Henrik Ibsen's 1879 A Doll's House is a story of a woman who realizes that she has been wasting away without her knowing anything about life itself and in effect has been allowing herself to be a plaything for the men in her life. We viewed two 1973 versions of this play in movie form; and both had good qualities; however, I would like to concentrate on the version directed by Joseph Losey, starring Jane Fonda as Nora. Movies based on plays are always going to add to what usually is contained on a stage but this version strayed far enough to lose the heartbreaking hysteria of Nora and her perceptions.
A Doll's House is set in the house of Torvald Helmer and his wife Nora; all of the scenes are played out here and off stage things are implied. Nora is caught in a trap in this play because she had entered into a loan with a man, Krogstad (Edward Fox), behind her husband's back who seeks to blackmail her and her husband for personal gain. She finds out she may have committed some illegalities in acquiring the loan, and now the man she got the loan from is using it to better his prospects and she must try to fix things before her husband finds out.
The play is contained in a small area and all action revolves around Nora dealing with her problems within the house she lives; this heightens the tension because in the end it is this space she lives in that is the problem. Nora finds herself in the end realizing it is her life with her husband, her father and in a way her children that are wrong, and the confinement in the house with this marriage dramatically works for the viewer by never leaving these surroundings. It is claustrophobic in that house; and, as the tension builds, it seems unbearable.
This film version starts with a young Nora and her friend Mrs. Linde (Delphyne Seyrig) ice skating and stopping at a coffee shop for conversation. This is added to create a bigger world and to provide some background information, the problem is that the original tension is lost by opening the world up. The entire movie has outdoor scenes and different locations in which new dialogue is placed or versions of dialogue are placed in different locations than in the play. The bottom line is that the heart of this story is the house in which everything is wrong; and, by breaking that boundary, the story loses some of its potency.
The actors are important in conveying any story on stage or screen, and here I think the choices are wrong in both acting and in casting. In the life that we see in the play the two main characters are beholden to each other as husband and wife and also as by familiarity that has a certain charm, however dysfunctional.
Torvald Helmer is a man completely at ease in thinking he is right about everything, and in his view of marriage he feels that what he has with Nora is completely normal. He has no reason to think otherwise because those around him, including his wife, keep this image secure. He also has soft and subtle ways that he feels are his giving over everything to his wife out of love, he does not know he is misguided or a pig, he only acts as to what he understands. A sweetness is there on both sides of this marriage that is misguided in the long run but sustaining for the short haul.
The way Torvald is acted here by David Warner, we only see a unsympathetic character who in the very way he looks at his wife shows little emotion or desire for making his wife happy. This movie shows a Torvald whom we could only cheer that Nora would leave because he is intolerable. The sweet part of his character is either out of the movie because the audience is supposed to feel hatred for him or because the actor was unable to show the complexity of the character.
Jane Fonda is playing the part of Nora, and here I think she goes beyond her range as an actress. Her past history and political activism as a being a hard and tough person aside, here she seems to try very hard to act like the doll in a house that treats her like one but seems more like a actress straining to get through to the end to promote the agenda of feminism. She seems chaotic and unbalanced in her characterizing and never comes across as believable as someone who would put up with this husband. Love the actress or hate her. Nora is sweet and charitable and only acts out of love for those around her; here it seems as if Nora is just being stupid and in denial until the end when she wises up.
A Doll's House is a complex look at life, for the time it was written a big statement about women and their place in the world and marriage. However, this film seems to want to overstate the issue, and thus the telling of the story loses its believability.