It has to be said that a film version of James Joyce's novel Ulysses is not the most necessary thing in the world. Although undeniably a classic, still unequaled in terms of style and scope, it's a thing to be admired rather than enjoyed for enjoyments sake. Nothing wrong with that, but given that there are time when the book seems unreadable, let alone un-filmable, how on earth could anyone hope to bring Joyce's multi-layered, multi-textured prose to the film? The answer is, of course, that it would be impossible to do so but Strick has had a darned good try.
It seems a crime to reduce the text to it's narrative elements, but, essentially the plot is very basic. Quite simply, it's the story of one day in the life of Leopold Bloom, his unfaithful wife and the relationship they have with Stephen Dedalas. Dedalas you might have met before from Joyce's earlier Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a sort of preface to Ulysses, and much more of an enjoyable read and also the subject of a film by Strick. It's simple plot, however, is merely a framework which Joyce uses to hang his powerhouse musings on the nature of life, history, mythology, Ireland, sex, death and pretty much everything else you can think of. Getting to grips with the text is far beyond the scope of this review, and if you think this is a cop-out, then you are 100% right. Go and get a copy for yourself, if you have not done so. It's the sort of thing you start out thinking, "This is easy, don't know what all the fuss is about" before collapsing into befuddlement about a third of the way through.
So what of the film, then? Given that Joyce's flights of textual fancy cannot be captured on camera, what is the viewer left with? The answer is a carefully constructed, poetical and lyrical vision of Ireland in 1922. The dialogue is lifted straight from the novel and, as you would expect, this places it in a class of it's own. Molly Bloom, Leopold's cuckolding wife, has a monologue that makes up a fifth of the film and a marvelous piece of cinema this makes. Incidentally, this monologue was originally the subject of 29 cuts made the BBFC. Strick's ingenious response was to replace the offending scenes with a blank screen accompanied by a ear-piercing shriek. The censer of course, cowardly as they are by nature, backed down at once. Ireland, predictably enough banned the thing outright; a ban that has only just been lifted. Interestingly, and contrary to popular belief, the book was never banned in Ireland. Just never published there.
The trouble with Ulysses, and it's a predictable trouble is that no matter how much Strick strives, the grandeur of the book cannot be matched. The notion of the voice of God being a shout on the street has massive resonance’s when written down on the page, but a literal portrayal of the scene robs it of it's deeper psychological and philosophical nuances. This is a problem that arises time and time again. Dedalus's wander along the beach is just that, a wander along a beach and is rather flat and empty.
However, credit must be given to Strick for even attempting such a venture, even though it is, ultimately more of a gesture towards the book rather than a bona fide film version. As a film, it has many things going for it. The photography is simply amazing, the sharp angles of modern Dublin look clean and fresh and contrast nicely with the more rounded features of nature, in the shape of Molly Bloom as much as anything else. The editing, also, is crisp and constantly surprising the viewer with it's juxtapositions. There's a great sense of the dreamlike evoked throughout, even where the action, as it were is firmly on the ground. There's humour throughout as well, and the viewer will recoil along with Bloom as he enters a cafe in which the disgusting eating habits of the patrons is dubbed with the oinking of pigs.
Ultimately, it's down to the viewer to decide how useful this film is. As a curiosity, it's a vital piece of cinema and buffs everywhere will rejoice at its return. As a piece of entertainment, it's value is slightly compromised by unfair comparisons with the book, which is, although difficult, a far more rewarding exercise. Perhaps the best way of looking at it is as a primer for the book, or companion piece. It's lacking in it's vision, but then cinema is a completely different art form from the novel, something successive film makers have yet to grasp. Ulysses, ultimately, is a film that suffers from highlighting the contrast between the novel as a high art form and the inability of cinema to provide a literal translation of the written word. On the other hand, a film with a script taken entirely from the work of a poet/visionary like Joyce cannot be a bad thing. A curio, then, but a well shot, well-acted and always interesting curio, but please, at least attempt the novel as well. And don't even think about using the film as a substitute for the novel if you are meant to be studying it, but you wouldn't even think of doing that, would you?
Despite the protests of the box and many other websites, this film is in glorious 2:35/1 and absolutely splendid it looks as well. Crisp and clean B&W photography. There's not a trace of print damage, and the contrast levels are excellent. Indeed, it looks so good, one is tempting to wonder if it has been locked in a vault for the last 30 years. Non-anamorphic, which is a great shame, but a lovely looking print nonetheless and Arrow should be congratulated on presenting us with such a pristine print. But, to reiterate, the non-anamorphic nature is a great shame.
Nothing really to complain about, being 2.0 stereo, but, given the deeper meta-language aspects of the text, it would have been interesting to have some experimentation with a 5.1 mix. Molly's monologue would perhaps be given a greater resonance with some sound experimentation. There are a many scenes of fantasy throughout that rely on fantasy for their impact and tinkering with the sound might have been great fun. Purists will no doubt be wiping the vomit from their mouths at reading this, but the technology is there to be played with and something Ulysses cannot be accused of, whether in book or film form, is a satisfaction with the normal way of doing things and this would have given the film some sense of evolution that the book still offers to those attempting to come to terms with it. Of course, it should go without saying that this should not have been attempted at the expense of the original soundtrack, but we are allowed to wonder aloud if we like at what could be done. A unique selling point has been allowed to slip away, we fear. Of course, apologies are offered to Joseph Strick if he should happen to read this.
Chapter selection, which is a great boon and one that more discs should offer but other than that, there's nothing. There is a memoir on Ulysses by Joseph Strick which comes as a leaflet and is interesting but nothing worth shouting about. Given the troubled nature of it's release and the enormity of the task it set itself, there should be something of interest lying around in a vault somewhere. A bit of a shame, but this version is still highly