Under Milk Wood

a recording of the play

with Anthony Hopkins

Dylan Thomas’s Welsh background played a large role in his poetry, especially in the case of Under Milk Wood, his 1953 “play for voices.” The play depicts one day in the life of a Welsh fishing village—a place so quiet that “you can hear the dew falling.” A 1954 BBC Radio production of the work was a hit partly because of Richard Burton’s flawless characterizations and rich voice. This film version, now released on DVD by the Sundance Channel, is also an inspired effort.

Fortunately, Burton agreed to narrate the movie and director Andrew Sinclair convincingly weaves him into the story by making him one of a pair of observant but mysterious visitors to the town. The shots of beautiful Welsh scenery mesh nicely with Thomas’s words and Burton’s voice. The visuals attest to the writer’s wonderfully descriptive language and Sinclair’s faithful screenplay captures the hamlet’s many charms and also its often-claustrophobic feel.

A gaggle of characters appear in vignettes full of wistful memories and frustrated wishes. The predominantly Welsh cast produces lively characters, though many actors have only a few lines. Schoolteacher Gossamer Benyon (Angharad Rees) and Sinbad the barkeep (Michael Forrest) love each other but never confess their feelings to one another. Forrest and Rees skillfully draw out both the humorous and the sad aspects of their characters’ predicament. Unfulfilled longing is a prominent theme in the story: another pair of lovers write each other passionate letters every day but never meet, perhaps fearing disappointment.

Also memorable is Mr. Waldo, the father of a number of children by different girlfriends. Ray Smith plays him endearingly, with forlorn expressions and a wardrobe that enhances his resemblance to Fatty Arbuckle. The story does not shy away from the loathsome figures in the bunch—moralists, hypocrites, and gossips—but Thomas’s portrayal of the town is generous and those characters receive a lightly satirical treatment.

Sinclair and the actors also avoid overplaying their hands. When necessary, they let Thomas’s and Burton’s narration take over the scene completely, as in the case of this passage:

Lord Cut-Glass, in his kitchen full of time, listens to the voices of his 66 clocks (one for each year of his loony age) and watches, with love, their black-and-white moony, loudlipped faces tocking the earth away.

In that scene, the acting and the camera-work are restrained enough to let the viewer concentrate on listening.

Peter O’Toole offers a great interpretation of Captain Cat, the old, blind sailor who knows the town’s routine and its voices so well that he can narrate its events based on sound alone. The captain is haunted by dead shipmates and by his lost love, Rosie Probert (Elizabeth Taylor). His anguish drives the most powerful sequences of the film. The flashbacks depicting the romance between the captain and Probert are poignant, but even better are the scenes where Cat finds respite from his grief by making witty observations about the hamlet’s other inhabitants. O’Toole uses his voice and face masterfully.

Sinclair’s film is a loving adaptation and it makes a fine introduction to Thomas’s poetry.

Chris Pepus