Blu-ray Review: Equus - Twilight Time Limited Edition

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Two key factors have limited, and will continue to limit, the amount of viewers drawn to Equus, director Sidney Lumet’s 1977 adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s stage play (Shaffer also wrote the screenplay). One factor is the strong implication of man/horse love that is an inseparable element of the story. The other is depicted more directly: an act of violence committed against horses that is so vile, so repugnant, so profoundly repellent that it renders one portion of the film unwatchable (though, of course, the violence is simulated it remains graphic and disturbing in a way that onscreen violence towards humans rarely is).

Being quite a famous, well-regarded play (one that gained new notoriety in recent years when Daniel Radcliffe, aka Harry Potter, bared all for the central role) you may already be aware of these elements going in. Whatever the case, the film is absorbing, thought-provoking, and well worth watching. As part of their Limited Edition series, Twilight Time has recently issued Equus on Blu-ray. The disc is actually a double-feature, with an excellent, two-hour 1988 documentary, In From the Cold: The World of Richard Burton, that details the career of Equus’ distinguished co-star. Burton plays psychiatrist Martin Dysart. His newest patient is Alan Strang (Peter Firth), a young man who is sexually obsessed with horses. We find out early on that Alan has blinded six horses with a blunt instrument. It’s up to Dysart to analyze the damaged psyche that led to such a horrific act.

Equus cover (213x280).jpgBoth Burton and Firth were duly recognized with Academy Award nominations for their respective roles (neither won). Shaffer was also nominated for his writing, though the filmed adaptation seems to be held in generally low (or at least mixed) regard by those familiar with the stage production. Having never seen the play, I have no point of comparison. The passage of 37 years should allow the filmed adaptation to be assessed on its own merits, anyway. Lumet crafted a taut psychological thriller, something of a detective story only with a psychiatrist leading the way instead of the police. Burton is magnetic, which is perhaps to be expected given his track record, but this performance is special even for him. He slowly unpeels Dysart’s complex layers, allowing us to glimpse the psychiatrist’s own damaged psyche. During their sessions, which quickly assume the form of “I’ll answer one of yours, if you answer one of mine,” Alan easily pegs Dysart as being stuck in a sexless marriage.

As Dysart and Alan learn more about one another, their relationship takes a bizarre turn as the doctor begins to envy his patient’s passions. Initially only willing to communicate via TV commercial jingles, Alan slowly opens up to Dysart. Meanwhile, Alan’s parents, Frank and Dora (Colin Blakely and Joan Plowright), help fill in some of the blanks. Dora is a bit of a Christian extremist, to the point where even her own husband is concerned over her level of zealotry. The non-linear, flashback structure offers a peek at how Alan’s obsessions began. During a family trip to the beach, Alan encounters a charming rogue atop a great steed. Equus horseman TMR.gifThis horseman (John Wyman) stirs something within Alan, who mounts the horse and rides along the beach—much to his parents’ consternation. It’s kind of a ridiculous scene, truth be told, with Wyman playing his brief role as if auditioning for the lead in Prince Valiant. It is here we suspect that Alan is gay and his equine fixation is the result of his repressed feelings. Perhaps Wyman’s highly stylized performance was intended to represent Alan’s personal perspective, but it’s tone hardly fits the rest of the film.

Beware as we now tip-toe into spoiler-ish territory, but the third act of Equus takes a sharp turn into garish horror movie territory. For those familiar with the stage version, this is most often where issue seems to be taken. It’s not just a few fleeting moments; the entire climax, with its mix of full frontal nudity (both male and female; the latter being the lovely Jenny Agutter), horrific gore, and searing score, feels like something transplanted from a Ken Russell movie rather than the sober drama that came before. Alan’s actions, no matter how intrigued with him we’ve become, serve as a litmus test for just how far a viewer’s sympathies can be stretched. Equus is deeply troubling, but as an actor’s showcase and an overall “think piece,” it is highly recommended.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray presents Oswald Morris’ cinematography exceptionally well, with an image that displays all the moderate natural grain and intentionally low-contrast, slightly soft-focus lighting. The source materials used for the transfer were obviously in spotless shape. The DTS-HD MA mono soundtrack offers a clean presentation of the film’s relatively simple sound design. Oswald Morris’ score is available as an isolated track in DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo.

In addition to the aforementioned feature-length Richard Burton documentary, Equus also comes equipped with a characteristically informative audio commentary by film historians Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo (who also supplied, as she does with all Twilight Time releases, the insightful essay in the booklet). Equus is limited to a pressing of 3,000 copies, so those interested should proceed to Screen Archives for ordering information.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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