Under Milk Wood film – the spellbinding new adaptation

Under Milk Wood film – the spellbinding new adaptation – words Paul Risker

While the words “strangely simple and simply strange“ could echo a derogatory intent, taken in context as Dylan Thomas’ own description of his seminal work Under Milk Wood casts them in an alternative light. And by projecting them onto Kevin Allen’s adaptation, they illuminate this strange and surreal telling that is far from simple.

What the filmmaker and his co-writers Murray Lachlan Young and Michael Breen have conjured up is a complexly interwoven pictorial dream that has a sense of feeling that stirs the appreciation of one’s aesthetic soul.


Since its first BBC radio broadcast in 1954, Under Milk Wood has enjoyed an artistic diversity – adapted for both the stage and the screen – first in 1972 starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor – alongside publication in print. It has been intimately explored through the art of performance and even offers an intimate and quiet encounter for readers. In light of this creatively diverse heritage, it is becoming that this the latest film adaptation should happen to celebrate the diversity of the filmic medium itself.

Allen and his co-writers latch onto the idea of film as a dream that serves to create an effective synergy between the film and the source material, as well as Thomas’ original inspiration. The short story of Under Milk Wood is one of a restless poet and writer who struggling to sleep wandered out during nightfall, only to find himself imagining what those around him were dreaming. And so Thomas’ poem peers into the dreams of the residents of Llareggub, a small fishing village on the Welsh coast, before the goings on of the waking hours commence. It was that singular moment that was the seed that would grow into Under Milk Wood and what in Allen and his co-writers hands would be a celebration of film, although one that is best suited to a lack of critical discussion.

Whereas literature, poetry and radio have words that are brought to life in the imagination of the audience and readers, in film words are the catalyst for the creation of image and sound. In Allen’s hands, Thomas’ words are a Big Bang in which a challenging cinematic world bursts into life. He creates a mix of poetry in motion that lends the film both a sense of feeling and a texture from the poetic use of turn of phrase, cinematography and sound that are interwoven together. The dream structure heightens these components and like a mosaic in which the individual stones of the whole picture can be seen, so Allen’s Under Milk Wood takes the form of not a fragmented retelling, but of a mosaic comprised of the fragments of film language.

Every now and again I find myself recalling the observation that the explanation of why you love a piece of music is a detriment to the experience. True to its dreamlike construction Allen’s Under Milk Wood has that feel of a film that should be silently appreciated. Just as a dream that you cannot remember yet you can feel, words can never express the feeling Under Milk Wood evokes. Similarly to last year’s Under the Skin it is one that should be experienced as a dream that comes to be remembered as a experiential feeling without words.

As strange as it may be to suggest this in a piece of film criticism, on occasion this sentiment feels the most applicable truth for those films that exist on a sensory level, or move beyond the horizon of simply pleasing and entertaining an audience. It is one that is so intricate that it refuses critical definition. Under Milk Wood is a singularly unique work that stands alongside films such as Jan Švankmajer’s 1988 Alice – itself an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland. It is a film to be discussed but not assessed. Rather it is almost certainly a film for the more counterculture leaning audience and one of those works of art that beckons to be seen. But more importantly it is for the individual to discover whether the turn of phrase, the pictorial or verbal humour, sometimes a mix of the two, alongside the wonderfully symbolic imagery with a tasteful rather than gratuitous erotica edge has the touch to stir that part of one’s aesthetic soul.

Under Milk Wood is out in cinemas from 30th October and on DVD from 16th November.

Under Milk Wood film – the spellbinding new adaptation – words Paul Risker

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