One of the challenges of bringing plays to the screen is how to “open up” the stage-bound dialogue and events so that it feels and sounds more like a film. And when a play depends as much on its imaginative staging as Peter Shaffer’s EQUUS does, that job is made even more difficult.
Richard Burton stars as a troubled psychiatrist who must discover the reasons for a disturbed teenager’s (Peter Firth, reprising his stage role) blinding of six horses. Shaffer’s psychobabble hasn’t aged particularly well and the film loses some of its power in Sidney Lumet’s stilted direction, but the performances by Firth and Burton (both Oscar-nominated) are superb.
In a film that doesn’t leave much room for music, Richard Rodney Bennett’s subtle score fills the emotional void that its characters cannot express. Bennett scored the music with a hint of Baroque flavor for violas, cellos, and basses, saying that he wanted to “get away from the massed violin sound” and focus on the “grave intensity” of the violas in their upper register. The score rises and falls, yearning for meaning and lending further gravitas to the film and never succumbing to the more disturbing images onscreen.
The original Ryko CD release surrounded the score with Burton’s magnificent monologues. (Many of the Ryko discs featured “bonus” dialogue tracks.) When Kritzerland re-released the score (on a double with John Barry’s THE WHISPERERS) last year, producer Bruce Kimmel thankfully separated out the instrumental tracks in the brief 22-minute score, followed by bonus tracks of the monologues.
While EQUUS may not be the great play that everyone thought it was in the mid-1970s, the film has much to recommend in the performances, Shaffer’s command of language and Bennett’s lovely, yet somber, score.