on 18 February 2010
Transferring the 16th century theological, political, and moral questions of a Marlowe play into 20th century cinematography was never going to be an easy task. It's perhaps relevant to consider the relative absence of Marlowe from the cinema - he does not transfer well, not in the way Shakespeare manages. Here, Richard Burton gives us a low-budget adaptation of an Oxford student production which leaves you wondering, if it's tedium enough to have to sit through your child's school play or musical, why would you want to subject yourself to this?
What we get is an obviously finance- and imagination-challenged extravaganza of gaudy images and kaleidoscopic camera mixes which obscure and overburden an over-Burtoned monologue. The music score attempts to impart some gravitas to the production but in places becomes a relentless drone. The sets appear claustrophobic and fragile; the low level lighting, far from adding atmosphere and a sense of bleakness, seems designed to conceal the inadequacies of the set from full view.
Much use is made of skulls and skeletons, symbolising mortality and the fragility of the human condition, but it becomes a hackneyed caricature of death and damnation, its use as metaphor overstated and oppressive. 'Hamlet' demonstrated the dramatic use of a single skull; here, we get hundreds - some press reviews comment that these reduce the film to a Hammer horror burlesque, but it's less animated, less atmospheric than a Hammer production.
Burton is the only professional actor in the film - the rest were Oxford students. Elizabeth Taylor, of course, is present as Helen of Troy; she appears from time to time as Faustus's idealised woman. But Taylor's presence was solely to provide a marketing ploy - this is a Burton/Taylor movie! You suspect it also massaged her ego - she is cast in the role of the (allegedly) most beautiful woman in antiquity. Thankfully, she is silent throughout; her acting is sterile enough without being further overburdened by the need to mouth lines. As Helen, she appears about as desirable as a woodwormed horse, a fading Hollywood myth out of her depth in classical theatre, a graceless, over-painted mannequin, capable, at best of launching only a canoe or two.
Burton dominated the film. Visually. The play is an exploration of Faustus's mind, of his rationale and reason, if not his soul. It is almost a soliloquy in five acts. And Burton dominates. His image fills the screen, his voice booms out, richly, but at times monotonously. He seems to ape Hamlet in places - he dresses that part certainly. Before he sells his soul he appears wearing grotesque spectacles, seemingly to emphasise that he is an intellectual - thereafter we get a variety of dramatic and heroic poses. But he never convinces - you recognise him as the star of the film, you never get a real feel for the character behind the star, never quite identify with Faustus and his struggle. You get 20th century Burton, not 16th century Faustus.
Stage performance and film acting styles clash in this production. There are moments when Burton's overacting embarrasses, scenes where he appears to be contesting the stage for the camera's approval, contesting it with the frivolous and intrusive photographic trickery and editing techniques. Faustus remains an image, never becomes flesh and bone.
Marlowe does not transfer well to the screen. There is little plot - Shakespeare offers dynamic plots and an endless variety of characters. "Faustus" is virtually a monologue; its minor characters are there as adjuncts, as facilitators, mere deliverers of lines and sounding boards off whom Faustus will bounce his words.
The plot - man sells his soul for wealth, power, and knowledge - rapidly grinds to a halt. Faustus achieves nothing. He ends the play, not as a man who rules the world and knows everything, a man who has sated himself with unlimited pleasure, but as an empty husk wherein echo doubts and recrimination. The play is about his struggle with his conscience, it's an exploration of a man doomed by his fabricated destiny and inability to escape Destiny.
As an allegory for religious doubt and the Calvinist doctrine that some are born saved, some born damned, it may have made sense to an Elizabethan audience, but this subtext is entirely lost to a modern audience.
Dialogue and action become obscure. This is a film to be watched only by those familiar with the play and its literary history/criticism. And, even then, its audience must necessarily be alienated by the monotonous tone and pace of this production. It's a 60's film, and already fatally dated.
All in all, a tedious film. Burton is overbearing and unconvincing, Taylor superfluous, the rest of the cast barren of life, direction over-clever and pretentious, the imagery a succession of tricks without illusion. Watch, if you must; it may give you some critical insight if you are studying the play at school, college, or OU, but have a box of chocolates and bottle of wine handy to boost your morale ... and maybe try to follow the script in book form as well.