Saturday, 25 October 2014

Horse discourse… Equus (1977)

As the recent revival of Peter Shaffer’s extraordinary play showed, almost forty years on it retains an uncanny power, dividing opinion between those who find it too uncomfortable and those who are willing to look it straight in the eye… Eyes feature a lot in the film, from those below Richard Burton’s tortured brow to those belonging to the Alan’s father as he watches his son’s bizarre bed-time rituals and of course those of the horses blinded by Alan for reasons the film takes almost its full length to examine.

One Guardian blogger dismissed the favourite play of her teenage years as so much “psycho-babble” (check out this thoughtful piece in the same paper by therapist Adam Phillips for balance) but most contemporary critics at least tried to contextualise their view of the play with its period: it hasn’t dated – we have. More to the point, religious, psycho-sexual abuse and repression are still very much “now”: the human brain hasn’t changed… our psychosis isn’t “dated” nor “of its time”.

Equus’ reputation has always gone before it and I must confess to being put off by the thought of too much naked man on horse action but on first viewing, 37 years after release, it’s a thoroughly-engaging, mood-altering experience held together by a mighty performance from Richard Burton who was Oscar nominated and Golden Globe winning for his efforts matched by the wide-eyed physicality of former Double Decker Peter Firth (who also “Globed”). Equus is essentially a double header between the two but there are excellent support performances from some of the best actors of their generation: a heavyweight cast.

Burton plays psychiatrist Martin Dysart a man of unconventional commitment to his work and who has possibly seen it all too many times. The film opens in close-up on his face as he begins to discuss the disturbing case that has brought him to his own crisis of faith. The camera pulls away to reveal this troubled man sat behind his desk in his consulting room: he has been struck to the core and the disquiet has invaded even his professional inner-sanctum: an area he is used to controlling totally.

The film winds back to the middle of the narrative arc, from where we’ll see the full story unfold through the “flashbacks” of patient consultation. A social worker Hesther Saloman (Eileen Atkins) has come to Dysart to discuss a boy who has committed an atrocious act – blinding six horses using a metal scythe.

The first response is that this is mindless criminality but Hesther thinks there is something special about the boy – Alan Strang (Firth) - and thinks that only someone of Dysart’s experience and sensitivities could help him recover… otherwise he will be institutionalised for life.

There’s an interesting point about criminality and punishment here: is Alan best being cured or is his crime unforgivable. Shaffer seems pretty clear that reform rather than revenge is the way forward… and there is indeed a complex cause to be uncovered no matter how horrible the effect.

Alan duly arrives communicating only by singing snippets of TV advertising jingles. Undeterred, Dysart perseveres and begins to open lines of communication by swapping one truth of his own for each of his patient’s revelations. It’s not always easy going but Alan is a most unusual case.

Dysart goes to examine his home life and finds his father Frank (Colin Blakely) uptight and not a little disgusted by his boy whilst his mother (Joan Plowright) may be free with tea and biscuits but her social nicety hides a zealous fundamentalist religious views. She shows Alan’s bedroom and the painting of a horse which has replaces a tortured image of Christ’s face during crucifixion…

Dysart gets Alan to relive the moment when his fascination with horses began and we see him on the beach deep in a large sand castle and encountering a huge black horse ridden by an imposing dark man (John Wyman). Firth plays himself as a child and the camera makes it appear as if he is overwhelmed by the man and the horse: almost as if they are one and the same. He touches the horse’s head and is whisked off for a ride along the beach…

The child, the horse and the man
Is this code for abuse or just the impact the combination of Christ-like authority figure and sensual beast had on his impressionable mind? Whatever, he never recovered from the moment and his life-long equine fascination grew into something far more obsessional and confessional…

Alan’s father reveals his confused disgust at having found his son late at night conducting a ritual in which he pulls his head back in a home-made string bridal whilst spurring himself with the beat of a ruler… This masochistic display could be a sign of repressed desire but also his belief that Man’s restraint of horses deserves punishment. The horse or rather the Horse God Equus sees all and has become his object of worship.

Looking for an opportunity to get closer to these animals Alan meets a young woman Jill (Jenny Agutter who won a BAFTA for Best Supporting Actress) who gets him an introduction to the stable owner Harry Dalton (Harry Andrews). For a while all is well and he spends an apparently uneventful year as a stable boy.

Yet, as Dysart uncovers, Alan has been sneaking in every three weeks or so and taking out a horse for a midnight ride, undressing and mounting the creature in an act of unfettered sensual liberation… This relationship between boy and beast is one of the things that makes the film difficult: bestiality is always a tough one… but this isn’t sex this is something more spiritual.

Over this time he becomes friendly with Jill and the two agree to go on a date to see a Swedish skin flick. As they sit there smiling at the soft core silliness Alan’s father enters the cinema and, spotting Alan who then spots him... hauls them both out. He has a story about having a meeting with the cinema owner… but his insistence that the incident be never spoken of again betrays the sad reality. Does Alan notice?

Leaving his father the take a troubled bus home, Alan and Jill head off to the stables to put into practice some of the things they have just seen on screen. Well, that’s certainly what Jill has in mind but as their coupling begins Alan reels away: he can’t continue, too confused by the sensuality of the horses just below the stable loft…

Spoilers… Jill leaves… and Alan’s anguished face contorts into anger as he leaps down to the tables below and begins to exact his horrific revenge on the all-seeing Equus.

We’re back in Dysart’s consultancy room: he’s achieved a breakthrough and knows now that he can “cure” his patient but he’s increasingly unsure whether this is the best thing for Alan. He may have committed an atrocity but joyful relationship with horses as an emblem of utter freedom will have to be lost for ever. For the psychiatrist, trapped in a love-less marriage, finding an expression of his own passion in researching ancient history, this seems too much: he can’t fly like Alan has and despairs of finding the right balance... we’re all as constrained by the watchful eye of secular and religious instructors… forever obstructed in our pursuit of joy.

Dusty Verdict: Sidney Lumet directs with stark economy and allows his performers maximum room for expression: rage from Harry Andrews finding his horses crippled, compassion from Jenny Agutter who sees so much in Alan, resolution and integrity from Eileen Atkins and a combination of repression and uptight frustration from Joan Plowright and Colin Blakely.

But Firth and Burton get most of the screen time and whilst the younger man gives his all it’s undoubtedly a great performance from Richard Burton who didn’t always get this quality of material in his high-flying Hollywood career. He operates superbly well in the close-quarters of the film’s set piece monologues and it is through him that our natural responses to Alan and his crime are channelled in a slightly more complex direction…

A film to watch when you’re in a receptive mood and, for once, the nudity is fully justified: the only thing more naked than a horse is a human being…

Equus is readily available on DVD from Amazon and Movie Mail.

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