Something of a dark horse cinematically, Equus is probably as well known as a stage-play as a film these days; the BFI’s restoration of Sidney Lumet’s 1977 film comes as a welcome chance to reappraise the many virtues of this Elliot Kastner production. I originally saw this on Channel 4 in the early 80’s, and was somewhat mesmerised by the adult themes and creative approach. Viewed today, it’s something of a neglected masterpiece, essentially a literate two-hander with a transformative edge, much like the same author’s celebrated play and film Amadeus.
Lumet was on a red-hot streak; the five previous years saw definitive work like The Offence, Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon and Network, accompanied by a slew of acting nominations and wins. Shaffer had success with a historical two-hander in The Royal Hunt of the Sun, but Equus is one of his most personal works. It’s the story of a psychiatrist, Martin Dysart (Richard Burton), who is enlisted to interview a troubled young boy Alan (Peter Firth) who has blinded several horses for unclear motives. The repugnant nature of the crime is not lost on Dysart, but his professionalism leads him to try to untangle the boy’s tortured motives for his actions. Equus is something of a case-study, with Dysart interviewing the boy’s parents and the owner of the stables, and uncovering a chain of events that lead, with methodical logic, to the boy’s illogical crime.
Lumet was an actor’s director, and Burton was keen to revitalise his faltering career by playing Dysart, bringing a world-weary quality but also a fierce intelligence that proved an ideal fit. With Shaffer adapting his own screenplay, Equus is a fairly faithful rendering of the theatrical event, right down to the inclusion of Dysart’s long monologues, describing dreams in which he slaughters children on a sacrificial altar while wearing the mask of Agamemnon. These would have been obvious places to trim the text, but Lumet leans into them, having Burton deliver them from behind a desk, straight to camera. The artificiality of this might but some viewers off, as might the dark subject matter, but it’s also a fearless and uncompromising approach; Lumet never bends to convention, and gives Burton his head, with striking results.
Where Lumet innovates is in terms of rendering theatrical conventions as cinema; there’s a four minute tracking shot when the boy rides for the first time, a series of tiny-throw-away shots which stop the conversations from getting bogged down, and crucially, he differs from the play’s abstract approach by rendering the blindings in a realistic way, sparing us nothing in terms of the details of the boy’s terrible actions. Lumet also doubles-down on the sexuality of the piece, making explicit the boy’s sexual feelings, and demonstrating how the male hypocrisy of the 1970’s provides a fertile ground for Alan’s growing sense of confusion.
‘Surrendering to the primal’ is a key phrase here; Dystart seeks to cure Alan, but might as well be trying to cure his own malaise, and the theme of ‘who cares for the carers?’ still feels relevant in 2020. Dystart is stuck in a loveless marriage and is bored with his job; he envies Alan’s passion for horses, misguided as it might be, and questions his potential role in returning the boy to normalcy. Firth plays with great skill and sensitivity as the boy, while Burton is simply immense as the troubled physician.
Looking freshly minted in this new BFI Blu-Ray disc, Equus is a thoughtful, provocative film that won Burton his final Oscar nomination, and is well worth purchasing for anyone interested in the intellectual highs of cinema and theatre alike. Like Salieri and Mozart, Dystart and Alan reflect a contrast in temperaments, a jealous relationship between the heart and the mind, one moving forwards without self-consciousness, one inevitably pulled backwards by his own sense of self, the bit still jammed between his teeth.
Thanks to the BFI for access to this blu-ray.
The BFI’s new blu-ray of Equus is out in the UK as of Aug 17th 2020.