The Chekhovian in Nunn’s ‘Twelfth Night’ (2/1/10)

30 Sep

Upon first view, the film’s debt to a Chekhovian style isn’t as obvious as it becomes with an in-depth look. Chekhov’s plays were largely produced with dark environments, dark tones, sexual tension, and things left unsaid. Nunn’s Twelfth Night achieves many of these Chekhovian notions, but as I will explain, they fade into a much brighter, comic-style film that seems more to reflect Shakespeare’s play itself. “Although Nunn acknowledges his admiration for Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, his Twelfth Night finds its inspiration more in Chekhov and Mozart than in the world of film” (Crowl, 79).

            The biggest example of a Chekhovian setting within the world of the film is when Cesario is first summoned to the quarters of Olivia, in which she is shrouded in a black veil and there is little but candlelight to illuminate the room. Olivia is in mourning of her brother’s death and simply plays with lines and puns in a melancholy manner in an attempt to get the boy out of her quarters. There are several pauses in this scene which is largely a Chekhovian method, and what goes unsaid on the surface is that Olivia is falling in love with Cesario, who is actually Viola. This sort of tug-o-war of internal conflict with the nature of love occurs throughout, creating what I think is more of a “real world film” than it would be if it was absurd and comical throughout. “Nunn’s film wants to find the proper balance between everyday and holiday. The echoes of Chekhov in the film’s period setting and landscape help to foreground the melancholy rather than the mad” (Crowl, 80). As in this quote, the dark 19th century setting of the film, and the accompanying use of candlelight, creates shadowed figures which are also Chekhovian.

            There is a scene toward the middle of the film where Duke Orsino and Cesario (Viola) are playing cards together. It’s obvious in this scene, as well in many others, that the two characters have strong attraction to one another, yet they cannot pursue it or convey it because they are men. Not only would it be socially awkward for them to address these feelings, but it would be yet another internal challenge to overcome. The sexual tension between these two characters is Chekhovian. Also, Feste reflects the most of underlying darkness of the film. His character, even while subtly dancing and singing on-screen, conveys a hidden melancholy awareness, and I think Nunn uses him throughout as the middle-man between troubled characters like Viola and comically awkward characters like Sir Andrew Aguecheek. “Kingsley’s [Feste’s] somber tone reflects the sober quality of Twelfth Night” (Rothwell, 229).

            Lastly, however, I think the film transforms itself from Chekhovian to resolute as it progresses. The use of low-key lighting in the first half of the film creates shadowed figures and that Chekhovian sense of melancholy, but with the turning point of the duel between Andrew and Cesario (Viola), the film begins to disband Chekhov and greet comedy and brighter environments. Yet, I still view the ending of the film returns partially to Chekhovian style with “Nunn’s decision to focus on the excluded and the leave-takers in keeping with the autumnal atmosphere he has sought to achieve throughout” (Crowl, 85).

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Posted by on September 30, 2013 in Scholarly Essays/Responses


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