The name Sundance often is synonymous with hoighty-toighty type movies. Films appearing at the festival or on the Sundance channel are often artistic to a fault, leaving behind the attention of a common audience in the interests of the director’s self expression. Despite more recent attempts at mainstream films such as Napoleon Dynamite breaking out from Sundance, that stigma remains with the Sundance name. Under Milk Wood is a good reason why.
Under Milk Wood reminds me of the scene from Dead Poet’s Society where Robin Williams introduces Shakespeare to his class, presenting it in two contrasting styles. There’s the way they’ve always heard it spoken, as if someone in deep need of a bowel movement is reciting the lines, and then a way that brings life to the dialog, presented by Williams in the form of John Wayne. Unfortunately with its old school Shakespeare cast including Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole, Under Milk Wood comes across as a constipated recitation of Dylan Thomas’ famous work.
As a faithful adaptation of Thomas’ poetic play, director Andrew Sinclair presents a day in the life of a small Welsh fishing village, Llareggub (“bugger off” backwards). Starting with the inhabitants in slumber and exposing their dreams, two strangers (Richard Burton and Ryan Davies) wander through the streets as the town wakes and the people within make their way through their day. Through narration by the two strangers and the village’s blind naval captain Captain Cat (Peter O’Toole), who sees more than eyes alone could witness, the relationships, hopes, dreams, and fears of the citizens are exposed. As a day in the life of these people, Under Milk Wood is beautiful in its simplicity and poetry, both which come from Thomas’ original work. Where it fails is in its actual execution as a film.
While Thomas’ poetry is well suited as a “play for voices”, it is in essence a poetry recital. Thomas’ lyrical alliteration does not translate as well to a visual medium where images need to match the auditory part of the film. Quite often, especially in the opening of the film, Thomas’s words describe events contrary to what we see on the screen, the result of poor editing. In many places the imagery moves to surrealism in order to try and capture a story of spirits brought back in memory and secret desires revealed.
Also, with all due respect to the career of Richard Burton and his real life friendship with Dylan Thomas, I think Burton was probably a poor choice to narrate a film version of Thomas’s play. Burton has a beautiful voice for recitation of poetry, but reminds me of that more stuffy, formal, less emotional version of Shakespeare I mentioned above. Watch Burton play Hamlet and then watch Mel Gibson’s version. Gibson may not be as lyrical as Burton, but he puts more heart into it. That same lack of emotion comes into play here. We hear the words, words, words, but the voice is far removed, putting more devotion into paying tribute to the written word than the essence of what it was trying to capture. The result is the very embodiment of the term pretentious.
Let’s be honest though. A film adaptation of Dylan Thomas’ work is not going to appeal to everybody. Someone like me, an English major, is going to have more interest in the movie than, say, someone who finds entertainment from White Chicks, so maybe it’s okay for the movie to be a bit pretentious. I just wish Sinclair had put more effort into actually adapting the work for the screen instead of just putting together a devoutly faithful translation, crippling his movie for anyone not already familiar and interested in Dylan Thomas. The idea of one day in a small village like this could be an interesting film if done properly. This film would be more enjoyable as a radio show than a motion picture.
Not surprisingly, the DVD release of Under Milk Wood is prepared with the same tone as the movie. All of the interviews, comments, and featurettes have the same pretentious feel as the movie itself, which makes for a very dry DVD release uninteresting for all but the dedicated fans of Dylan Thomas. Actually, for an small film from the mid 1970s like this, the DVD is well stocked with bonus materials, they just aren’t necessarily presented in the most interesting way.
The centerpiece of the DVD is a featurette entitled “Dylan on Dylan” which uses the poetry Thomas wrote throughout his life to tell his life story. It’s assembled in a very similar fashion to Under Milk Wood which makes sense since it was put together by Andrew Sinclair as well. Unfortunately this means it’s again a very monotone presentation of the Welsh bard’s poetry, devoid of any emotional ties.
There are on-set interviews with both Sinclair and Richard Burton. Both interviews are only a couple of minutes in length, but give some insight to Sinclair and Burton’s mindsets while the film was being made.
Sinclair offers an introduction which is oddly placed on the disc. It’s presented later on the menu of extras, but is actually intended to be an introduction to the “Dylan on Dylan” featurette. If you, like me, tackle the extras in the order they appear, you’ll find the introduction is no longer needed when you get to it, since you’ve already watched what the introduction is intended to introduce.
Sinclair also provides a commentary on the movie itself. Unfortunately the commentary has large spaces in between what are presented as entries on the movie. Sinclair isn’t actually commenting on the movie in the fashion we are used to hearing on director commentaries. Instead he appears to be reading brief essays from his point of view on the movie. The result is a commentary that isn’t at all enjoyable. There’s no spontaneity to it and Sinclair doesn’t sound to be having the least bit of fun. It’s likely that he wasn’t even watching the movie when he recorded these essays. Although it does offer some insight as to why the movie was filmed the way it was, the commentary is hard to endure.
While their are other bonus materials, such as trailers for both the theatrical and DVD release of the film, the DVD suffers some navigation issues. In order to turn on the director’s commentary, you actually click the “Off” button, which then highlights the “On” button. It’s a bit confusing and not exactly intuitive. As an even bigger issue, I found once I had accessed the bonus materials, I was unable to play the movie again. Selecting “Play Movie” would simply play the last featurette I had accessed. This means going back to watch the director’s commentary meant clicking the non-intuitive “Off” button, and then having to go to the scene selection in order to start Under Milk Wood itself. It seems the producers of the DVD could have spent a little more time developing and troubleshooting the menus.
While fans of Dylan Thomas will most likely enjoy Under Milk Wood, it’s not the most audience friendly DVD release. The material is dry, making it unappealing to anyone but already existing fans of the movie, and the disc is not well planned out. While I wish I could recommend this DVD as a way to spread Thomas’s work to a more mainstream audience, I have to unfortunately offer that most people won’t care for this release.