Under Milk Wood, Dylan Thomas’ masterful radio play, doesn’t easily lend itself to film. The twisting, languid structure of the poetry means the visuals inevitably feel tacked on, like a montage in a music video. In director Kevin Allen’s adaptation they bray for your attention, all saturated colours and vivid, nightmarish imagery. The camera paddles through the “sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea”, peering into windows and invading the minds and most intimate moments of the residents of Llareggub (“bugger-all” backwards).
Everything is exaggerated to the point of grotesque: a local drunk urinating against a wall creates a torrent of piss so ferocious it washes a body from the local church; a vicar dreams of delivering a sermon from a bed being carried through the ocean by four strapping young lads wearing loincloths.
And the sex. My, oh my, the sex. Great big, greasy piles of sex. The kind of sex you need to clean up with bleach. You can smell it through the screen. In Llareggub, everyone fantasises about rutting, usually with somebody far away or long since deceased. A widower fondly remembers the kinky dominatrix sessions of her youth while a dildo made of ice melts on the sideboard. Charlotte Church’s Polly Garter sings a lovelorn ballad whilst being vigorously taken from behind.
As the narrator, Rhys Ifans braves comparisons to the incomparable Richard Burton, whose sonorous tones graced the 1972 film version. Ifans is on good form, though, cranking the Welshness up to 11, lending the serpentine poetry a musical quality with his sing-song Valleys accent.
It’s not a definitive retelling of Thomas’ text, but it’s a reminder of just how good, and how relevant, his examination of love, loss and rural life is. Perhaps not one to be shown in classrooms, though.
First published in City A.M.