Under Milk Wood

Originally conceived as a radio play, Under Milk Wood was brought to the screen in 1972 with Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole and Elizabeth Taylor featuring among the ensemble. To take on another version of this was not for the fainthearted. Director Kevin Allen has taken the elements of the story and added some fascinating visuals on top.

In the fictional fishing village of Llareggub (read it backwards) the narrator of the story, Captain Cat (Rhys Ifans) acts our guide to the villagers. Through him, we encounter them over the course of a day. Beginning in the hours before dawn we get to see the innermost dreams and desires of the residents as they sleep. As they awake from their slumbers and the village starts its day we go from house to house learning about what lies underneath the staid and respectable facade of a small community. It is all you would expect and a lot more besides.

under-milk-wood.rhys-ifansHaving not been exposed to the material before I had no preconceptions about the film or indeed the author of the work Dylan Thomas. It is fitting that in his centenary year there should be a big screen adaptation of one of his works. The story is told in the form of a long meandering poem which uses rich and textured language to paint a picture of the scene. It is obvious that it would work very well on the radio as the images drawn from the words are very powerful.

What Kevin Allen has done is to take the text as the starting point and basically paint a visual world around it. He has done a magnificent job. The use of colour and some good set design enriches the words and brings some of the more subtle points of the text to life. These images over the top of Rhys Ifans warm vocal make for a winning combination.

What surprised me about the film, considering the story was written in the fifties, is the amount of bawdiness and innuendo featured. It is right up there with the Carry On films in that regard. It appears that most of the people’s deepest desires involve sex whether alone, with persons other than their spouses or with dead people (not the necrophilia kind!). There is one scene where a woman who spends her days cleaning and tidying has a fantasy where she is torturing both of her late husbands nipple clamps and all.

This is an ensemble piece with no one actor playing the lead. The closest we get to this is the Rhys Ifans character of Captain Cat. He spends surprisingly little time on screen but his voice is all over the film. Charlotte Church is in support as Polly Garter, the prettiest girl in town who longs for a man long dead. She is very effective in the role which has no more than ten minutes screen time. The others are a mix of relative unknowns and faces well known from UK television and film.

Overall, a visual and aural treat which got my attention from the start and held it for the entire film.

John McArthur
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