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Categories: Movie Reviews

Kevin Allen’s “Under Milk Wood” adapts Dylan Thomas’ classic radio play in both English and Welsh, bringing the narration to life with sensual, surrealist imagery.  

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Under Milk Wood, Kevin Allen’s surrealist adaptation of Dylan Thomas’ classic 1954 radio drama, provides us the rare treat of seeing a foreign-language film set right on our doorstep. With two versions filmed simultaneously – one in English, one in Welsh – it’s a one-of-a-kind immersive experience, and it’s got the visual intricacy and narrative energy to match.

Told almost entirely through Thomas’ original scripted narration, Under Milk Wood relays a day in the life of the people of the small Welsh fishing village of Llareggub (“bugger all” backwards), in a stream-of-consciousness-like manner that begins by showing us their dreams, leads into their daily routines as they start to wake up, and ends as they fall back to sleep. It’s relatively plot-free, simply painting us a picture of the Llareggubians, of their lifestyles and relationships and fantasies (a lot of the latter). 

Leading the cast is Rhys Ifans as Captain Cat, a pensive old sailor who makes witty observations of the townsfolk as he narrates their lives. Among his subjects are such quirky characters as Willy Nilly (Matthew Owen), a nosy postman who reads everyone’s letters, Nogood Boyo (Llyr Ifans), a lazy fisherman who dreams of nothing all day, Organ Morgan (Aneirin Hughes), a church organist who thinks about nothing but music, and Polly Garter (Charlotte Church), a cheery single mother who sings all day about her lost loves. 

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Captain Cat’s narration interconnects the days of these people through short, humorous, surreal and often erotic vignettes that build to create a complete – if sometimes absurd – picture of the collective consciousness of the citizens of Llareggub. 

Having watched both the English version and the Welsh version back-to-back (they’re both pretty much identical besides the language difference), I will admit that two watches were necessary for me to fully grasp the story as an outsider to the original play. The narration is heavy, full of flowery alliterative adjectives, and rarely straightforward, so trying to keep up with it in English while trying to piece together the strange images was harder for me than reading the plot off of the subtitles in the Welsh version. 

That said, I’m sure fans of the original play or of Thomas’ work in general should have no problem sorting things out, and will have a blast seeing a big, cheery, dedicated cast play off of each other in such a fun sequence of events. 

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Audiences at all levels of familiarity with Thomas will have no problem basking in the visual wonders, either, as director Kevin Allen, cinematographer Andy Hollis and editor Sara Jones have managed to create one of the most textured aesthetic experiences of recent memory. An explosion of colorful dream sequences and soothing pillow shots and absorbing pull focuses, deliberate pans and intense extreme close-ups, Under Milk Wood is a film that doesn’t waste a single shot, making sure every image – decipherable or not – is a treat to look at. And, in being largely told as a dream, it doesn’t ever need to concern itself with reality, often taking to creative editing techniques that bend and break the frames before us as if we’re watching a moving Dali painting. 

Under Milk Wood is a unique experience, one that won’t be for everyone. It is, I read, an adaptation of the original play that takes a lot of visual liberties, so a good grasp of the source material is likely necessary for anything beyond surface understanding. But, if you, like me, are taken by films that serve more to challenge our perceptions of reality than tell a simplistic clean-cut three-act narrative, you should look no further. Besides, how often is it you get to see a film told entirely in Welsh, and one that is the UK’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar?

Under Milk Wood is out now on DVD. 

Cameron Johnson

Cameron Johnson is a writer and filmmaker born in England, based in Michigan, USA, and currently living in Enniscrone, Ireland. He writes about all things entertainment with a speciality in film criticism. He has been working on films ever since middle school, when his shorts "Moving Stateside" and "The Random News" competed in the West Branch Children's Film Festival. Since then he's written and directed a number of his own films and worked in many different crew jobs. Follow him on Twitter @GambasUK and look at his daily film diary at letterboxd.com/gambasUK.

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Posted on Nov 16, 2015

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