Filming a staged production, such as a play, and then editing the footage into a “movie” can be a maudlin affair. A good live performance creates a connection with the audience, but that energy is often blocked from flowing through the two dimensions of the screen. It's a great way for theatrical companies to make some extra cash, but the self-defeating process negates the entire point of seeing the show live. The experience ends up feeling like an grand consolation prize: mediocre and boring, but you should be grateful you got to see it at all since you couldn't actually be there.
Then there is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, the “live broadcast” of the play currently on stage at the National Theatre in London. This film, or filmed production, whatever it is called, breathes some life into the little sub-genre of these low-budget movies made by filming live performances.
Besides the treat of bringing this brilliant play to the masses, audiences get the added bonus of enjoying a sharp film that is an exhilarating production in its own right. This is for the best, since The Curious Incident is the hottest show in London and there is no other way for anyone to see it if they didn't already buy tickets months ago (as well as fly to London to see the show, and, with the dollar-to-pound exchange rate, who can afford it?)
The Curious Incident, based on Mark Haddon's marvelous novel published in 2003, tells the story of Christopher Boone, an autistic teenager who is accused of a crime he didn't commit: the murder of his neighbor's dog. Christopher is a math genius with a profoundly analytical perspective on life, and he decides to use his smarts to discover the true culprit, which leads him out of his house and beyond the boundaries of his carefully regulated existence that is filled with theorems and quirky rules that only he fully understands. However, he uncovers much more than his uniquely-wired brain can process; as is usually the case with these situations, The Curious Incident is not really about a dead dog.
Most of the success of this filmed The Curious Incident comes from the simple fact that the play itself is so, so, very good, with acting that would bring a tear to Meryl Streep's eye. It is the National Theater of London, after all. However, filming the show actually added a certain level of artistic merit, thanks to slick editing and the use of multiple cameras. Because the NT production is performed “in the round,” the different shots afford the best angles from the 360 degree views of action — unlike most filmed plays, which are little more than amateurish recordings shot from straight-on.
The cameras also put on glorious display the stage itself, with graphic lighting designs that swirl information around as if it is spilling from Christopher's stunningly advanced brain. The effect is intended to portray an autistic person's perception of being assaulted by the barrage of information present in everyday life; with a camera positioned directly above the stage, viewers of the film can fully appreciate the overstimulation of living in Christopher's world, although perhaps his confusion is not as beautiful as are those stage lights.
Fans of the book may be initially disappointed with the play's narrative unfolding from a third-person perspective, which is much different than how the original story was told from Christopher's point of view. However, this is a necessary shift, since his mind is far too complicated to produce a play anyone would be able to understand. Fret not, because what results is an exciting, heartbreaking, and fascinating story that overwhelms the audience with sight and sound in a most thrilling manner, and accomplishes the task of not making people feel bad about seeing it in a movie theater, but happy they got to see it at all. It's well worth the ticket.
At L.A. Theatre Works, The James Bridges Theater, UCLA, 235 Charles E. Young Dr., L.A.; Sun., Oct. 28, 3 p.m., $20; $10 students at the door. (310) 827-0889, latw.org.