Twelfth Night (1998)

Reviewer: Maggie Starr

"Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!"

One can hardly choose more appropriate words to describe William Shakespeare's deliciously tangled comedy, Twelfth Night. Filled to the brim with mistaken identities, love triangles and elaborate ruses, it provides dizzying entertainment with a classical quality. The tale begins in the late 1800s aboard a small ship heading for Messaline.

It is Twelfth Night (also known as the Feast of the Epiphany) and gaiety prevails inside the brightly lit cabin; passengers arrayed in festive costumes laugh and joke as they watch fraternal twins, Sebastian and Viola (Steven Mackintosh and Imogen Stubbs), enact a musical skit. Unbeknownst to the revelers, however, the tumultuous sea is swiftly setting the stage for tragedy... suddenly, a violent wave lifts the ship and hurls it against the rocks. Panic quickly engulfs the crowd as they begin scurrying to and fro in a confused attempt to board the lifeboats. Another wave crashes over the struggling vessel: this time, Viola is thrown overboard. Sebastian cries out horror and without another thought, dives into the water himself. They cling to one another desperately... but despite their efforts, are finally wrenched apart. Eventually the storm fades away and a bedraggled group of survivors stumble ashore. Viola and a few others have managed to land safely in the country of Illyria, though her good fortune gives meager comfort: she is still grieving deeply for her brother, who has surely perished. Being orphaned for some time, his death has now robbed her of the one person she loved in the world. "And what should I do in Illyria?" she forlornly questions the captain. He offers no reply, but we soon discover the answer.... 

Viola's first step is to don the disguise of a boy; calling herself "Cesario," she enters into the service of Orsino, Duke of Illyria (Toby Stephens). The members of his court are easily fooled into believing that she's a young man, but deceiving her own heart proves more difficult -- and against her better judgment, she finds herself falling in love with her master, Orsino! Thankfully, the duke is so absorbed with his own unrequited love for the beautiful Countess Olivia (Helena Bonham Carter) that he remains oblivious... in fact, deciding that a pageboy might be better suited to plead his devotion, Orsino sends off an unwilling "Cesario" to woo his fair lady. Even more hilarious complications arise, though, for at first glance Olivia falls madly in love with... you guessed it, "Cesario"! What will happen when Olivia realizes that the object of her affections is a woman? Will Viola ever reveal her love for the Duke? And is it possible that there are two Cesario's?! Watch and see!

I must confess that before I watched this movie, I considered Shakespeare's works rather dull and highly overrated. Oh, Id dabbled with unabridged copies of As You Like It, Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, etc. when younger but hadn't truly understood the words or plot. A friend introduced me to Twelfth Night a few months ago and after the first few minutes, I felt myself awakening to the power of Shakespeare's prose in the way it was intended to be experienced: as a stage production. Hearing the actors speak the poetic lines brought the story to life. The music was surprisingly well done, particularly Ben Kingsley's minstrel tunes. I love the last scene, when all are joyously dancing at the wedding: Feste the fool (Kingsley) quietly slips out and concludes the film with a contemplative song. He really could be called the "narrator" of the story in a way. 

Twelfth Night is rated PG for "mild thematic elements." Viola (while thought to be a boy) walks in while Orisno is bathing and being his manservant, he motions for her to wash his back with a sponge, which she does with a slight grimace. Nothing at all is shown, besides his arms and the top of his bare chest and Viola exits as quickly as possible. The butler gropes a nude statue. There is also a humorous subplot concerning Olivia's pompous steward Malvolio, her boisterous uncle, mischievous maid, and disgruntled suitor which I simply haven't room to explain; suffice it to say that after this film, one will little wonder at Shakespeare's enduring fame.

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Get caught up on The Tudor Throne series before the final installment this summer!