Under Milk Wood (15) | Close-Up Film Review

Under Milk Wood

Dir. Kevin Allen, UK, 2015, 87 mins,

Cast:  Rhys Ifans, Charlotte Church,

Shortly before his death in 1953 Dylan Thomas’s “play for voices” received its first public reading at the Poetry Centre in New York with Thomas himself narrating.  It was then produced on the BBC Third Programme in 1954 with an all Welsh cast led by Richard Burton, whose rich tones became identified with the narrator role.  Burton later reprised the role in the 1972 film which also featured Peter O’Toole and Elizabeth Taylor.  There have been many stage productions over the years throughout the world and a recent UK television version with Michael Sheen but this is the first cinema version since the seventies.

The story is an evocation of the people who live in the little Welsh seaside town of Llareggub – try reading that backwards, by the way.  It’s a typical, irreverent Thomas joke.  When the film opens the inhabitants are all asleep and the voice of the narrator introduces them to us through their dreams.  With morning and wakening we observe them all in action and in their waking fantasies, taking us then through to the evening and the night with its dreams again.

As a play for voices, the pictures are all in the words, a vivid, poetic prose.   See here the description of night at the very opening of the piece:

“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.”

So the problem when making it as a film is how to make the pictures more than mere illustrations. The images of fishing nets and such over the opening narration in Kevin Allen’s film are a bit odd, in that they don’t appear to be directly related to the text.  But as the story proceeds, particularly when dealing with the characters’ dreams and fantasies, they become really vivid, memorable and sometimes surreal, enhancing and illuminating Thomas’s words and bringing his characters to dramatic life.

Sinbad the barman (Bradley Freegard) imagines himself as the god Pan, seducing the orgasmically writhing schoolteacher Gossamer Benyon (Sara Lloyd Gregory), her of the bright red lipsticked mouth – a gloriously lustful sequence which is very true to Thomas.  There’s the dark comedy of Mr. Pugh (Boyd Clack), the schoolmaster, studying a book named “Lives of the Great Poisoners” as he fantasises about murdering his nagging wife.   Others include another nagging woman, Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard (Buddug Verona James), a neatness freak, who dreams of still bullying the two husbands, whom she drove to their deaths: Organ Morgan (Aneirin Hughes), the music obsessed church organ player and his wife (Karen Elli), who dreams of blessed silence, – “It’s organ, organ all the time with him.”  – and the nosy postman and his wife, who steam open the letters before delivering them and spread the gossip around the town.

While Rhys Ifans, who voices the narrator, cannot quite live up to those memorably resonant Burton tones, he has a very musical voice and his delivery is vivid and evocative.  He is also moving in the role of the old, blind sailor Captain Cat, looking back on his memories through watery unseeing eyes.  As Polly Garter, a scrubber of floors and lover of many men and the babies they have given her, Charlotte Church is affecting, giving a particularly beautiful jazz rendering of Polly Garter’s song about Little Willy Wee, the lover she remembers with particular affection.  The melody of the Welsh accented speech is in itself movingly musical, while very effective use is made of the full and rich voices of a traditional rich Welsh choir.

The text was written in the fifties about characters who are very much of that time – one of its main themes is sexual fantasy and frustration – and Allen has given his film a very convincing look of Wales at that period.  There may perhaps be some Dylan Thomas fans, who know every word of the piece and have their own images in their minds and will therefore find this vivid and sometimes daring depiction at odds with their own personal visualisation.  But as an introduction to the work and a cinematic interpretation of it, this is pretty faithful in particular to the sensuousness and sensuality of Thomas’s writing.

Review by Carol Allen