Although the adjective fearless often gets attached to actresses who play dark or uninhibited roles, perhaps no mainstream performer has so consistently earned that description than Glenda Jackson did during her heyday from the late ’60s to the early ’80s. (She continued acting, often in fine projects, through the early ’90s before shifting to a political career.) For some projects, particularly those directed by frequent collaborator Ken Russell, Jackson descended so far into psychosexual darkness as to become feral. Similarly, in films such as this Royal Shakespeare Company production of Henrik Ibsen’s 1891 play Hedda Gabler, Jackson ignored the conventional impulse to engender audience goodwill. When Jackson essayed monsters, as she does here, she did so to spectacular effect.
To be fair, calling Ibsen’s complex protagonist Hedda Gabler a monster isn’t exactly correct; while much of what she does is borderline sociopathic, Ibsen ensures that we see what drives her. So does Trevor Nunn, the writer-director of this intense adaptation. Casting the story in an amber glow that counters the ice surrounding Hedda’s twisted heart, Nunn employs intimate compositions that either trap characters together uncomfortably or reveal the distance (metaphorical and physical) between them. Nunn’s film is precise and unflinching, just like Jackson’s explosive leading performance.
Summarizing the plot does little justice to the grim textures of Ibsen’s narrative, but the broad strokes are as follows. Although Hedda (Jackson) is married to Jorgen (Peter Eyre), a socially inept intellectual of marginal promise, she cruelly flirts with Judge Brack (Timothy West), who wants to have an affair with her. Enter Hedda’s simple friend, Thea (Jennie Linden), who is involved with another intellectual, Eijert (Patrick Stewart—with hair!). Long ago, he and Hedda were lovers, and they still have a dangerous bond. As the story progresses, Hedda identifies which characters are obstacles to her dreams of a comfortable lifestyle, then sets in motion a horrific chain of events.
Just as none would mistake Hedda Gabler for safe classical theater, none would mistake Hedda for a stodgy stage adaptation. Lurking inside the ornate language and posh costume designs is something truly malignant, a skillful exploration of the million ways people hurt each other. Burning at the center of thing is a remarkable character brought to frightening life by an extraordinary performer. Even when she goes big with a gesture or a monologue, Jackson finds truth in Hedda’s grasping for power—and in her startling realizations of powerlessness. So even though everyone around her does fine work, especially Nunn, this experience is all about the portrayal that earned Jackson, as of this writing, the final of her four Oscar nominations for Best Actress in a Leading Role.