Wednesday, December 1, 2021

A Little Night Music (Harold Prince, 1977)


Stephen Sondheim’s sublime A Little Night Music surely had (and retains) the capacity to spawn a beautiful film version, but in the hands of original stage director Harold Prince it’s a mostly glum affair. If nothing else, the film might have taken something from Ingmar Bergman’s spawning Smiles of a Summer Night, the theatrical styling of which almost seems to anticipate the likelihood of the later musical; more broadly, Bergman’s film carries an acute sense of moral investigation, of sex as an object of the most elevated seriousness, but one inherently reliant on a degree of evasion and stylization. That’s all there in the musical’s underlying text, but Prince’s blocking and filming are largely static; the film feels starved of breath, let alone of joy. The casting hardly helps, particularly (and there’s no pleasure in piling on in this regard) that of Elizabeth Taylor as the famous actress and object of desire Desiree Armfeldt – Taylor seems here like an inert actress and entirely indifferent singer, a miscasting exacerbated by preserving the stage version’s Len Cariou as her fated lover Ferderick Egerman (Cariou is evidently too young for the role, among much else, seven years younger than Taylor and only fifteen older than Lesley-Anne Down, also ineffectively cast as Egerman’s inappropriately young and virginal wife, which doesn’t help that aspect of the film either). Of course, some of the songs can take care of myself, and Prince lands the occasional scene, but it’s much less than should have been expected. It’s no doubt inevitable that some of the original’s songs had to be sacrificed, but still, the omission of The Miller’s Song and Remember seems most regrettable, and the cutting of Hermione Gingold’s Liaisons leaves the character of Desiree’s mother entirely gutted (it’s tempting to read several peculiar close-ups of a disengaged-looking Gingold as a sad acknowledgement of this).  

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