There has been something of a resurgence of interest in the great Dylan Thomas in recent years, thanks to 2014 being the centenary of the poet’s birth. With the BBC’s A Poet In New York and television production of Under Milk Wood along with the phenomenal Set Fire To The Stars starring Elijah Wood and Celyn Jones, not to mention a live performance of a newly discovered Thomas poem at the end of 2015, it seems Dylan Thomas is still alive and with us after all these years. What a good thing that is, as Thomas is – to quote Set Fire To The Stars – ‘the purest lyrical poet in the English-speaking world’. And so, to round off all of this centenary celebrating, director Kevin Allen brings us a lusty and innovative cinematic adaptation of Thomas’ most iconic work; Under Milk Wood.
There are two challenges to adapting Under Milk Wood for film. Firstly, it was always intended as a ‘play for voices’ with no visual accompaniment, first read on stage in 1953 before being aired as a radio play in ’54 after Thomas’ death. To add visuals, especially as bizarre as some that you find in this adaptation, could detract from the poetry’s power. Secondly, it was already done as a film in 1972 to much acclaim, with a cast including Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Peter O’Toole. That adaptation seemed like the only way to adapt it, and that could’ve been a disaster in itself. So why do it again? Kevin Allen, director of Twin Town, gives it his best shot and, thanks to solid direction and a great ensemble cast, it isn’t a complete disaster. But it’s far from perfect.
Rhys Ifans narrates the tale, bringing his wonderful Welshness to Thomas’ words. But he also plays Captain Cat, the blind old sailor haunted by his past. In both of these roles, he’s clearly loving it as he brings Wales’ iconic poet’s work to life. Charlotte Church is Polly Garter, a young mother with a history of lovers. Llyr Ifans, Rhys’ brother, plays the town troublemaker Nogood Boyo. The ensemble cast is made up of Welsh talent, as it should be, with local townspeople in from the beautiful location Solva filling the screen as extras – lending a certain authenticity and sense of community pride to the film.
In terms of narrative, it’s difficult to describe what Under Milk Wood is truly about. Set in the fictional town of Llareggub (read it backwards), it is a disjointed array of sequences – inner monologues, confessions, domestic tales – which serves as a rather trippy and psychedelic snapshot of Welsh small-town life, something Thomas was both praising and gently mocking with tongue firmly-in-cheek back in the original text. But Kevin Allen, with the help of writers Michael Breen and Murray Lachlan Young, makes a few alterations to the original work. The main one is the inclusion of a hugely obvious sexual theme that may have been in the original text as something of a hidden tone. But here, it’s almost Carry On Dylan Thomas as the lusty dildo-filled visuals create such an unusual feel that it’s hard to say what Thomas would make of it.
This is what stops Under Milk Wood from soaring. While the text is incredible – as we all know – this adaptation truly cements the fact that it is a play for voices and not the screen. The frantic, bizarre visuals and generally uneasy sexual feel takes away from the play’s beauty and power, and you find yourself closing your eyes to try and enjoy the words as you’re supposed to. Any film that you have to close your eyes to enjoy is clearly doing something wrong. It’s hard to say who’s at fault here. Director Kevin Allen is of course the man who all fingers point to in this instance, but maybe production designer Marie Lanna and cinematographer Andy Hollis aren’t particularly innocent either. This isn’t to say they’ve done a bad job – it’s a hugely interesting film and the visuals and direction are genius…if this was an original tale. To adapt Dylan Thomas with this style just feels wrong.
To conclude, Dylan Thomas isn’t with us anymore so he can’t say whether these visuals are what he had in mind when he was writing the iconic play. Maybe he never wanted it on screen in the first place. It’s a bizarre adaptation, and although the style didn’t work for me in a Dylan Thomas tale, I do respect the craft of those involved and look forward to see what they come up with next.
Under Milk Wood should probably be left as a ‘play for voices’, as Thomas wrote it. 2/5.
Under Milk Wood at CeX
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