecheek plot to make Malvolio think Olivia is in love with him. This brings out the vainglorious worst in the steward, and the comedic best in the actor portraying him.
The broad comedy of Malvolio's humiliation is handled well enough. But the funniest parts of this Twelfth Night are those in which Nunn and his actors offer their own embellishments to the sexual ambiguities and misapprehensive passions in Shakespeare's comedy. Olivia falls instantly and completely in love with the effeminate "boy" who has been sent to woo her, much to the discomfort of the young woman who is pretending to be that boy. Viola insistently wards off Olivia's advances. At the same time, however, there are clear indications that, though she might deny it, Viola is slightly amused by the situation. After all, Olivia's inconvenient passion is proof that she -- that is, Viola -- has been very successful at being a he.
Meanwhile, back at Orsino's castle, the duke treats Cesario as a dear friend and close confidant. This only serves to intensify Viola's growing love for Orsino. More to the point, it also makes her even more uncomfortable, since she cannot express her love without revealing her true identity. As played by Stephens, Orsino is very much aware of his page's affection. Indeed, in a couple of scenes, he seems to go so far as to flirt with the "boy." (Kingsley, who is terrific, has a hilarious moment when, as Feste, he is dumbfounded by how ardently Cesario gazes at Orsino.) It says a lot about Orsino's feelings toward Cesario that, when the page strips off a disguising mustache to become Viola, the duke rushes into her arms with a haste that appears at least partially inspired by profound relief.
Not that Olivia is left hanging. When Sebastian (Stephen Mackintosh), Viola's long-lost brother, makes his inevitable reappearance, the countess pounces upon him, mistaking him for her beloved Cesario. (The brother and sister are twins, remember?) But when Olivia discovers that, in reality, it was the disguised Viola who originally won her heart -- well, take a good look at Helena Bonham Carter's awestruck expression, and see if you can't spot a touch of disappointment along with the wonderment.
(The sexual shenanigans don't end there: Antonio, the sea captain who saves Sebastian from a watery grave, obviously is in love with Viola's brother. And he doesn't need to be seduced by a gender-blurring disguise, either.)
Imogen Stubbs is delightfully deft as Viola, and even manages to make herself slightly resemble Stephen Mackintosh as Sebastian. But the mistaken-identity conceit is undercut by the realistic setting. If Nunn wanted to fix the movie in a particular period with era-specific architecture and costuming, he might have considered using special effects or some other trickery to actually have the same actor -- or actress -- play both Viola and Sebastian. To be sure, William Shakespeare probably would not approve. But, then again, he had guys playing both roles back at the Globe Theater. Maybe turnabout would be fair play.
-- Joe Leydon
Directed by Trevor Nunn. With Helena Bonham Carter, Richard E. Grant, Nigel Hawthorne, Ben Kingsley, Toby Stephens and Imogen Stubbs.