Sunday, September 4, 2011

Firth and Burton in Equus: Surprisingly Fresh and Powerful

I sat down and watched Equus the other day. I've been hearing about it as I've been learning more about Peter Firth, and thought it was time to just plow in. (Intentional but weak horse-related pun). This is an odd, brilliant film which still felt fresh and powerful more than 30 years after its release.

Peter Firth is wonderful as the lead character Alan. Firth plays him with thick childlike wonder in a performance so open and entrancing that I found him deeply sympathetic despite his horrific deed. Richard Burton is likewise profound, with his gorgeous voice and intellectual intensity. And Firth and Burton together are simply mesmerizing like poetry.

The supporting actors are wonderful as well especially Colin Blakely and Joan Plowright who play Alan's parents. And I hadn't realized, though I suppose I should have, that Jenny Agutter, Tessa from Spooks, is in the movie as Jill. All of the performances and the style of filming are perfect for setting an introspective mood that is dark and stirring.

Of the many levels on which to enjoy the film, I'll start with the most superficial -- I love watching people age. It is so interesting to me to see an actor I know mostly as a 50-something man, from when he was quite young.  Actors are lucky, as their aging process gets to be cataloged through the years in a way mine never was. How I'd love to see myself moving, walking and speaking as a fresh 23 year-old with the world in front of me (even if it was as I was pretending to be someone else). So it is fascinating to see Firth in this open, pliable, youthful performance, knowing he will one day become Harry Pearce.

Firth is a beautiful young man. I love the part of the film when he tells Jill she is beautiful and she says "so are you." He is. Shockingly guileless, with a stunning ability to be naked on screen. And I probably don't mean that in the way you think I do. Yes, he is starkers for a good amount of screen time. He is lovely, but in such a childlike and pure way, those scenes never feel erotic but just incredibly vulnerable. I don't know how actors do this. I feel exposed having just written about it ; )  Firth simply exudes emotion and tenderness from every pore -- his face, stance, and movements are uncovered, as well as his body, and he accepts that in a beautiful way.

The movie felt surprisingly relevant given that it was released in1977. It is actually shocking how dated it didn't feel. (Ha! is that a proper sentence?) The camera angles and movement, the sets and dialog all felt current. The pacing perhaps a bit slow by modern standards but overall, still very fresh.

. . .  As a side note and by way of comparison, before settling on Equus, I had cued up Restoration. Although the latter was made in 1995 it felt immediately dated to me. The sets looked like matte paintings of the type I expect from 1940s movies. The gratuitous sex felt, well gratuitous and the acting either dull or contrived. Even Benjamin Withrow and David Thewlis (who I liked so much as Mr. Bennett and Professor Lupin, respectively), felt flat here. I felt no great creative spark behind the film that propelled it beyond its own time and made it seem larger. I didn't want to go back to 1995 and that is what the film felt like it was doing to me. I couldn't watch it.

I'm glad I couldn't because Equus was a much better choice.

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