Friday Film Focus: The Winter’s Tale (1981; BBC)

It’s now August and a Friday, which means a new summer blockbuster is being released: The Dark Tower which might be cool (dig Idris Elba, but man, those early reviews have been BRU-tal…anyways…)…but that’s not what we’re talking about today. Today, we take a look at one of the only widely released films of The Winter’s Tale, the BBC Complete Works entry from 1981.

Leontes is not a happy camper

In late 1980, the BBC took on The Winter’s Tale as a part of the third season of their Complete Works series. This one was directed by Jane Howell, who would later direct some of the more visually interesting plays in the series, the first tetralogy–the three Henry VI plays and Richard III–as well as Titus Andronicus. This one, too, is visually striking, especially for the BBC: a single set, almost abstract, geometric and white. The play film opens with a red ball bouncing onto the set, as tossed by the Mamillius.

Howell uses this concept of concept throughout the play: Polixenes is dressed in earth tones, Leontes black; during the Bohemia sequences, while the palace set is off-white, for the shepherd scenes, the same set–now outdoors–is green, with golden “fields.” During the Sicilia first half, the white background has a very interesting consequence–all of the characters seem separated from reality, as if placed in a netherworld…so that even when we get to the (still) artificial set of Bohemia, it looks natural in comparison. In the final scene, the background moves from black to whites and greens. It’s pretty effective.

She also has the actors do the asides to the camera, as if on stage. Autolycus uses this to greatest effect, even when the aside isn’t his own; near the end of Act Four, when Camillo is revealing his plan to the audience, Autolycus peers over his shoulder to look at us questioningly. It’s a fine comic moment.

If all of this sounds great, it is…from a visual point of view. The rest, for me, is less than great.

The first act feels dead, but it grows in intensity, so that by Act Two, the production seems to find its energy, and the third act deaths are surprisingly moving. But when we get to Bohemia, we get that dip in energy again…this sheep shearing just isn’t that festive. The last portion of that ridiculously long Act Four, Scene Four, just feels looooooooong, almost excruciatingly so. And because of this dead spot, Act Five suffers.

So. I know you’re wondering. What about those two sequences that are the bane of the director’s existence: the bear and the statue? How does Howell fare there?

Alas, meh.

She uses the most ridiculous guy-in-a-bear suit. I see how this might work, if the rest of the Bohemia stuff was quick, almost farcical, or at least wild. But it’s not.

And the reveal tries to have it both ways: there is this weird moment when in the Captains Exposition discussion of Paulina’s statue, when the Sicilian men in attendance, upon hearing of the Italian artist, give one another a look, as if to say, “What? Oh….,” as if to let us know that they’ve figured it out. But if they figured it out, no one in that last scene does–not the actors, not Howell. It’s played straight. And here’s the interesting thing: because it’s played as a miracle, I thought it carried some emotional heft. But because it was set up not to be a miracle, it made the ending feel like a fake, and thus not memorable.

I know: this review is a mess, it’s all over the place. Well, fancy that: it matches the movie.

Do I recommend it? Yes. Because it’s really kinda the only professional one out there. I say “kinda” because, of all the BBC Complete Works series, this has been the toughest to come by. My usual source–the LA Public Library–didn’t have it, nor did my local. It wasn’t available for streaming…I had to subscribe to (Netflix before it was a streaming-only service). So I think you should see it (as it’s the only game in town), but only if you can find it for free…

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