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Film review: Equus (BFI)

21 August 2020

Stephen Brown reviews the Blu-ray release of a classic 1977 film


Richard Burton and Peter Firth in Equus

Richard Burton and Peter Firth in Equus

PASSION can be destroyed. It cannot be created. So says Martin Dysart, psychiatrist, in Equus (Cert. 15). The 1977 film of Peter Shaffer’s play now on Blu-ray continues to challenge conformity.

A teenager, Alan Strang (Peter Firth), blinds six horses with a metal spike. Dysart (Richard Burton), trying to understand this hideous act, comes to envy the boy’s passion. It’s a quality that he has never experienced. This High Priest of normality recognises that cultural values of restraint and rationality battle with the excesses of our primeval heritage. He strives to reconcile this element in himself with an annual holiday revelling in Homer’s ancient Greece and the myths on which our civilisation is built.

The film begins with Martin contemplating what unbridled desires lurk within a horse, representative of all who are “reined up in old language and old assumptions straining to jump clean-hoofed into a whole new track of being”. Not so Alan, whose passion for horses is synonymous with ecstasy and pain. He rides completely naked, and he and his steed, like a Centaur, become one.

Equus employs a biblical searching for truth that will make us free. From St Paul to modern-day Charismatics the experience of being caught up in rapturous unity with that which is other has been a significant element of Christian spirituality, one often suppressed by ecclesiastical minds suspicious of such passion. Little wonder that Alan rejects his mother’s docile God in favour of a pagan one. In the process, he replaces on his bedroom wall a terrifying picture of Christ in chains with one of a horse, unfettered and wild.

Nevertheless, Alan merely projects biblical notions of an omniscient and jealous God on to Equus, his new-found deity. We are being asked, under the guise of a whydunnit detective story, to examine our own desires, deeply hidden or demolished. Unlike the play, which thrives on an atmosphere of ineffable intensity, Sidney Lumet’s film version is undermined by naturalism. It runs the risk of explaining everything away instead of pondering the choices that free will offers.

Burton’s straight-to-camera monologues are occasionally more suited to the histrionics of a theatrical production. Firth, who played Alan more than 1000 times on stage, retains the pathos of one whose passion is an incessant, merciless battle between orthodoxy and ecstasy. The disc has many interesting extras, including a documentary, Religion and the People (1940), illustrating faith full of the passion whose loss Equus mourns.


Blu-ray available from the BFI Shop (phone 020 7815 1350). www.bfi.org.uk/shop

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