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New Release Review - UNDER MILK WOOD

Adaptation of Dylan Thomas' 1954 radio drama.


Review by Benjamin Poole (@filmclubchs)

Directed by: Kevin Allen

Starring: Rhys Ifans, Lisa Palfrey, Charlotte Church




"Under Milk Wood is at times striking and befitting of the poetry it is born of, but is ultimately an interesting curio, one which was perhaps fated to fall short of the near impossible challenge it sets itself."


The pleasures of Under Milk Wood occur early on in this most recent film adaptation of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’ 1954 play. Rhys Ifans, in the guise of narrator Captain Cat, recites the film’s opening soliloquy; an almost incandescently beautiful depiction of a Welsh fishing village at night, conjured from soft vowel sounds which melt into the dark expanse of run on lines, slowly, surely, as we become privy to the various inner lives of this sleepy town, the ‘flight and fall and despairs and big seas’ of Llareggub’s dreams. Just as a guitar solo can only be correctly played using an electric axe, so should Thomas’ verse be realised aloud simply by the soft gravity of a sonorous Taff accent. And while Rhys Ifans, as he would no doubt himself admit, may be no Richard Burton (star of 1972’s adaptation), his whimsical narration remains a resonant highlight of this somewhat uneven adaptation.
Thomas wrote the original Under Milk Wood as a ‘play for voices’, exemplified not only by the operatic musicality of his language, but the instructive refrain of the opening; ‘listen… listen… listen’. Thomas’ poetry was always sensory, designed to wash over the listener like waters from the mouth of the Tawe, and therefore the task of visually adapting such a specifically auditory text would seem to be superfluous, especially considering the accepted felicitation of the 1972 version (regarded as a cult film not only due to its starry pedigree, but its hypnotic pace), as well as the fact that BBC telly completed an adaptation just last year! That later version even shared a couple of performers with Kevin Allen’s contemporary effort, so how to differentiate? Well, in order to visualise the magical domestic of Thomas’ vision, Allen (no stranger to Thomas’ Swansea stomping ground, having been the black sheep behind that eulogy to Welsh excess, Twin Town, and, of course, having also been born there himself), opts for a slightly surreal, dreamlike frame, eschewing the antiquated earthiness of other adaptions. The effect is mixed; the use of overexposed lenses and glaring light, designed to affect a wistful visual set, instead lends a Welsh fishing village the incongruous look and feel of a 1980s pop video. The imagery is often striking - a particularly memorable scene sees Eli Jenkins (William Thomas), lying back in a very heavy looking bed which is half submerged in the sea, to be carried aloft to the shore by a few Maori warriors, all the while reciting Thomas’ poetry - but at times the loose, anachronistic visuals feel self-consciously weird, as if the film has read Thomas not within his rightful context as a neo-romantic, but as a nonsense poet.
At its time of production, Under Milk Wood was a kind of nursery rhyme, proto-David Lynch style peer beneath the ostensible vale of a sleepy hinterland, at the nudge nudge wink wink peccadillos and repressions that privately abided there. Of course, nowadays, the concepts of privacy and dignity are dying notions, and, in an attempt to modernise, the sexuality of the original script is played up. Thus, as Polly Garter (Charlotte Church - Welsh goddess, whose casting as a denizen of Llareggub reminds the audience of her growing physical similarity to Elizabeth Taylor) meets with Mr. Waldo, we see her ignominiously being taken from behind as she sings of her dead lover, and, earlier, P.C Rees masturbates into his police helmet, a single drop of semen hitting his bare foot like a tear. There’s a camp remove to these scenes which again makes the film seem slightly awkward. There’s no denying of Thomas’ suggestiveness, but such nudges are amusing only in the individual interpretation, the graphic conception of such innuendo robs the poetry of its connotative nuance. Or perhaps it was just me being a bit of a prude.
Ultimately, Thomas' strength was as a lyricist, not a dramatist, and the mainly narrative medium of cinema is perhaps not best suited to the brooding, abstract evocation of Thomas’ words (by de facto literalising what should be an invocation of the listener’s imagination). As an adaptation, 2015’s Under Milk Wood is at times striking and befitting of the poetry it is born of, but is ultimately an interesting curio, one which was perhaps fated to fall short of the near impossible challenge it sets itself.



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