Some extraordinary performances are on show in this contentious if compelling psychological drama about passions and desires at the crossroads of religion and sex.
Dir. Sidney Lumet
1977 | UK/USA | Drama/Mystery | 137 mins | 1.85:1 | English
R21 (passed clean) for nudity and disturbing scenes
Cast: Richard Burton, Peter Firth, Colin Blakely, Joan Plowright, Jenny Agutter
Plot: A psychiatrist attempts to uncover a troubled stable boy’s disturbing obsession with horses.
Awards: Won 2 Golden Globes – Best Leading Actor (Drama), Best Supporting Actor; Nom. for 3 Oscars – Best Leading Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay
Subject Matter: Slightly Mature
Narrative Style: Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
(Reviewed on DVD)
As far as Sidney Lumet is concerned, the ‘70s was a great period for him, having made films like Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Network (1976). Equus is less talked about in the company of these illustrious works, but I feel it is every bit as fascinating as the director’s top-tier pictures.
For one, it contains a very strong leading performance in Richard Burton, who plays Martin, a psychiatrist trying to make sense of his latest patient, Alan, played by Peter Firth in a bold performance that occasionally requires him to perform with extensive nudity (and with a horse). Both were Oscar-nominated for their work here.
Lest you think that Equus runs predictably as a chaise longue (‘long chair’)-type psychotherapy drama, it goes into rather dark and contentious territory very quickly with some interesting use of flashbacks.
“Worship all you can see, and more will appear.”
Based on the stage play by Peter Shaffer, who also wrote the screenplay, Equus charts Alan’s obsession with horses from a young age, which becomes more disturbing as he matures into a young adult.
Martin, despite being an experienced professional, finds himself unable to make sense of Alan’s past behaviours, let alone explain them. This puzzles him endlessly, yet also deeply attracts him, stimulating him intellectually and just maybe spiritually.
By trying to understand Alan’s complex mind and unfathomable actions, in particular the psychotic episode—where he inflicted savage violence on several horses in a stable—that landed him in the couch, Martin becomes absorbed with his subject’s wild tales, which parallel the nightmares that he desperately wants to purge.
Lumet is very much an actor’s director, but his craft here is quite sublime, especially the layering of ‘mini-narratives’—be it recounts, dreams, memories, lies and truths—that give us a more complex picture than it seems.
Richard Burton had hoped the film would lead to a major comeback in his career. Instead it was a notorious flop.
As they build up, the mystery deepens, and the result is a disturbing psychological drama that should whet the appetite of audiences craving for a controversial and thought-provoking film.
Dealing with passions and desires at the crossroads of religion and sex, Equus could also be read as an allegory for latent homosexuality, particularly in a revealing if subtle flashback sequence of a very young Alan riding on a horse with a stranger on the beach.
Read what you will of the many scenes and accounts of Alan, but it is difficult to deny that this is not a film of substance, even if it runs a good 20 minutes longer than it should.