In an odd coincidence, two films of Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House arrived in 1973, one in theaters and one on television. Both take place in 19th-century Norway, where housewife Nora revels upon hearing that her husband, uptight banker Torvald, has earned a major promotion, because the change marks an end to the family’s monetary woes. When Torvald fires a subordinate named Krogstad, the disgruntled man blackmails Nora with evidence that she once forged documents for a bank loan. The ensuing melodrama reveals what little respect Torvald has for his wife—hence the title, which refers to men treating women as playthings. Given the story’s ultimate theme of a woman’s self-realization, it’s obvious why the material seemed timely during the early feminist era.
The British version, ironically enough, has American roots. It’s a filmed record of a Broadway production that was adapted from Ibsen by the celebrated UK playwright Christopher Hampton. The Broadway show featured revered British actress Claire Bloom in a tour-de-force performance, and Bloom re-creates her meticulous work in the movie. Director Patrick Garland largely ignores any cinematic possibilities in the play, opting for intimate scenes taking place on fully dressed approximations of the stage production’s sets. At his worst, Garland slips into bland cuts back and forth between flat close-ups, particularly during the final, lengthy showdown between Nora and Torvald. What Garland’s A Doll House lacks in visual imagination, however, it makes up for in dramatic firepower.
Bloom runs the gamut from frivolous to manic to regal, and her costar—the sublime Anthony Hopkins—imbues Torvald with a mixture of inflated ego and repressed desperation. Playing key supporting roles are Denholm Elliot, bitter and cruel as the maligned Krogstand, and Ralph Richardson, elegantly sad as Nora’s aging friend, Dr. Rank. One can’t help but wonder what a filmmaker more adept at stage-to-screen adaptations, perhaps Sidney Lumet, could have done with the raw material of these finely tuned performances, but at least theater fans can savor great work forever. Plus, in any incarnation, Ibsen’s prescient notions about women liberating themselves pack a punch. Consider this passage from the British film: After Torvald exclaims, “No man would sacrifice his honor for love,” Nora replies, “Millions of women have.”
Seeing as how Jane Fonda was a fierce combatant on the front lines of the ’70s culture wars, it’s not surprising she felt Ibsen’s statement merited a fresh adaptation. Alas, she proved unlucky twice. First, she clashed with director Joseph Losey, and second, she completed her project after the UK version had already reached theaters. That’s why the Fonda film landed on TV—producers rightly estimated the limits of the public’s appetite for this material. In nearly every way, Losey’s take on A Doll’s House is inferior to the Bloom/Hopkins version, even though Losey’s comparatively sophisticated camerawork creates more visual interest than Garland’s stodgy frames.
The big problem is that the casting never clicks. Fonda gives an adequate performance, with intense moments of fervor and physicality weighted down by stilted readings of classical-style dialogue. Viewed in context, she’s an outlier. Fine European actors including Trevor Howard (as Dr. Rank) and David Warner (as Torvald) seem natural delivering reams of ornate dialogue while stuffed into period costumes, but none of them truly connects with Fonda—her performance exists in isolation from the rest of the picture. Plus, since the gangly Warner somewhat resembles a frequent Fonda costar, it’s impossible not to picture Donald Sutherland in the Torvald role and wonder what that dynamic might have been like. That said, Edward Fox is excellent in the Krogstand role, radiating predatory heat. Yet the thing that should have supercharged this spin on A Doll’s House, Fonda’s offscreen passion for gender equality, makes key moments feel more like stand-alone political speeches instead of organic elements of interpersonal confrontation.
A Doll’s House (UK): GROOVY
A Doll’s House (USA): FUNKY