“To begin at the beginning: It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea.”
Under Milk Wood was written as a BBC radio play in 1954 by legendary Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. The poem invites the audience to listen in on the internal and external worlds of the inhabitants of a town called Llareggub (‘bugger all’ backwards). It is a fun and playful piece with beautiful language, all in a gorgeous, thick Welsh accent.
This brave second film version (the first starring another Welsh national icon, Richard Burton) has moments of greatness and some lovely imagery but despite a fairly relentless pace, ultimately can’t sustain itself for the full running time. Talented director Kevin Allen (uncle to Lily and Alfie, Keith’s brother) has decided to go his own way and has largely avoided being overly reverential to the original text.
Allen understands that Thomas was simultaneously sending up his fellow Welsh men and women and lauding them. He fills the screen with colour and lots of lusty, Carry On-style humour which feels a bit old-fashioned and is at times grotesque, occasionally even veering into League of Gentlemen territory.
Rhys Ifans takes on the narration and the important part of Captain Cat to great success, letting you feel his obvious enthusiasm for the language. He cements his already strong claim as a Welsh national treasure and really does make the film, haunted by all the people lost at sea during his lifetime of voyages in a segment that is as surreal as it is poignant.
Charlotte Church is a bit of a coup in terms of casting. She gives strong support, with a gorgeous twinkle in her eye, as the rosy-cheeked and jolly Polly Garter. She has grown into her natural charisma and her musical number is one of the high points of the film. The rest of the supporting cast have great fun playing stereotypes and extreme characters.
Rather than literally translate the text, Allen has cleverly decided to use his images to dance around it, going for a more stylised tone with end-of-the-pier caricatures and much more bawdy sex. He doesn’t quite meet the challenge of making a film that matches the gorgeous imagery in Thomas’s original words unfortunately, but comes undeniably close in a few moments, most notably the striking opening.
As an adaptation this is not without flaws, but it is sure to make for an interesting teaching aid to inspire enthusiasm for poetry in students.
Words by Hamza Mohsin