The transference of
opera to film can be fraught with difficulty.
In worst case scenarios, it can be disastrous.
However in the present case, it is a
wonderful success. Ghost stories, perhaps,
would seem ideal candidates, and Henry
James' story in Britten's setting emerges
The scenery is perfectly
chosen, showing a world where even when
the sun does shine it is not really
light. This is a world the normative
status of which lies somewhere between
the real and the unreal; a figuratively
and, sometimes, literally twilit world.
The disturbing images of death in the
form of the cemetery are taken from
Highgate Cemetery. The solitary doll's
head, removed from the torso, immediately
before we 'meet' Miles and Flora, is
the image of the opera’s disturbing
recurrent theme, 'The Ceremony of Innocence
is drowned'. Visually, it makes for
an unforgettable effect. The distinction
between the Dead and the Living is not
clear in this world - a point made explicit
when, at one point, the Governess faints.
The camera shoots her in the same way
as if she were one of the corpses.
Mark Padmore it is
that narrates the piano-accompanied
introduction. Here he is very much on
home turf, his voice sounding much more
at home than in the recent
. Immediately, the emotional scene is
set. Images of Flora, smiling, playing,
are offset by mysterious figures, slow-motion
and, of course, Britten's own pungently-fragranced
music. Padmore narrates perfectly, his
diction beyond criticism.
The excellent Lisa
Milne takes the part of the Governess,
her soliloquy as she approaches in her
carriage an excellent introduction to
her inner state. The meeting of Governess
with Mrs Grose (Diana Montague) and
the children, and the passages immediately
beforehand prepare us for Montague's
agile yet strong assumption of the part.
There is something special in the way
she greets the children '... this must
be Flora ... and Miles', the
emphasis surely prophetic.
Having impressed so
much in the Prologue, Padmore does not
disappoint elsewhere. Make-up and costume
should be noticed, too, for when he
is seen peering through the window he
does look genuinely insane - as the
children sing 'Tom, Tom the piper's
son' in Act 1. His calls to Miles are
at once inviting and blood-curdlingly
sinister. His partner in death, Miss
Jessel (Catrin Wyn Davies) is entirely
his match and she exhibits a superb
lower range in the process.
Diana Montague is just
as superb as her colleagues as Mrs Grose.
Only her outburst, 'Dear God is there
no end to his dreadful ways?', which
is intercut with shots of corpses, could
have sent even more shivers down the
back. That said, the conversation here
the Governess, shot in sepia, is miraculously
Of the two children
it is of course Miles who has the lion's
share, and Nicholas Kirby Johnson is
truly excellent. His rendition of the
important 'Malo' tune is heart-rending,
the fragility of his voice entirely
appropriate. Yet as a twosome they impress,
too - as in the Act 1 lesson. The close
of the opera is ultra-touching. Britten
ensures, compositionally, that its emotive
appeal is all but indestructible, but
heightened in this way it becomes truly
Richard Hickox impresses
on this occasion more than ever before.
He seems intent on bringing out the
Stravinskian, brittle side of Britten's
writing. Soldier's Tale sprang
to mind on plenty of occasions. Places
of repose are beautifully caught, although
at one point (track 5), the extended
interlude is used to underpin misty
shots of nature, with Miss Jessel (from
the waist down) strolling amongst them.
Only at this point was there the impression
that Britten's evocative writing became
accompanying film music ... although
it has to be admitted that the sunlight
at the Governess' 'How beautiful it
is' works marvellously after this. The
pared-down City of London Sinfonia seem
not to put a foot wrong throughout.
In keeping with the
feeling of 'focus' of this product,
there are no gimmicky extras. A spoken
synopsis is well-delivered, and there
are some photos of the cast. Nothing
more is needed.