Dec 6, 2019 in Analysis

A Doll's House Movie (1992)
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Henrik Ibsen wrote his famous play A Doll House as far back as in 1879. About one hundred forty years passed but its subject-matter – the identity of a woman, as well as an individual in general – is still as valid as it was in the nineteenth century before all the accomplishments of feminism and the civil rights movement. 1992 BBC’s production by British film director David Thacker presents a powerful duo of English actors Juliet Stevenson, who plays eccentric and unbalanced Nora, and Trevor Eve, who acts as a suffocatingly loving and oppressive Torvald Helmer. In order to reveal the author’s idea of how one human being should not be oppressed by another, Thacker goes beyond the feministic interpretation of the play and shows Torvald as much a child as Nora. Assuming the traditional gender roles of the nineteenth century both Nora and Torvald played their doll house where the pretty wife was a doll and a spoilt child and the powerful husband played an adult-like figure. However, an attentive viewer will see that such role-play is crippling not only for the woman but for the man as well. Although A Doll’s House is traditionally perceived as a feministic work, the BBC’s production reveals that equality is a universal value from which both men and women benefit. 

The main theme of A Doll’s House is women’s place in the family and society. The viewer is able to observe the humiliating dynamics of Torvald and Nora’s relationship from the first scene of the movie. Torvald treats his wife as a willful child rebuking her for excessive spending and forbidding her to eat macaroons. The inequality in their relations is intensified by the silly game of belittling names such as “squirrel” (because Nora has to hoard sweets and money), “spendthrift,” “songbird,” “spending bird throwing money away,” and Torvald’s overall patronizing manner. Furthermore, Nora hides from Torvald not only her little weaknesses and desires, such as penchant for sweets or spendings, but also some bigger things such as a large debt to treat Torvald’s illness right after their wedding. 

 

In a response to her submissive position in her family, Nora assumes a role of a coquettish little thing, which in fact can be interpreted as empowering. Not having a job of her own, Nora masterfully wheedles money out of her husband who is happy to oblige if treated playfully. However, eventually it becomes obvious that her power over her husband is not satisfying; it is a surrogate of real relations. Thus, Nora comes to the understanding of her real place in the family and the role she plays for her husband – a doll, a child, a plaything.

Furthermore, Torvald finds out that it is not him who provided everything for his family. In fact, he owns his life to Nora who timely found the money to take him to Italy and take care of his tuberculosis that would have killed him. To this effect, she showed wit and cleverness to find money but her act of kindness threatens his reputation because she forged her father’s signature. Always overbearing and smug, Torvald is at a loss at Nora’s awakening and does not know what to do and how to stop her from leaving their family. A once patriarchal figure of the family turns out to be a common person rather than a powerful being that can solve any problem for his childish wife. 

However, Ibsen’s intention was not only to show how women suffer in the clutches of paternalism. The play illustrates that men are not able to keep up with the pressure placed upon them by the demands of the patriarchal society. Men are not gods and cannot always be able-bodied and clever and earn plenty of money to keep for their families the highest level of living. The image of Torvald reveals it clearly. By the end of the play, the husband and wife reverse their roles completely. Whereas in the beginning of the play Nora seems an extravagant and childish young woman who plays along the role for her self-centered and self-righteous husband, in the course of the play she reveals her strong core, her will, and her understanding that she is as much an individual as her husband and anybody else. Meanwhile, Torvald turns out to be a coward and egotistic little man. Thus, the reversal of gender roles becomes another theme of the play.

The BBC’s “A Doll’s House” received accolades from film critics. The director’s decision to leave the play almost uncut was praise, despite the length of the piece of two and a half hours. Los Angeles Times’ review says, “The cumulative weight of the production justifies every minute”. Another strong point of Thacker’s interpretation is the acting of the leading actors. Stevenson adds a lot of passion and flirtiness to make her heroine to border on feeble-mindedness, while Eve counterbalances Stevenson’s effervescence by the stable and trite personality of his character. After I have watched the BBC’s “A Doll’s House” I watched two more productions, one starring Jane Fonda and another starring Antony Hopkins, and found them unsatisfactory in terms of both actor casting. Either Nora or Torvald seem weaker in those productions throughout the whole movie. Whereas Stevenson and Eve’s performance are both solid and convincing, and they both show their characters disgusting at some points. 

It should be added that the modern audience can be struck by the selfishness of Nora’s desire to find herself while she has little children in her care. However, an average middle-class housewife of the nineteenth century Norway never gave herself fully to her children. Children were usually in the care of a nanny. It is confirmed by the episode when Nora believes that her influence on children is poisonous and removed herself from communicating with them and the children only see her from afar. Therefore, when Nora walks out of the front door the children will be entrusted to the nanny and it would not disrupt the routine of their everyday life.

It is overwhelming to think that the play written in 1879 is still valid and rings true for the modern audience. Despite all the accomplishments of feminism the true equality is still a thing to strive for. Of course for the first time audience Ibsen’s play was groundbreaking and mind-opening. However, Nora’s walkout still leaves an impact for the today’s audience because many families can identify the problems of identity and one’s place in the family and society. Apart from its cast and their superb performance, BBC’s A Doll House reveals that the play has more to it than only the feministic interpretation. Indeed, Nora reconsiders her role of wife and mother but first of all she wants to be an individual. In the last scene with Torvald Nora says, “I am first and foremost a person!”. Nora’s leaving the family not only gives her an opportunity to find herself and bring herself up anew but it also allows Torvald to rethink his life and his moral character. While he stated that he wished to “risk life and limb, risk everything, for [Nora’s] sake,” he was not able to display the desires level of self-sacrifice when the time came. Therefore, he also needs time and space to rebuild himself anew even though he is unaware of it and is ready to resume their little game of pretense. 

Overall, Thacker’s interpretation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is highly worth of watching as it offers a moving rumination on what it is to be a person and to have an identity. In contrast to the traditional patriarchal order, Ibsen’s play reveals that gender roles are fluid and not set in stone. Only the fulfillment of one’s own path and destiny can give a person true happiness, otherwise it is pretense.

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