Title: Under Milk Wood
Director: Kevin Allen
Major Players: Rhys Ifans, Charlotte Church
Out Of Five: 3
Somewhere along the line, we’ve probably all had to read Dylan Thomas’ “play for voices” at school, but I doubt that any teacher would have interpreted it in the same way as director Kevin Allen. This isn’t, of course, the first time that the poetic portrait of an insignificant Welsh village has made it to the screen but, every time it has, it faces much the same challenges.
Firstly, the twin voices of Thomas himself and Richard Burton hang over any production like a shadow. They’re inextricably linked to the first recordings and, in fact, Burton’s unique tones were used in a further two radio productions, as well as the 1972 film version. There’s even a little nod in his direction in this one – watch for the headstone in the graveyard belonging to a certain Richard Jenkins, Burton’s real name.
The second one is trickier. Written for radio, Thomas’ rhythmic and richly evocative language was designed to conjure up pictures in our mind. But transferred to film, the words potentially have less of a job to do, putting them in danger of being overshadowed by the images on screen. Somehow, they have to work hand in hand, with the words enhanced by the pictures, a tall order when the words are so familiar.
Kevin Allen’s interpretation scores the occasional bullseye, but there are times when he’s also wide of the mark. His film is one long erotic fantasy, a voluptuous pagan romp, based on the dreams of the many residents of Llareggub (read it backwards). There’s dominatrix Mrs Ogmore Pritchard (Buddug Verona James), who nagged both her husbands to death, Dai Bread with his two wives, one plain and dull, the other a mysterious, sultry gypsy and schoolteacher Gossamer Beynon (Sara Lloyd Gregory) who silently longs to be with publican Sinbad Sailors (Bradley Freegard). And beneath the surface of what looks like an ordinary-to-the-point-of-dull seaside village, their dreams and fantasies throb and burn.
The film wears its Welsh heritage on its sleeve: it was shot on location in West Wales and its Welsh language version has been submitted for consideration in the Best Film In A Foreign Language category at the Oscars. It also boasts a Welsh cast, headed by Rhys Ifans, who plays a double role, that of first voice and Captain Cat. It’s a combination that isn’t wholly successful, blurring the two roles until they almost become one. Yet we’re also told early on that Captain Cat is blind, making his descriptions of the goings-on in the village implausible. There’s only one sequence where the two roles dovetail properly, and that’s when he describes the sounds of Willy Nilly Postman (Matthew Owen) delivering letters and constantly changing versions of the local gossip to some of the residents.
But, despite its inconsistencies and the occasional scene that simply doesn’t make sense, this is a generous and welcoming version of Thomas’ most famous work, with a richness that goes hand in hand with the poet’s language. Just don’t expect the version you were probably taught at school!
Under Milk Wood is released on digital and DVD on Monday, 16 November and is reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 19 November.