THERE'S LITTLE ORIGINAL reporting in the new James Joyce doc In Bed with Ulysses—all of the history it divulges has been roundly covered elsewhere. But filmmakers Alan Adelson and Kate Taverna break some new ground in toggling between Joyce's well-trod biography and a rehearsal for a staged reading of Ulysses for Bloomsday, the international celebration of Joyce's novel.
The fine actors in the staged version struggle with Joyce's language—with its rhythms, with its perspective shifts, with figuring out where to breathe. The film is strongest when this live performance is set against Joyce's biography, illuminating how his personal history is reflected in the text.
But when the film steps outside the theater, it loses steam. The archival footage that accompanies voiceover narration is dreary—a photo of a building in Zurich, or the inside of Shakespeare and Company, or of Joyce's face, slowly fuzzing out as the camera zooms in for an extreme close-up. And talking heads get plenty of screen time, including an enthusiastic appearance from Irish author Colum McCann. The filmmakers' enthusiasm for their subject is palpable, but it's all very Documentary 101, and the further away it gets from the text itself, the more tedious it becomes.
Joyce's struggles with money and his issues with his wife and children are detailed, as is the role of Shakespeare and Company owner Sylvia Beach in publishing the novel, and the controversy its publication stirred in the US. Interesting, sure, but it's all familiar stuff, well-known to anyone with more than a passing interest in Joyce. Far more edifying is watching actors try to feel their way through Joyce's language—when actress Kathleen Chalfant reads Molly Bloom's famous soliloquy, it's almost worth the price of admission.