It must be a unique challenge adapting a successful play into a successful film. I don’t mean Shakespeare, which lend themselves well to broad, sweeping epics (Akira Kurosawa, Orson Welles and Julie Taymor have made brilliantly cinematic versions of his plays) but rather the low key, intimate dramas that are more concerned with performance. When a play is purely about the acting, it’s difficult to make a film adaptation that’s both engaging and visually interesting.
Sidney Lumet ignores this challenge with his adaptation of Eugene O Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and pretty much just films the play straight. He directed several film adaptations of plays, but rarely as theatrical as this.
Given that Lumet would go on to direct some of the greatest films ever made (Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Serpico) it feels like this is by choice. Just take his directorial debut, 12 Angry Men, potentially the finest film based on a play. It’s incredibly cinematic, and Lumet uses techniques like tricks like increasingly tighter shots to convey the claustrophobic tension of the jury room as the film progresses. Long Day’s Journey Into Night is the complete opposite of this. Apart from the virtuoso final shot, Lumet’s direction is unobtrusive, allowing the performances to dominate the story.
The film follows a day in the life of James (Ralph Richardson) a retired actor and his wife (Katharine Hepburn) as they are visited by their sons, Jamie (Jason Robards) and Edmund. (Dean Stockwell) Each of them have their own demons and secrets, all of which are exposed over the course of their time together.
What this film shows better than any other is the crucial difference between film acting and theatre acting. While in theatre you need to be physical and overly expressive, film picks up the most subtle change in expression, making the former seem over the top and unnatural.
What you have in Long Day’s Journey Into Night is four masterful theatre performances, that are really out of place on film. It’s only Dean Stockwell who turns in a great cinematic performance, eerily similar to James Dean in places. It’s a very strange feeling, watching acting royalty like Richardson and Hepburn outshone by someone who is a relative unknown nowadays – or at least best known for Quantum Leap.
This isn’t to say the other actors are awful by any stretch. I love Richardson – his role in The Fallen Idol is a lesson in understatement – and there are flashes of brilliance here too; his eyes filling with tears as his son lays into him is touching, and he generates warmth in the quieter scenes with Hepburn, but it all too often descends into shouty overacting. The same can be said about Hepburn. Her moments of vulnerability and humanity are painfully real, and all-too relatable, but are outweighed by the clunky moments of wordy dialogue and melodramatic shouting.
Jason Robards fares a little better, and he really sells the difficult role of the older brother, but again he is too overly expressive in places, which adds to the impression that what Lumet was trying to accomplish was to reproduce the energy of a theatre performance on film.
A masterclass in acting, but a bit of a slog, Long Day’s Journey Into Night is an overwrought, and often devastating version of the play. It’s a faithful adaptation and if it wasn’t 3 hours long, and unrelentingly depressing, it would surely be a classic. As it is, it remains an impressive endeavour, but one that I find it difficult to imagine anyone subjecting themselves to more than once.
Unlike the usual Masters Of Cinema releases, this isn’t as comprehensive as we are used to. The most interesting feature is the audio essay on Lumet’s theatre adaptations. It’s a side of his filmography I wasn’t that familiar with previously and a really insightful, well observed essay.