Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.
Often when it comes to an adapted screenplay, I’m not familiar with the source material. That’s not the case with Equus, which I have read. I’ve never seen the play performed, but a reading of this play is the sort of thing that stays with a person. Equus is not an easy read or an easy watch, but it is completely unforgettable. The 1977 version features the master of overacting, Richard Burton doing exactly what he does best. A drama like this one is built for someone prone to Burton’s particular brand of ham.
Equus is an unpleasant story. We start with Dr. Martin Dysart (Burton), a psychologist who is currently going through his own crisis while he treats children under his care. He is given a new case by Hesther Saloman (Eileen Atkins). This case is that of Alan Strang (Peter Firth), a young man who, for no evident reason, blinded six horses with a spike at a stable where he worked. It’s obvious that there is something going on with young Alan, and it’s Dysart’s job to figure out exactly why he did what he did.
Slowly, Dysart begins to put together Alan’s particular psychosis. He encounters Alan’s parents, who seem at some level to be responsible for Alan’s issues. Frank Strang (Colin Blakely) is a brow-beaten man who nonetheless has strong opinions that he is willing to share. Mother Dora Strang (Joan Plowright) is deeply religious and more than willing to share those opinions and stories with her son. More significantly, Dora has champagne tastes on a beer budget. She has raised Alan on stories of her relatives who were equestrians.
We also get Alan’s first encounter with a horse. As a child, he encountered a horse on the beach and was taken for a ride against his parents’ wishes. This seems to have traumatized him in som respect, but also created a fascination with horses. And then things get weirder as we learn about Alan’s religious fascination with the animals. His father has caught him chanting about horses with a kind of ecstatic fervor, and eventually Alan admits to riding the horses from the stable where he works. He allows himself to ride only once every three weeks, and this ride has definite religious undertones. There is also an unmistakable element of sexuality in the rides as well.
There is a great deal that can be delved into with Equus, but I prefer not to in the context of this review. This is a story that needs to be experienced as it unfolds and as the various elements of Alan’s psyche come to the forefront. As we follow deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole of Alan’s mental state, exactly what happens and why becomes evident, and his ultimate crime becomes something almost as inevitable as it is terrible. Dysart never really tells us why Alan has done what he did, and we don’t need him to. While the crime is a ghastly one, it’s something that on some level we understand.
While the focus of the story is on the psychosis and mental breakdown of Alan Strang and the crime he committed, the real thrust of the story is the mental breakdown of Martin Dysart. What Dysart sees in Alan is something beautiful that he has been tasked to destroy. He knows that the boy has done something terrible and he knows that he needs to find out exactly what happened, but as he pulls back the layers of Alan’s psyche, he sees that the boy, while disturbed, had given himself completely to a religious passion focused on the horses that he cared for. It’s this passion that Dysart knows he’s going to have to destroy to make the boy “normal,” and Dysart knows that there is nothing he can do to replace it. By destroying Alan’s psychosis, he’ll also be destroying the one thing that gives Alan’s life any meaning.
As I said at the top, Equus is not an easy watch, and the scene of Alan blinding the horses is surprisingly grisly. There’s also a great deal of full-frontal male nudity in this film, which I would imagine put the R rating in danger in 1977.
Martin Dysart is the sort of role that Richard Burton was born to play. There are a number of monologues for Dysart, which gives Burton the ability to go full stage actor on screen, something he frequently overdid to demonstrate his acting chops. There are a few moments of pure Burton overacting here, but these are actually enhanced by the way Lumet films these scenes, particularly in the opening moments and the close. Peter Firth was nominated for his role as Alan Strang, and he seems suited to the part. Of course, he’d made his living playing the role on stage before the film, so it’s certainly a role he should have been attuned to playing.
Equus is not a film I would chose to watch often. It’s a desperate plunge into a horrible mental abyss. It’s difficult to tell if Peter Shaffer’s play condemns the idea of religion or promotes it as valuable. I think a case could well be made for either position. It’s difficult and jarring, and the sort of story that stays with a viewer for a long time after it’s experienced. Go into this with eyes open, knowing that it will disturb you for some time. That said, it’s still a journey worth taking.
Why to watch Equus: It’s based on one of the great modern dramas.
Why not to watch: This is not a happy story.