As an adaptation of a great book, "Ulysses" is intelligent, serious, earnest, and generally very bad. As a movie existing by itself with no previous form, "Ulysses" is almost non-existent.
Rather than use Joyce's book as a starting point, rather than trying to find cinematic equivalents for Joyce's astounding trips of language and his incredibly complex "heroic" structure, the director, Joseph Strick and his co-writer, Fred Haines, have used the book as a crutch, as a lifeline to which the movie constantly refers itself in a fraudulent, dishonest attempt to give itself the appearance of an existence of its own, as a total separate cohesive work of art, something it most definitely is not.
Everything in the film seems to be chosen at random. There is no real steady flow to the action, no insights into the worlds of the characters, no real unity at all in fact, except that everything occurs during one fall day in Dublin, and everything is connected in some way, direct or indirect, with the life of Leopold Bloom, the non-entity, the wandering Jew, the gray Ulysses of Joyce's myth. The reason that "these" scenes are depicted rather than "those" is actually obvious: they serve as reminders of what was in the book, where they were important vital parts of the total literary structure. For many who have read the book and then seen the movie, these disconnected little vignettes serve almost as prolonged subliminal suggestions: they flaccidly and superficially "suggest" a scene from the book, the viewer remembers the scene in all its brilliance, and then transfers it, "combines" it with the scene on screen In this way, one may emerge from the theatre attributing to the film a richness and depth that was never there. The film is a pony of the book, a summary of the book's incidents (especially ineffectual in this case where incidents themselves are the least important aspect of Joyce's book.
Especially poor is Strick's use of Joyce's language. In the scene where Stephen Daedalus walks on the beach, he speaks in the book of the "ineluctable modality of the inevitable" which begins a remarkable passage connected with the sea, full of womb references, and other amazing semantic, pictorial, and psychological connections. Rather than trying to find a visual form for Joyce's word-dance, Strick has Daedalus actually read the speech on the soundtrack as we see him walk. The total effect is poor, pretentious, diffuse, and typical cf the kind of cop-outs found throughout the film. Joyce's Dublin was a magical mysterious, hallucinatory cosmos. In the film, It is just a modern city, drab, dull, colorless, and not even worthy of a brief travelogue, Throughout, the visual imagination of "Ulysses" is cliche, predictable, and totally lacking in creative spark. In no way does it do justice to the book.
But one is left with a puzzling contradiction. Usually when you see an adaptation of a book that is markedly inferior to the original, you feel tremendously cheated, annoyed. The movie seems often twice as bad as it might have been because of the comparison with the original. If this formula held up, somebody who has read "Ulysses" would find the movie unbearable. But in fact it works completely differently. Those who have read the book often feel a bit disappointed (though most that I've met actually loved the movie) but almost always still like the film tremendously. The reason must be that Strick and his co-workers are very serious, intelligent people. Never do they cheapen Joyce. They constantly, dilute him, make his work seem much less majestic and dynamic than it is. But this is a far different thing from cheapening, which has always been Hollywood's favorite process. The respect of everyone involved is apparent throughout. In fact, it becomes obvious that Strick and the others were in awe of the book, too much so in fact. They were too scared to try to create a new artistic life, finally ending up composing a moving hymn of praise to the book; and since those who have read the book are in complete sympathy with Strick's awe, they feel right at home with the movie, For those who haven't read the book, I suspect the film will seem somewhat nebulous, confusing, and directionless, but still quite entertaining. Enough of Joyce is constantly there to make "Ulysses" one of the best films of the last year.
A word about the final scene, Molly Bloom's monologue. It is glorious, even in the simplified, truncated, form presented in the film. At times it sounds more like Tennessee Williams than Joyce because Strick has emphasized the sexual thoughts quite a bit. But, after all, they are the core of the monologue, and in a spellbinding performance by Barbra Jefford, this final whirl of beauty becomes a classic sequence of simple earthy direct and passionate poetry. Here, Strick's visual facility seems much better than in the rest of the film, but it doesn't make that much difference. The important thing is the voice, the words, Molly's face. The voice is hypnotic in its simplicity, the words moving and beautiful (due to Strick's courage, also unexpurgated), and the face unforgettable.
The acting throughout is first-rate, though at times you can't blame the performers for not quite knowing what they're playing. And finally, any movie that offers such a final scene, which may prove to be a landmark in the history of films, is certainly worth seeing. Yes.
Source: Amherst Student archives (note: Jim is not credited on this page for this review, this omission was corrected in the Dec 7th issue)