If we did not know it is based on Henrik Ibsen’s celebrated 1879 Norwegian play, we might not guess the theatrical origin of A Doll’s House, which Joseph Losey brilliantly directed from David Mercer’s script, so fully realized it is as a film. Because we do know this, however, part of the film’s pleasure is how one A Doll’s House becomes an updated gloss on the other. Losey’s film, after all, is very much of its own feminist time, and the actress playing Nora Helmer, Jane Fonda, must have found in Nora’s ordeal elements of her own struggles toward independence and political enlightenment.
Fonda is superb, achingly alive and deeply affecting, as Nora, whose forgery of her father’s signature to secure a loan to assist her husband, without his knowledge, is threatened with exposure now that the lender, Nils Krogstad, has been discharged from employment by Nora’s husband, Torvald. Nils wants his job back. If Nora fails to convince Torvald to arrange for this, Nils will likely destroy the Helmers’ marriage with the scandalous truth. Torvald’s reaction upon reading Nils’s detailed letter convinces Nora that she has nothing to offer her marriage—or her children—as it is currently, conventionally, constituted.
In folk costume, Nora’s Christmastime tarantella—one of the best uses of dance in a dramatic film—attempts to forestall Torvald’s reading Nils’s letter; it gives ironical form to Nora’s sprawling, loose-ended anxiety.* Shots that contain both a character and her or his mirror-image, including Nora and Nora’s, imply integrated personalities which do not yet exist.
Trevor Howard gives the performance of a lifetime as Dr. Rank, who adores Nora and whom Nora, at a pivotal moment, refuses to manipulate. Delphine Seyrig beautifully plays Nora’s friend Kristine Linde, whose motives are astoundingly ambiguous.
* Friend and dance critic Mindy Aloff has just e-mailed me that, “in the original production on stage, in the 19th-century, the actress who played Nora was a trained Bournonville dancer.”
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