Joseph Strick’s film of James Joyce’s celebrated novel ran into censorship difficulties in many countries, including Ireland, where it was banned in 1967 and again in 1974. Now at last it can be seen, unbanned and uncut, in an Irish cinema (the novel itself was never banned here). Strick, who originally contemplated a running time of six hours or more, tried to cope with the problems posed by the sheer length of the novel by reordering (to good effect, it must be said) the opening episodes, by conflating two episodes into one (with parts of Sirens figuring in Cyclops), by ignoring some (including Wandering Rocks’) altogether, and by severely pruning many (Nausicaa, for instance, is over before you can say Gerty MacDowell). Furthermore, budgetary constraints made it impossible to represent with any consistency the visual texture of Dublin in 1904, the year in which the novel was set (the film’s streetscapes are those of Dublin in the mid-sixties).
The first half of the film, illuminated by the excellent performances of Milo O’Shea (Bloom) and T.P. McKenna (Mulligan), is undeniably more impressive than the second, where Strick, in his honourable attempts at fidelity to the novel, can only limp after Joyce’s increasingly phantasmagorical narrative. The Night-town episode is dull and dutiful, except for the wonderful moment when Anna Manahan (Bella Cohen) puts in a sudden and ominous apparition.
The faces one remembers from Strick’s film are those of an extinct species, Dubliners who hardly hoped to survive and certainly never expected to succeed. The pub was their favourite habitat, and in the scene in Barney Kiernan’s of Little Britain Street there are two extraordinary vignettes of interest to natural historians: Brendan Cauldwell’s drunken eulogy of a dead friend whose name he misremembers, and Danny Cummins’ lugubrious devotion to his pints and racing pages. Joyce’s most ferocious and possessive champions might quarrel with the film, but Joyce himself, who was tender toward many unregarded forms of popular culture, would surely have relished some aspects of it.