Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire
Palmer's film is that rare concert doc that isn't for established fans only.
The blinding of horses is something that works a great deal better as stage symbolism than as cinematic fact, and that's one of the several things wrong with the way “Equus” has been brought to the screen. Peter Shaffer's play, duly enshrined as one of the decade's best, benefited from the limitations of the stage in telling its story of a strange young man driven to blind six horses. Sidney Lumet’s film recognizes no limitations at all-of time, space or reality-and shows us things that would be much better merely alluded to.
The play used costumed young men to suggest the horses and a set suggestive of a boxing ring for its encounters between the disturbed boy and his psychiatrist. Shaffer's language sketched in the details. The film fleshes out the reality: We see the mental health facility where the boy goes, the home he comes from and the stable where he works. We see him in childhood on the beach during his first terrifying, exhilarating encounter with a horse. And we actually see him blinding those horses in the film's most serious miscalculation.
All of these realities, strangely enough, get in the way of the play's own reality: the obsession that the two characters come to share. As suggestion and mystery, “Equus” had power. But when its mysteries become concrete, they lose their power and even become slightly affected theatrical conceits.
Shaffer's story, with its Freudian and mythological trappings, is familiar by now: An adolescent boy, the only child of a family that otherwise produces only impotence, religious hysteria and repressed hatred, comes to identify strongly with horses. He is particularly fascinated by the way they allow men to mistreat them. “They could kick the hell out of us if they wanted to,” he muses, and yet they allow themselves to be bridled and spurred and driven around in circles all day long.