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Passages from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake

Director: Mary Ellen Bute

1965| 97 mins| black and white


Mary Ellen Bute’s highly regarded film begins the season, which will continue throughout the summer. Although Finnegans Wake is a unique film that is likely to baffle anyone unfamiliar with Joyce, it cannot be dismissed merely as a literary enterprise. Its director Mary Ellen Bute correctly claims that the film is ‘not a translation of the book but a reaction to it’. Made with the approval of the Joyce Society, the film is based on a stage play by Mary Manning, who was also responsible for the screen treatment.
The two main areas that intrigued Bute are ‘the power of kinetic colour and form and the spoken word’. Joyce’s elliptical rhetoric and intricate punning (which might generally be considered a formidable barrier to the filming of this most opaque of his works) must have been an attraction to Bute, whose enthusiasm for the ‘visual’ and ‘kinetic’ quality of his language leads her to the surprising but well-judged move of running subtitles from the original text to support the dialogue.
Not the least impressive element is Mary Ellen Bute’s direction of her actors, who in their delivery of Joyce’s lines they achieve clarity and spontaneity without being hyper theatrical.

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