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starless and bible black and the sunny side of the street
on 29 November 2003
Dylan Thomas's play/poem makes a surprisingly good film. It's not the kind of thing that could be done anywhere else but Wales and using predominantly Welsh actors. The cast is full of stars (Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Peter O'Toole) and future stars of especially the small screen (most notably David Jason).
To say it is delightful would be misleading, as this deep study of the underbelly of a small fishing village is about a peculiar kind of nationalism that is both celebratory and critical. What makes it such a great experience is how the language grabs you, and you have to listen to every word, so it is intense.
The linking of the text and the imagery is seamless, with the narrator (Burton), seemingly present in the town at the beginning of spring to have carnal knowledge of a former girlfriend, and his companion observing as outsiders and eavesdropping on the town over a twenty-four hour period, dipping into the thoughts, reminiscences and dreams of the townsfolk.
Like the narrator, a retired, blind sea captain (O'Toole) sits at his window, with acute hearing absorbing all the details that escape others with eyes and too busy to notice, divining the motivations of the people around him and living in deep nostalgia for his departed crew and lover, the former town prostitute (Taylor).
So the film is built around a series of vignettes, mostly interchanging between the two, and it flows beautifully, from night to day to night again.
Since Dylan Thomas died in 1953, and this was one of his later works, the world he describes is fifty years old and seems somewhat quaint today. But his rich language on occasions soars with the romance of feeling for the beauty of his nativeland (the vicar's morning address to the town, with nobody listening, is just wonderful), and love of its people.
Nevertheless, in relating the sexual dreams and activities of the town and the world of men and women a touch of gothic intrudes. There are oppositions at play between the open-hearted, sexually generous women and the close-minded wives, the ecstatic Organ Morgan the church organist and his petty wife, "a martyr for music", the mischievious butcher's subversions, numerous attractions and solicitations between adults and the budding sexuality of the young, the unrequited love of Sinbad the barman from the Sailor's Arms, and an unscrupulous postman and his nosey-parker wife.
The portrait Thomas paints of Milk Wood is tainted by his own world-view, resentful of the Church, the lack of ambition and other provincialities. There's an amazing amount of activity in the town, apart from its economy, lots of drinking, fornicating and song, but despite the evidence of bad-blood the community seems to thrive on love and an underlying generosity of heart that allows for the bounty that all life brings.
This may well be Burton's greatest artistic offering in his long career, thanks to the screenplay and direction of Andrew Sinclair.