Since Equus is a film which has been covered with either praise or derision, it's hard to approach it without preconceptions. I saw it when I was at school, having read the play and drunk up every bit of Peter Shaffer's cod-psychology with a slightly worrying eagerness, and I loved it just about unconditionally. I then revisited it ten years later and found it ludicrously earnest and hysterically self-important. Having had no great eagerness to watch it again in the intervening time, I was interested to see which one of my reactions would prove most accurate. In the event of it, neither was right. Equus is a mess but it's an interesting mess and worth seeing for several reasons, one of which is that it contains a great performance from Richard Burton, a fine and still underrated screen actor.
The following review contains some spoilers for the plot of Equus. If you do not wish to know these details then please move to the disc review
The double-edged plot concerns the psychiatric treatment of a 17 year old boy named Alan Strang (Firth) who has been arrested following his blinding of six horses with a metal spike. He is placed in the care of Dr Dysart (Burton) at the request of a local magistrate Hester (Atkins) who feels that Dysart is the only man who can possibly discover what caused Strang to commit such an outrage. After talking with the initially inarticulate boy and visiting his hysterically religious mother (Plowright) and repressed, sexually obsessed father (Blakely), Dysart begins to realise that Strang's crime is founded in his upbringing and his increasingly obsessive belief in the divinity of horses. In particular, his belief in being constantly watched by Equus - the god of Horses, a sort of equine Christ - leads to an initial erotic fixation with the physicality of the horse, standing in for the god and, by extension the crucified Christ, and, subsequently, a disastrous outbreak of impotence during a sexual encounter in a stable. Meanwhile, we also watch Dysart falling apart as his own inadequacies and demons spill out as he tells the story of how he treated Alan.
The film is structured as a detective story in which we are meant to work out exactly what led Alan to blind the horses but there are several problems in this approach. Firstly, the reason which emerges is both blindingly obvious (excuse the pun) and rather prosaic. Secondly, Alan really isn't a sufficiently interesting character to bear the heavy weight of scrutiny which is placed upon him. His obsession with Equus is meant to be metaphorical for the ways in which a damaged psyche finds a way to relate to the world but when it's presented with such thudding literalism as it is here, it simply seems rather silly. It's hard to resist the urge to giggle when he's shown naked, caressing a horse and whimpering with pleasure. On stage, the horses were actors in masks and this distanced the spectator sufficiently to make the metaphor work. But on film, where the physical presence of the horses is all too obvious, it simply doesn't work, particularly when accompanied by dialogue such as "He stands for an hour in the dark sucking the sweat off his god's hairy cheek." This particularly goes for the blinding, which is presented in the last fifteen minutes with the gloating shock effect that you'd normally expect to see in a slasher film and which doesn't leave you feeling upset so much as it leaves you wondering how the effect was achieved without hurting any real horses. Peter Shaffer is a cunning playwright and, on stage, his ethical conundrums work very well but film tends to expose his work as a rag bag of half-baked ideas. Amadeus stood revealed as a clever bit of fakery which revelled in the self-loathing and entertaining malice of its demon and never bothered to find a convincing figure for its messiah. Equus simply ends up not making much sense. Shaffer can't seem to decide whether Equus represents Alan's sense of a hostile, mocking world that he can't come to terms with, a schizophrenic representation of his inner demons or an embodiment of the horse that Alan would like to become. Instead, he chooses a mixture of all three and, naturally, the concept implodes. The play works as, essentially, a dream play in which essence is more important than sense and theatrical coups are acceptable substitutes for logic. In this film, literal and leadenly paced, the bad ideas simply look like bad ideas. In the end, it's also basically a film about how a bit of bad sex leads to a minor apocalypse and no amount of philosophy can make this more earth-shattering than it is.
However, bizarre as it may sound, the film remains oddly compelling. Peter Firth, as Alan, played the role in the original stage production and it's easy to see how powerful it must have been live. Although this works against him on film - it's a little too mannered to work for the camera - he is magnetically watchable. There are also some powerful supporting performances, particularly from Colin Blakely who manages to make something touchingly self-deceiving from the thankless role of Alan's father, and Harry Andrews as the owner of the stables.
But the main reason to see the film is Richard Burton. The measure of his achievement in this film is that he is given some of the most verbose, frankly idiotic dialogue in movie history and not only makes it interesting to listen to but actually forces some of it to make sense. Some people have complained that he goes wildly over the top but what else could you do when offered dialogue like this:
My tools are very delicate. My compassion is honest. I have honestly assisted children in this room. I've talked away terrors and relieved many agonies. But beyond question, I have cut from them portions of individuality repugnant to this god Normal in all its aspects
This is self-conscious, pompous rubbish and it's only the tip of the iceberg. Dysart is given reams of dialogue like this and Burton, by some alchemy I can't explain, manages to bring it to life. This is not a popular view, incidentally, and most critics think Burton is simply hamming away in his worst fashion. But then most critics never gave Burton the respect he deserved. In a career which had its fair share of low lights - not many people would want to remember Hammersmith Is Out or Green Grow The Rushes - he still gave enough memorable performances to put him among the very best screen actors of the 20th Century. Most people accept, however reluctantly, his achievement in 1984 or Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? but you can add to that his work in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Night of the Iguana, Anne of the Thousand Days, Villain, Staircase, The Comedians, The Medusa Touch, Becket, Look Back In Anger and his fun, self-amused turns in Where Eagles Dare, Bluebeard and the marvellously disreputable trashiness of The Wild Geese. He's often hopelessly over the top but he's rarely boring and at a time when there are fewer entertaining actors on screen than at any time I can remember, that's something which needs to be cherished. As Dysart in Equus he has an intensity which is just what the endlessly verbose silliness requires in order to make it fascinating rather than laughable. It's exactly the same quality which wrecks his performance in the film which he made before this one, Exorcist II The Heretic where the gorgeous images and delirious insanity of John Boorman's work didn't need any additional theatrical intensity and Burton simply began to seem hopelessly arch. In that film, he was the thing which detracted from the whole. In Equus, the whole is so weak that Burton is the one thing holding it together. Quite apart from anything else, how the hell can you play Dysart - especially in constant close-ups - except by taking it over the top ? The whole conception of the character is over the top and a naturalistic performance simply isn't an option. But the self-hatred of Dysart and his constant questioning of the social fascism which psychiatry can amount to is the most interesting part of the film.
Sidney Lumet's direction is careful and conscientious but entirely wrong. It could simply be that this play should never have been filmed but he tries to film it with the sweaty, up-close realism that he used in Dog Day Afternoon and his best British film The Offence and it's an entirely mistaken approach. Perhaps a visionary director like Boorman or Cronenberg could have found a way to bring it to the screen in a more effective way but Lumet seems completely lost. The decision to film what is a very British piece in Canada is another problem - it simply doesn't look like England and the location scenes do not convince. Lumet does well with the actors though - as usual - and he is helped by his choice of the excellent Oswald Morris for cinematographer, bringing an erotic frission to the nighttime horse rides which carries the film over some dead spots. Ultimately, Equus is a film which pretends to be saying a great deal but actually says very little and it's only saved by Richard Burton's committed, intelligent and commanding performance.
This is your typical MGM back catalogue release; a reasonable transfer, a trailer and nothing else. If you like the film then you won't be too disappointed.
The film is presented in a non-anamorphic transfer which is framed at 1.66:1. This looks fine and comparisons to a full frame VHS version suggest that the film was made in fullscreen and then matted to 1.85:1 for cinema release. It's not a bad transfer overall with a sharp picture and some pleasingly subtle differentiations in the somewhat muted colour palate used by Lumet and Morris. There is some artifacting to be seen however and a grainy texturing is noticeable in some scenes.
The soundtrack is a straightforward mono track. Reflecting the monophonic nature of the original presentation, this is fine and very clear. Most importantly, the dialogue is always distinct and the subdued classical score by Richard Rodney Bennett comes across very nicely.
The only extra is the extremely smug theatrical trailer which tends to make the film look even sillier than it is. There are 16 chapter stops and a range of subtitles.
I can't take Equus anything like as seriously as Lumet and Shaffer must have intended but as a showcase for Burton's performance it's well worth a look. The DVD is basic but a decent enough presentation of the film and worth buying if you can find it discounted.
Equus is released by MGM on the 4th August 2003