Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Ulysses

Today is Bloomsday, an annual commemoration of the life and art of James Joyce, and a celebration of the day, June 16th 1904, on which his most famous work, Ulysses takes place. Joyce's massive, modernist epic of the human condition may not readily lend itself to a cinematic adaptation, but in 1967 director Joseph Strick and screenwriter Fred Haines bravely stepped up to the mark and delivered an excellent film of Leopold Bloom's great odyssey around Dublin.

Putting the book aside for the minute, Strick's Ulysses, about an ordinary day in the life of an Irish Jew, is marvellous. It's witty, playful, adventurous and stylish. Strick's direction is fast and frenetic (it is after all about a man going places), shot in gorgeous, luminous black and white (in Cinemascope no less!) by Wolfgang Suschitzky (father of Cronenberg's favourite cameraman Peter Suschitzky) and scored with a fine, eccentric soundtrack by Stanley Myers.


For every adaptation of a novel for the screen, there is the question of how faithful the film stays to the book. It must have proved a huge challenge for Strick but thankfully most of the major episodes from Joyce's novel are retained for the film, although much of Joyce's leisurely divergences, over-lapping episodes and mind-bending literary experiments have been left in the book. Only in the surreal sequence where Bloom and Stephen Dedalus visit a whorehouse, does Strick attempt to import some of the more hallucinatory writing from the book, but otherwise a relatively accessible film has been fashioned from the text. Most importantly, the book's most celebrated section, Molly Bloom's monologue has been retained in all its glory, four-letter words and references to cock-sucking intact - the film shares a place in movie history with Michael Winner's I'll Never Forget What's 'isname (1967) for the Cinema's first utterance of the word "fuck". As Molly, Barbara Jefford, is magnificent, breathing life and sensuality into the character. So too are Milo O'Shea, as Leopold, and Maurice Roëves as Stephen Dedalus, and look out for a young Fionnula Flanagan giving Bloom a tantalizing peak at the holiest of holies!


Perhaps the most controversial split from the book is its setting. The story set at the beginning of the brave new world of the 20th century has been transported to a contemporary Dublin of the late '60's. Scholars of the book may scoff at this change but one of Joyce's wishes for the book was that if Dublin had been razed to the ground during World War I, the city fathers would be able to rebuild and restore the city straight out of the pages of Ulysses. So too, the film offers a tremendous testament to the places and faces of Dublin of 1967, and I think Joyce would have agreed with this notion of leaving a lasting portrait.

"His heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes"

Ulysses, is available on R2 DVD courtesy of Arrow. The 2.35 transfer is a revelation, sharp, beautiful and struck from a print free of damage. Audio is fine and clear and besides a booklet of notes which comes with the DVD, that's it for extras. Considering the book has a fearsome reputation for being a difficult read - there's a mini-industry of notes and study aids to assist readers wade through Joyce's labyrinth, Joesph Strick's Ulysses is a wonderful primer for the book, and is in my opinion one of the very rare instances where you should consider seeing the film before tackling the book. Highly recommended.

2 comments:

  1. A truly rare instance - and it does seem completely justified here - to see the film first. I am sad to admit I have neither book or movie under my belt - but that can always change in a moment!

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  2. Yep, I think so... and I feel the same way about John Huston's Moby Dick and Sergei Bondarchuk's War and Peace - two great films which are a hell of a lot easier to digest than Melville and Tolstoy's great novels... Ulysses really is a huge labyrinth to get lost in, and I can well understand people who find it impossible - I feel that way about James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, published in 1939 and is one of the most unreadable books in the English language. I pick it up every now and then and I rarely get to the end of page 1...

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