“To begin at the beginning. It is Spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobble-streets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloe-black, slow, black, crowblack, fishing-boat-bobbing sea.”
So, unforgettably, starts ‘Under Milk Wood‘, Dylan Thomas’ anarchic tale of twenty-four hours in the life of a Welsh seaside town. Written for radio, it has been widely considered as impossible to translate into film, such is the profusion of two-line characters and surrealism of the content. Kevin Allen, however, supported by Michael Breen, performance poet Murray Lachlan-Young and actor Rhys Ifans, has done just that and done so magnificently.
The fictional town in question, Llareggub (an anagram of “bugger all”), was based on Thomas’ experience of living in Laugharne on the Welsh coast. He paints a bawdy, life-affirming picture that is a little Chaucerian (although I seem to remember he was more influenced by James Joyces’ Ulysees). However mundane are the jobs and daily tasks of the residents of Llareggub, everyone is either up to something more exciting, mostly sexual, or dreaming of it. And being a small town, it is impossible to keep anything secret, not least because Willy Nilly the postman and his wife steam open all the letters, enabling him to verbally deliver the message to the intended recipient before handing over the actual script.
Allen and co decided to interpret the whole story as a dream and not only merge the narrator and the first character we meet, Captain Cat, into one, but assume that the Captain is the dreaming Dylan Thomas projecting himself into the action. It is beautifully filmed to create this effect, lapsing into occasional fuzziness when the sleeping Thomas’ is not quite sure where his imagination is taking him, but mostly glowing in 1950s Technicolour.
While I usually want complete quiet and stillness to listen to either Thomas himself, or Richard Burton, narrating the Under Milk Wood, the film barrels along like an avant-garde Carry-On movie. It’s saucy, sensual and basically bonkers, but somehow tender also. The people of Llareggub are being celebrated, not laughed at. But it is incredible to believe that it was first performed in straight-laced 1953.
Thomas’ extraordinary words dominate. Every line is lovingly delivered, not least the wonderful character names that are like the cast of Happy Families (for those old enough to remember the card game). One by one we meet Organ Morgan (the keyboard addict), Dai Bread (the priapic baker), Mrs Pugh (binocular wielding voyuer and object of her bullied husband’s failed attempts at poisoning), Nogood Boyo (up to no good), Eli Jenkins (the preacher / bard, standing naked to deliver his euology to the town he never wishes to leave), and Polly Garter (the town beauty who apparently can’t say no, in whose garden nothing grows “only washing” and brilliantly played by Charlotte Church).
Under Milk Wood reads and sounds as if Thomas, who loved drink too much, gleaned most of the inspiration for his incredible dialogue from conversations overheard in the Laugharne ale house. The tone is very gossipy but, of course, in Thomas’ hands also poetic. Before starting to watch I had the same dread I experienced ahead of seeing the ‘Fellowship of the Ring’ for the first time: what if the cinematic images destroy my personal vision of the prose? But like Peter Jackson, Kevin Allen has managed to add, not subtract, to the fantasy.
We watched the film at home, having first seen a trailer on a portable tv in a caravan at Festival No.6 last summer. I’d love to see it on a big screen. But that’s no kind of thought on which to end a five-star review, so let’s instead close with the final words of Under Milk Wood itself:
“The thin night darkens. A breeze from the ceased water sighs the streets close under Milk waking Wood. The Wood, whose every tree-foot’s cloven in the black glad sight of the hunters of lovers, that is a God-built garden to Mary Ann the Sailors who knows there is Heaven on Earth and the chosen people of His kind fire in Llareggub’s land, that is the fairday farmhands’ wantoning ignorant chapel of bridebeds, and, to the Reverend Eli Jenkins, a greenleaved sermon on the innocence of men, the suddenly wind-shaken wood springs awake for the second dark time this one Spring day.“