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Ghosts

Henrik Ibsen, translated by Michael Meyer
Part of The Judi Dench Collection
(2008)

The pinnacle of The Judi Dench Collection from the BBC must surely be Elija Moshinsky's 1986 version of the Ibsen tale of a family that is less respectable than it seems. Michael Meyer's slangy, modern translation of this symbolist classic is brought to the screen by a cast to die for.

In addition to the lady after whom this collection has been named in the part of Mrs Alving; there are also Sir Michael Gambon as Pastor Manders and Kenneth Branagh playing her son, Oswald, supported by Freddie Jones and Natasha Richardson as the crafty common man Engstrand and his daughter Regina.

Dame Judi gives an immaculate performance as a stern, almost regal matriarch who seems to have taken the frosty conditions of the surroundings in which she lives into her being. This there is merely a façade to cover the passions of the boil beneath.

The play takes place at a time that should be one of celebration, as an orphanage is to open memorialising her late, much respected husband, a figure almost as significant in this play as those whom we actually meet.

The terrifyingly righteous Pastor is an upstanding moralist who, like Mrs Alving is, to an extent, in denial both about their earlier relations and that pillar of the community, the widow's late husband. The wealthy businessman who died a decade ago was a charming but, in the words of his doctor, "dissolute" man. Indeed, much of the pleasure of this play lies in such circumlocutions and the way in which ultimately the sentiments hidden by words take on a life of their own.

By way of contrast to this solid or even stolid pair, young Oswald is an artist with rebellious tendencies but also a dark, deadly secret of which he knows nothing. It is only after the orphanage burns to the ground that a series of home truths is finally made apparent, potentially destroying the lives of all concerned but finally allowing them an encounter with honesty.

Then the boy who believed that his disease was the result of his own high living learns of what he has inherited from his father, while his love for Regina is shown to be an impossibility.

This in turn releases the young woman to follow her own mother into what might well be her own life of dissolution. These parts allow the young Kenneth Branagh and Natasha Richardson ample opportunity to compete with their elders in conveying excessive emotion with convincing lucidity.

Such a marvellous adaptation of Ghosts is undoubtedly the jewel in the crown of the Collection, with magical performances from all five actors and a tremendous screen realisation by Moshinsky.

His use of light and camera angles adds much to a taut, tense drama that investigates and then reveals secrets of character and relationship. It also shows Dame Judi Dench at the peak of her abilities in a role that could have been written for her.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher