Well, Picturenose’s faithful are now aware of my favourite movie (Sleuth (1972)) and what I consider to be the best film ever made (Chinatown (1974)) so now, you asked for it – why Sidney Lumet’s Equus (1977) is among the most profoundly affecting cinema that I have seen.
Lumet, whose work ranks him among the world’s very finest directors, took a real gamble in bringing Peter Shaffer’s singularly astonishing play to the big screen – thankfully, he already had Sir Richard Burton onside, who had enjoyed nightly standing ovations during the play’s first Broadway run as child psychologist Martin Dysart, whose existential angst forms the core of this study of pain, worship, sacrifice and ‘normality’.
Confused yet? Well, Shaffer was apparently inspired to write the play after a friend, driving him through Hampshire, recounted an atrocity that had apparently taken place at a stable in the area, with six horses having been blinded by a young man with a metal spike.
Shaffer set to work to establish what combination of circumstances and mind-set could bring anyone to commit such a crime, and Equus was the result.
In the film, local magistrate Hesther Saloman (Eileen Atkins) brings 17-year-old stable-hand Alan Strang (Peter Firth) into Dysart’s orbit, convinced that he is the only man who can see past the (understandable) revulsion of her fellow judges (who wanted to send him to jail on the spot) and society, and find out what drove Strang to commit such cruelty on defenceless animals. At first reluctant, Dysart nevertheless begins to see past the seeming madness of his young, desperately unhappy charge, and realises that restoring Strang to ‘normality’ might, in fact, be the worst thing he could do, not only for his patient but also for his own sanity.
Regular readers may be tiring of my superlatives by now, but I make no aplogies for declaring Burton’s Oscar-nominated performance as the finest of his entire career – relishing Shaffer’s own screenplay adaptation, Burton as Dysart is an electrifying screen presence from frame one and, as with the transposition of the action from a highly symbolic stage structure (all the actors wore elaborate, Greek-like horse masks) to the banal normality of modern life, the great actor seamlessly transfers from stage to screen the agony of a man who realises that he may well not have the moral right to remove from Strang that which society and his profession demands that he should – namely his pain, and his passion.
Dysart: Passion, you see, can be destroyed by a doctor. It cannot be created…The normal is the good smile in a child’s eyes. There’s also the dead stare in a million adults. It both sustains and kills, like a god. It is the ordinary made beautiful, it is also the average made lethal. Normal is the indispensable murderous god of health and I, am his priest.
Burton is backed up by an exemplary cast – Firth as Strang is breathtaking, while Joan Plowright and Colin Blakely deliver career performances as the well-meaning but repressed parents who provide the combination of religion and frigidity that forms the backdrop to their son’s descent into hell.
And, this being an avant garde 1970s film, it will come as no surprise to learn that the extraordinarily beautiful Jenny Agutter is involved, as Jill Mason, the girl who brings Strang to the horses and also pays a very high price for her affection towards him.
Not really giving very much away, am I? Good – because Equus, like the play upon which it is based, by and large defies detailed description. Suffice to say that, as this review began, Burton’s inner agony is unlike anything you will ever experience on screen – all that remains for me to say, is that you will either gallop with it, or you won’t. Best of luck.
Dysart: When Equus leaves, if he leaves at all, it will be with your intestines in his teeth – and I don’t stock replacements…There is now, in my mouth, this sharp chain – and it never comes out.