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DVD SAVANT

A Doll's House


A Doll's House
MGM Home Entertainment
1973 / Color / 1:78 16:9 / 105min. / Street Date March 4, 2003 / $19.98
Starring Claire Bloom, Anthony Hopkins, Ralph Richardson, Denholm Elliott, Edith Evans, Anna Massey
Cinematography Arthur Ibbetson
Art Direction Elliot Scott
Film Editor John Glen
Original Music John Barry
Written by Christopher Hampton from the play by Henrik Ibsen
Produced by Hillard Elkins
Directed by Patrick Garland

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

In 1973 there were suddenly two versions of A Doll's House out simultaneously, and neither got much of a release. Unlike other trends that the film industry attempted to co-opt, Women's Liberation wasn't very exploitable. The people who cared about the issue probably visited libraries more often than movie theaters.

Henrik Ibsen's play had never waned as a stage fixture, even after seventy years. Along with the perennial Enemy of the People, it hardly dated at all, and its central theme was still revolutionary in tone, just as it had been back at the turn of the century.

Hilliard Elkins' film version of his stage production is smart, professional and played by top English talent.

Synopsis:

Pampered housewife and mother to 3 small children, Nora Helmer (Claire Bloom) has an idyllic life, at least as seen from the outside. Her husband Torvald (Anthony Hopkins) is about to assume a much more lucrative position as manager of his bank, and she's teasing him for more money to make a fancy Christmas celebration. In actuality, she's desperate - because she's being blackmailed by a Krogstad, a bank employee (Denholm Elliott) who knows she forged a paper to borrow money for doctors to save Torvald's life. How can she approach Torvald with the knowledge that his future is in jeopardy, if their relationship doesn't get beyond niceties and gestures of affection?

The Garland version of A Doll's House is an excellent stab at the famous play. The approach to the text, especially in the secondary roles, is unusually sensitive. Ralph Richardson's Dr. Rank is a family friend who is dying. He declares his love for Nora, triggering her predictable rebuff. The awkwardness that results provides a thoughtful justification for at least some of the rules of the repressive society against which Nora eventually rebels. Nora does have affection for Dr. Rank, but the taboo against his making advances is a basic societal need, at least in a system where a wife is the property of her husband. Nora may be rebellious, but she doesn't want chaos, and her struggle isn't simply for free love.

In the play versions I saw (years before), Krogstad was pictured as a simple blackmailer. I don't even remember Kristine Linde, the character played by Anna Massey (Peeping Tom). Together, they form an interesting alternate couple to the fortunate, publicly 'respectable' Helmers. He's an accused forger unable to hold a good job in the unforgiving business sector. She's just finished a loveless marriage, that she entered into as a necessity to support her family. Neither has much status in this closed society, but both are brave and proud. Krogstad is a good man but a desperate one. Accused of being a crook, he's now forced to act like one.

The irony is clear. Torvald Helmer has no problem being a harsh martinet, as his top position in society allows him to make judgments on all those below him. He (or the societal force for conformist respectability he answers to) gets to dictate what reality is for those around him - who is good, who is bad, who is pampered, who is shunned. Krogstad and Kristine Linde have to make excuses for themselves, always with their hats in their hands, hoping for the goodwill of supposed friends to help them out. Torvald might be condescendingly kind to them, and think it a great charity; he'd never see the code he enforces as responsible for their misery.

Thus the play is more focused about a real sexual revolution than all the protests and media games of the 60s and 70s. Sex is political, because traditional marriage effectively makes half the population dependent upon and servile to the other half. Critics marginalized the Women's Lib movement by associating the issue with men-hating lesbians, and bra-burning kooks. A Doll's House shows how societal values are twisted, starting with the inequities of the traditional marriage contract.

This version of A Doll's House is beautifully produced. It doesn't dissipate the play's intimate impact with a lot of extraneous production values. The cold ice and snow are a constant reminder that this is a closed society that doesn't allow much movement; Krogstad and Linde can't go to the next town without taking their reputations with them. There's always the imperative to somehow keep warm, to provide for one's own. If Krogstad can't support his boys, there's no telling what might happen to them.

In this version there's a feeling of discontent right from the start. It's probably a more sophisticated interpretation, but I definitely remember the play versions making Nora basically happy at the beginning. Until the break at the climax, she was a frivolous and foolish but devoted wife trying to make things better. When she changes her mind, it all happens in a flash. The crisis over Krogstad's letter shows her things as they really are. Her marriage is a fake. She's not a partner but property, a slave to convention. Her servile attitude encourages Torvald, a basically good man, to become a pompous egotist who never questions his bigoted assumptions.

In this version, Nora's schemes are afoot from the beginning. The little tricks she pulls behind Torvald's back seem to come out of grave necessity. She isn't a petty little fool but a guilty, suffering fool forced to deceive her husband. She never gets a chance to really be the daddy's doll she describes, as the game got too grim for that a long time ago. Her dishonesty thus demeans her play-acting with Torvald, because he is sincere and she is not. He's a dope, but he's actually more innocent than she is.

The result is that the play's big ending revelation has less impact here. Anthony Hopkins plays Torvald straight - as a dunce who thinks he's a swell guy, yet under pressure, reveals himself to be a hollow monster of authoritarian rage. Claire Bloom seems too intelligent to have been so blind to the truth - we don't see her move from a position of silly ignorance to one of resolved enlightenment. Now I feel like tracking down the Jane Fonda film version - there's a woman we can really believe hasn't a thought in her head. When Fonda wakes up to the truth, we might feel the experience with her.

Always a powerful story, A Doll's House was a firm argument for feminist values written almost before they were conceived. It's easily interpretable as not just a call for fairness in relationships, but a demand for the abolition of marriage as the basic oppressive instituion of society. It must have been foremost in the thoughts of the early women's rights' activists, and the emancipated free-love exponents of the 'teens and 20s, the folk interviewed in the witnesses' testimonials section in Warren Beatty's Reds. As long as we have conservative pundits who tout Marriage values as the cure for everything in society (i.e., a power structure that keeps everyone in their place) the play will be of vital topicality.

I also urge men to see this, or at least read the play, before seeing it with their wives or girlfriends ... in our supposed enlightened times, most relationships are still very traditional, and I wouldn't be surprised if A Doll's House was directly implicated in the breaking up of many a partnership. The truth is a painful thing - when A Doll's House is working properly, it can make a man's skin crawl. The climax is reminiscent of the typical 'scene' all of us selfish young men underwent at one point or another, when our presumed faithful-unto-death girlfriends started talking about the relationship: "It's my fault, not yours, but we're breaking up." The lessons of A Doll's House are better learned earlier than later.


MGM's DVD of A Doll's House is a plainwrap but handsome presentation, with a very good-looking image and clear sound. Before DVD, this is the kind of show that wouldn't appear on video and could probably only be seen on infrequent TV airings of poor quality 16mm prints. I'm sure that more people will be able to appreciate the film now, than could see it during its short theatrical run 30 years ago.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, A Doll's House rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 6, 2003


Footnote:

1. Writing this review really requires a critic more versed in Ibsen and the meanings of the play itself. As I'm neither of these things, I hope the thoughts here aren't too laughably off base. Let's call it a blind attempt to bring the story out of the literature class.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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