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Review: Under Milk Wood (1972)

Directed by: | 88 minutes | drama, comedy | Actors: , Elizabeth Taylor, Peter O’Toole, Glynis Johns, Vivien Merchant, Siân Phillips, Victor Spinetti, , , , , Ann Beach, Glynn Edwards, Bridget Turner, Talfryn Thomas, Tim Wylton, Bronwen Williams, Meg Wynn Owen, Hubert Rees, , , Dillwyn Owen, Richard Davies, , Davyd Harries, , Maudie Edwards, Peggy Ann Clifford, Dudley Jones, Jil Britton, Mary Jones, Angela Brinkworth, Margaret Courtenay, , , TH Evans, Aldwyn Francis, Andree Gaydon, Eira Griffiths, , Dafydd Havard, Bryn Jones, Iris Jones, , Ruth Madoc, Pamela Miles, , Dudley Owen, , Ifor Owen, Richard Parry, , ,

‘Under Milk Wood’ is the adaptation of the famous 1953 radio play by writer and drunkard Dylan Thomas. You can call it a miracle that this radio play has been made into a film at all. Although the text is particularly visual, it seems too literary for a film adaptation: too much poetry and too little dialogue. A bigger problem is the subject of the film: an ordinary day in the ordinary town of Llareggub. Nevertheless, this film adaptation has been surprisingly successful.

It doesn’t look like that in the beginning of ‘Under Milk Wood’. A storytelling voice guides you through the surroundings of the village and tells in the poetic words of Thomas about the nocturnal inhabitants: cats, horses, dogs. Initially it turns out to be difficult to simultaneously concentrate on the words, the translation and the romantic images of the fishing village. After about ten minutes, the story focuses more on the inhabitants of Llareggub and more use is made of dialogues. From that moment on ‘Under Milk Wood’ is a lot easier to follow.

Both poem and film are about life, death, eroticism, longing and nostalgia. The narrator introduces the villagers to us and tells us about their lives, love and wishes. Although there are a large number of characters around in the village, they are easy to tell apart due to their pronounced characters. While those residents seem very ordinary and virtuous – except for the baker with his two wives – they know deep down desires that are much less virtuous. For example, the headmaster has wanted to poison his wife for a long time, the innkeeper is in love with the schoolmistress, there is a virgin goat hat star who is about to revive and wants to sacrifice her virginity to anyone and there is a blind captain who still longs for his great love, the deceased hooker Rosie Probert. Those desires, often unconsciously present in nocturnal dreams, are shown here just as explicitly as the daily activities. That makes the already colorful fishing village even more colorful and the film more attractive, also because of the humor and the two songs that liven things up. However, the whole sometimes looks a bit dated, in terms of humor, appearance and (whether or not functional) nudity.

With ‘Under Milk Wood’, director Andrew Sinclair has delivered a great piece of work. Despite the lack of main characters, tension arcs and spectacular events, this is a film that fascinates from start to finish. Because of the eccentric and always sympathetic characters, the atmosphere of nostalgia and longing and especially because of the beautiful words of Dylan Thomas. Although this film may seem a bit too dated for a masterpiece, ‘Under Milk Wood’ is a very satisfying adaptation; and that of a work that was once considered unfilmable.

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