[Originally published in Movietone News 56, November 1977]
Sidney Lumet was just the right director for Equus, and just the wrong one. His certified ability to entice performances of considerable force — if not always precision and coherence — is invaluable to the film version of a play that, however much “opened up” for the screen, still depends to an extraordinary degree on the impact of actor on audience, and on his fellow players, for that matter. Equus is reasonably satisfying to watch as a collection of actor’s-moments, but only in a negative sense can it be discussed as a movie, and this is where Lumet’s essential wrongness for the project comes in. Peter Shaffer’s Equus, like brother Anthony’s Sleuth, is a highly stylized construct whose primary raison-d’etre is to provide a theatrical battle zone for a couple of skilled actors. A honey of a conceit lies at the heart of the piece, a point of convergence where sexual urgency and Christian iconography and primitive, almost primeval mystic rite overlap, intertwine, crossrefer, and get mixed up and mutated every which way, with man-on-horseback-as-godhead and man-and-woman-as-one-flesh setting up irresistibly resonant imagistic and conceptual rhymes. Pretty heavy, yes/no? Mm, could be, sure: sex and God and identity-crisis — that’s heavy-artillery stuff in anyone’s canon. But the fact is that Shaffer’s points and paradoxes are readily perceptible and paraphrasable about ten minutes into the picture, and prove to be several degrees less-sophisticated than “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane. But whereas Welles needed Rosebud only as a pretext, and could dispose of it with an ironic fillip about thirty seconds before the end of his movie, Shaffer/Lumet must keep the same not-so-multifaceted sparkler twirling for the duration of their show. And that they have chosen to let psychiatrist Richard Burton periodically pour out his anguish — and suggest a few interpretive glosses — direct to the audience only exacerbates the sense of desperately limited ideational resources being wrung drier than dry.
The thing is, Sidney Lumet has no style. He has never had any style. He has just grabbed and grabbed at style — styles, any style — with both fists. Equus is so much a play of forms that the characters even go in for some onscreen etymology once or twice; yet without stylistic coherency to begin with, without a way of (literally) seeing the world so absolutely that every article of film grammar and syntax operates as part of a continuum of creation/revelation, it is all but impossible to make a puzzle game like Equus come cinematically alive, let alone exist in its own shining logic (or illogic, for that matter). Forget about etymology and metaphysical form if that sounds too distressingly academic, and consider it from this angle: a guy with no well-defined sense of visual rhythm, camera distance, point of view as articles of expression (articles of faith?) can’t even build a satisfying scene on the simple level of covering dramatic action; to suddenly employ ugly closeups of Colin Blakely as Peter Firth’s disturbed and disturbing father has no characterological or even caricatural validity when the more normal two-shots and three-shots that have preceded the CUs are fully as graceless. (It should be made clear that these comments emphatically do not extend to the work of lighting cameraman Ozzie Morris, whose labors here on what must have seemed intransigently uncinematic material are fully as inventive and invaluable as his services to Joe Mankiewicz’s film of Sleuth. It’s directors who create the kinds of visual and narrative maladroitness that plague Equus, not cinematographers or cutters.)
© 1977 Richard T. Jameson
Direction: Sidney Lumet. Screenplay: Peter Shaffer, after his play. Cinematography: Oswald Morris. Production design: Tony Walton. Editing: John Victor Smith. Music: Richard Rodney Bennett.
The players: Richard Burton, Peter Firth, Colin Blakely, Joan Plowright, Harry Andrews, Jenny Agutter, Eileen Atkins, Kate Reid.