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Under Milk Wood (1972)
Dylan Thomass Welsh background played a large role in his
poetry, especially in the case of Under Milk Wood, his 1953 play for
voices. The play depicts one day in the life of a Welsh fishing villagea place
so quiet that you can hear the dew falling. A 1954 BBC Radio production of the
work was a hit partly because of Richard Burtons flawless characterizations and rich
voice. This film version, now released on DVD by the Sundance Channel, is also an inspired
Fortunately, Burton agreed to narrate the movie and director Andrew Sinclair convincingly weaves him into the story by making him one of a pair of observant but mysterious visitors to the town. The shots of beautiful Welsh scenery mesh nicely with Thomass words and Burtons voice. The visuals attest to the writers wonderfully descriptive language and Sinclairs faithful screenplay captures the hamlets many charms and also its often-claustrophobic feel.
A gaggle of characters appear in vignettes full of wistful memories and frustrated wishes. The predominantly Welsh cast produces lively characters, though many actors have only a few lines. Schoolteacher Gossamer Benyon (Angharad Rees) and Sinbad the barkeep (Michael Forrest) love each other but never confess their feelings to one another. Forrest and Rees skillfully draw out both the humorous and the sad aspects of their characters predicament. Unfulfilled longing is a prominent theme in the story: another pair of lovers write each other passionate letters every day but never meet, perhaps fearing disappointment.
Also memorable is Mr. Waldo, the father of a number of children by different girlfriends. Ray Smith plays him endearingly, with forlorn expressions and a wardrobe that enhances his resemblance to Fatty Arbuckle. The story does not shy away from the loathsome figures in the bunchmoralists, hypocrites, and gossipsbut Thomass portrayal of the town is generous and those characters receive a lightly satirical treatment.
Sinclair and the actors also avoid overplaying their hands. When necessary, they let Thomass and Burtons narration take over the scene completely, as in the case of this passage:
Lord Cut-Glass, in his kitchen full of time, listens to the voices of his 66 clocks (one for each year of his loony age) and watches, with love, their black-and-white moony, loudlipped faces tocking the earth away.
In that scene, the acting and the camera-work are restrained enough to let the viewer
concentrate on listening.
Peter OToole offers a great interpretation of Captain Cat, the old, blind sailor who knows the towns routine and its voices so well that he can narrate its events based on sound alone. The captain is haunted by dead shipmates and by his lost love, Rosie Probert (Elizabeth Taylor). His anguish drives the most powerful sequences of the film. The flashbacks depicting the romance between the captain and Probert are poignant, but even better are the scenes where Cat finds respite from his grief by making witty observations about the hamlets other inhabitants. OToole uses his voice and face masterfully.
Sinclairs film is a loving adaptation and it makes a fine introduction to Thomass poetry.
- Chris Pepus