The Beggar's Opera (1952) DVD
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Directed by Peter Brook
Produced in 1952
Main Language - English
Countries & Regions - British Film
His reputation maybe somewhat in flux these days, but there are many who would still argue that Laurence Olivier was the greatest actor of the modern age. His cinema career was more chequered than his stage one, but the glories were numerous: the Shakespeare films with Walton, of course, Kubrick’s Spartacus and even Bunny Lake is Missing for Preminger (in which the director coaxes a performance of remarkable subtlety from him; Olivier – the master of the grand gesture – was fully aware of the value of underplaying in film.
For many years, this controversial adaptation of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera was one of Olivier's hardest films to see, making this issue all the more welcome. Olivier utilises his most charismatic armoury of effects as the Machiavellian Macheath and Peter Brook’s exuberant adaptation of Gay’s opera about the famous highwayman in Newgate prison sports a cast that is particularly relishable: Olivier, of course, but also Stanley Holloway, the exquisite Dorothy Tutin (who rarely got cinema roles commensurate with her talent) and the legendary stage actor George Devine – here wildly panto in style. What makes the film particularly intriguing is the fact that Brook didn't quite know what to do with this material: the tone varies strikingly from scene to scene but the effect (to modern eyes) makes everything now look curiously post-modern, with the interface between theatrical acting styles (notably the over-the-top Devine and Hugh Griffiths) and the more subtly realised effects of, for instance, Dorothy Tutin (dubbed by Adele Leigh, whose singing is notably better than the over-taxed Olivier).
For many years, the film was most famous for being a spectacular commercial disaster; its initial reception in the 1950s was so negative that the film was taken out of circulation after a single night’s showing with the producers being paid compensation. In fact, Peter Brook’s career (in film terms) remained in stasis until 1960. All of which enhanced the curiosity value of the film. Looked at today, The Beggar’s Opera is a fascinating curate’s egg (particularly with Arthur Bliss in charge of the score).
Barry Forshaw on 31st March 2008
Author of 630 reviews
John Gay's The Beggar's Opera tells the tale of a dandy highwayman, locked up in prison in 18th century London, who decides to write an opera based on his own career. With one song after another, Peter Brook's primary coloured, exuberant 1952 adaptation brings the opera to big-screen life.
Publisher: Studio Canal
Length: 90 mins
Format: DVD Colour
Released: 7th April 2008
Cat No: OPTD1191