Under Milk Wood
It’s night time in Llareggub and the inhabitants of this dank, dingy Welsh coastal village are fast asleep. Through Dylan Thomas’s hauntingly beautiful poetry, their darkest dreams, fantasies and fears are laid bare, allowing the audience to become privy to every sordid corner of their imagination and the most intimate aspects of their lives. But why did this iconic piece of poetry need to be made into a film? That was the task director Kevin Allen set himself: “to challenge the common perception that poetry should remain in the domain of the reader and listener”. Unfortunately, this film shows that perhaps this perception is common for a reason.
Through practical, stylised cinematography, Allen tries to encapsulate the ethereal energy of Thomas’ village but his use of heavily affected shots, abstract sequences and gratuitous symbolism serve only as a distraction from the wonderful words. Rhys Ifans reads the poem beautifully but it is impossible to focus on this richly fecund language while trying to follow the film’s constant visual dynamism.
What’s more, not only does the busy display distract from the poem’s core content, it actually detracts from its potency. How is a camera meant to capture the “sloeblack, slow, black, crow black, fishing boat bobbing sea” better than those words? One person’s “crow black” may differ from another’s; the enjoyment stems from the way the words stimulate the mind on an individual level. When a third party shows you what “crow black” is, the scope of the imagination is diminished and the magic lost.
Kevin Allen’s attempt to explore the deep visceral nature of the story, at times, strays into the grotesque. For example, it isn’t particularly disturbing to hear about the burly Butcher Beynon’s early morning love-making session with his equally hefty wife. What is disturbing is having to watch this wheezing pair smear spaghetti meatballs into their spouses’ faces and eat them off each other’s bodies. This dubious artistic decision from Allen not only creates an uncomfortable cinematic experience but leaves a permanent blemish on what used to be a perfectly enjoyable dish.
Nevertheless, it is a brave decision to explore Thomas’s work in this way, knowing the heavy scrutiny it would naturally incur and the high benchmark it will be weighed against. The abstract, surrealist sequences don’t fail because they are not interesting, they fail because they distract from the beauty of the language, which is the work’s core essence. Perhaps the overarching story should have been used as inspiration for a totally revitalised screenplay. All that is clear is that, as it stands, Under Milk Wood doesn’t quite work.
Under Milk Wood is released nationwide on 27th October 2015.
Watch the trailer for Under Milk Wood here: