| October 14, 2004

Adapting a primarily literary novel for the screen can be tricky. But when that novel happens to be James Joyce’s notoriously hard-to-read masterpiece, Ulysses, the enterprise seems to be doomed from the start. It took director Sean Walsh ten years to realize his dream of dramatizing this iconic book, and while the film itself is definitely worth watching and at times quite memorable, it has little of the spark and wonder that makes the book such a unique experience.
Ulysses records the day-long journey of Jewish Dubliner and insurance agent, Leopold Bloom. Bloom sets out on June 16, 1904 and spends the entire day walking about town and exploring the crevices of his mind. Reality and illusion blend seamlessly to make his journey a truly remarkable odyssey of seemingly ordinary events and thoughts, filtered through a feverish imagination. The other two main characters are more limited in their ruminations, but they walk into and out of Bloom’s day as if in a dream. Molly, Bloom’s wife, spends most of her day in bed, ordering around her hapless husband, and musing over her real and imagined sexual exploits. One of Joyce’s most renowned characters, the young poet Stephen Dedalus makes up the trio: a young man confused about his faith and haunted by his mother’s death. These three wander around in the underbelly of the town, engage in discussions about Shakespeare and Judaism, appear in court, all in the course of the one day that has now come be to known among literary enthusiasts, as ‘Bloomsday.’
The strongest element in this interpretation of Ulysses is the presence of Stephen Rea. His rendering of Bloom is memorable in its vulnerability, as well as for the convincing portrayal of the changes in Bloom’s demeanor and behavior as he gets deeper and deeper into his day. Rea who put in some quality work in The Butcher Boy, and can be seen more recently, in the Irish film, Evelyn, warms to his part as the film proceeds. He starts off as an expressionless, down-at-the-heel bloke, and with the help of Joyce’s earthy imaginings, morphs into a maniacal king, a blushing Don Juan, and a flamboyant cross-dresser, all in the course of a few hours. The turning point is an anti-Semitic encounter in a bar, where Bloom, in his peculiarly halting way, protests the innocence of the Jews as a people. After that, his transformation continues in leaps and bounds until he becomes a brightly-colored element of a titillating nightmare.
Rea is ably supported by Angeline Ball who plays Molly, but it is clear that Bloom, and the man who plays him, is the star of this show. Ball pouts and preens as she muses her bawdy adventures, but most of her soliloquy seems like an inspired reading of Joyce, rather than a visualization of the waking dream that is Ulysses. Dedalus, as played by Hugh O’Conor, starts off as a promising character, but quickly becomes a uni-dimensional caricature of the struggling poet. O’Conor played the young Christy Brown in My Left Foot, and he looks to fit the part of Dedalus perfectly–an effeminate face of indeterminate age–but his wide-eyed wonder appears to be his only trait and makes him less than memorable, especially given that this is the star of Joyce’s The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
The problem with any visual rendition of a piece of work like Ulysses, is that much of its appeal has to do with how each individual visualizes Joyce’s vivid poetic descriptions and wild ravings. So most people who have tried to read Ulysses will find Bloom loyal to the text, but uninspired in execution. The fact that so much of Joyce’s original words find their way into the film is a saving grace, but there appears to be little in the way of a unified vision of the images that those words conjure up. Nevertheless, Bloom is a memorable visual experience, and if you’ve never tried to read Ulysses–and believe me, try is as far as most people get–it will open your eyes to the genius that was Joyce.

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