Directed by: Joseph Strick | 119 minutes | drama, comedy | Actors: Barbara Jefford, Milo O’Shea, Maurice Roëves, TP McKenna, Martin Dempsey, Sheila O’Sullivan, Graham Lines, Peter Mayock, Fionnula Flanagan, Anna Manahan, Maureen Toal, Maureen Potter, Chris Curran, Maire Hastings, Eddie Golden
“Ulysses” is a legendary novel by James Joyce from 1922 and is considered one of the greatest books of the 20th century. It is a layered book, full of philosophical musings, symbolism, references and different points of view, and is (therefore) perceived by many readers as practically illegible. In a 2007 election of the least read books ever by the English newspaper The Guardian, Ulysses even finished in third place. For a long time, the book was also considered unfilmable. So director Joseph Strick had no easy task when he decided to bring the novel to the silver screen in 1967. He deserves credit for this attempt alone. It was to be expected that it did not subsequently become an unqualified success.
When there is a lot of complex language, full of double meanings and symbolism, present in a story, the advantage of a book is that the reader can take in everything at his own pace and can contemplate and see his own images. A film has a different form, in which everything reaches the viewer very directly and in addition, catchy, appropriate visual solutions will have to be provided. Unfortunately this happens too little in Joseph Strick’s ‘Ulysses’. In combination with the monologues and thoughts from Joyce’s novel, this ensures that the viewer is hardly really stimulated or fascinated and that a large part of the film comes across as distant and pretentious. When Stephen Dedalus (Maurice Roëves) makes his wanderings in the beginning of the film and he shares his innermost thoughts with the viewer via voice-over – while his face shows no emotion, and nothing actually happens – nothing happens to the viewer . Fortunately, Leopold Bloom’s story is a bit more interesting and lends itself a little more to involvement and emotion.
Sometimes Strick uses fun (and nowadays often used) fast flash forwards – for example, to show what is really going to happen when a woman tells her husband that she will have a visit from a man later that day – and sometimes different lighting or camera angles used to visually complement a vision or thought. Too often, the more intellectual situations and inner “outings” are scooped up dry, making them appear cold and uninteresting. For example, an episode in a circus with dominant women and men walking around like beasts has not taken on a surreal or elevated visual form, making it as if you were in a sober state, in unflattering daylight, watching a bunch of drunk friends also to go along.
‘Ulysses’ is of course a complex book to edit, but intellectuality or abstraction does not necessarily have to produce a dry, unattractive film. There are plenty of intellectual films that stimulate visually and make you think. Think for example of the films of Tarkovsky, Kieslowski, Gilliam, Godard, or Fellini: filmmakers who are very expressive with the form of film, and who amaze the viewer, make them dream and think. Strick opts for a more conventional form, but perhaps should have used the weighty language from the book less often or less literally. Fortunately, when Leopold Bloom’s story, which forms the middle part of the film, takes center stage, things often go well because his (marital) problems and desires are recognizable and actor Milo O’Shea makes Leopold a lively character.
The many voice-overs are not always successful, but interestingly enough, the last, long monologue of the film, that of Molly Bloom (an excellent Barbara Jefford) is one who manages to hold the attention very well. And not only because it is – quite explicitly – about sex, infidelity, and differences between men and women: always popular topics. Jefford really knows how to convince the viewer of her words, and together with her acting in the accompanying images – a kind of collage of her life – this ensures that the viewer hangs on her every word. It is a nice ending to a sadly unbalanced film that wished the different characters could have meant more to the viewer. Because it seems they are quite interesting.