Fans of Diana Rigg will enjoy a jackpot in her remarkable performance as Ibsen’s icy, manipulating, despairing bitch in this 1980 made-for-British television production. However, it is Rigg’s performance alone that makes this offering worthwhile.
Working from a translation from John Osborne and clocking in at a trim 78 minutes, David Cunliffe’s adaptation is little more than a filmed play. Part of this makes sense – keeping the action in a dark drawing room and a tight garden mirrors the claustrophobia that suffocates Hedda into vicious scheming – but Cunliffe’s lack of ease with camera placement and scene blocking often makes the film visually monotonous.
Furthermore, the film’s ensemble never truly gives life to the full complexity of the drama. In particular, Philip Bond’s Lovborg and Alan Dobie’s Judge Brack are so enervated that it is impossible to see why Hedda would waste her time with them. Denis Lill, as the dullish, inferior historian who marries Hedda, plays his role as a clueless shmuck – and he is such a silly twit that you actually find yourself rooting for Hedda in her mistreatment of him (not Ibsen’s purpose, I imagine).
But this is clearly Rigg’s vehicle and she drives it peerlessly. With a regal beauty and rigid posture, she is every inch the general’s daughter who looks down on the boring bourgeois environment where she is trapped by an unhappy marriage and unexpectedly restrictive financial boundaries. Her sudden joy in being able to manipulate those she despises is jolting – she takes to these duties with the radiance of a woman reborn, and the casual cruelty of her actions are both fascinating and terrifying.
This DVD release seems to have some problems with the sound quality (I was playing with the volume button while watching it, and a viewer posting a comment on Amazon.com also expressed the same concern). However, even with wobbly sound, a weak supporting cast and a stagy production, this “Hedda Gabler” rises to the occasion through Rigg’s brilliance. By all means, see it just for her.