Martin Dysart (Richard Burton) is a child psychiatrist who works in a care home for troubled youths, but he has never really connected with his patients until his friend Hesther (Eileen Atkins) pleads with him to take a case which has come to her attention. Dysart does have the reputation of being one of the best in his chosen field, and she knows that he can help this boy, Alan Strang (Peter Firth), who has been arrested after committing a terrible crime against the horses he was helping to look after with his job at a local stables. Can Dysart cure him and will he feel entirely comfortable with any solution to the boy's problems?
Before Amadeus came along, playwright Peter Shaffer was best known for Equus, a big hit on the stage thanks to its unusual subject matter and equally singular presentation of that material. For the film version, opinion was more divided, with many believing that nothing on screen could do justice to the imagery thrown up in the theatre, such was its stylised nature, and it was true that in approaching the thing more realistically, director Sidney Lumet risked looking absurd. Indeed, the dreaded word pretentious could have been invoked for the manner in which the play was shown to be on shaky ground as far as the psychology went.
That was not to criticise the performances, which understood what was expected of them and tackled the script with sincerity and, when necessary, passion. Leading the charge on the audience's sensibilities was Burton in a role he had dearly wanted in order to prove himself a proper movie star capable of more than the kind of effort that had, at the time, seen him regarded as something of a hack, squandering his considerable talents on works beneath his dignity. He didn't really succeed in changing perceptions, as those who recognised him as a skilled thespian were pleased to see him performing in something worthy, but most would recall him from Where Eagles Dare or worse, Exorcist II and more or less dismiss him.
Burton does bring the necessary gravitas to the film although that could be down to his rumbling tones offering the Very Serious dialogue. The story acts as a detective yarn for the mind of Firth's Alan - the actor returned from his award-winning stage performance and could still convincingly play a teenager in his twenties - as Dysart has to fathom what could have pushed the boy over the edge and into the horrific act of blinding the horses in the stable. Although there is plenty of conviction to putting this across, when it gets bogged down in Alan's unorthodox religious outlook it becomes hard to credit as true psychology and starts to come across as some uneasy concoction to make a point about curing people of their dysfunctions.
That point being, perhaps it is better to allow those people to be abnormal rather than iron out their issues and make them numb and ordinary, an idea which might work if you're taking an artistic view, but which is not so helpful in the everyday world. At least Alan could have been allowed to keep his illusions, which concern his treating the horses as godlike, his deity being the Equus of the title, that derive from his confused religious upbringing. It's all mum and dad's fault, as played by Joan Plowright and Colin Blakely, as it is they who instilled Alan with his twisted take on spirituality and the guilt that they brought with it, and the film builds towards a parallel climax as we discover the exact chain of events that led up to the crime and Alan's sessions in Dysart's office. Along the way, Jenny Agutter shows up as possibly the most well-balanced character of the lot, though that's not saying much, and the drama is meant to leave you pondering, though you might be more liable to think, hmm, nice try but it's kind of preposterous in its brutal manner, isn't it? Music by Richard Rodney Bennett.
Esteemed American director who after a background in theatre moved into television from where he went on to be the five times Oscar nominated filmmaker behind some of the most intelligent films ever to come out of America. His 1957 debut for the big screen, 12 Angry Men, is still a landmark, and he proceeded to electrify and engross cinema audiences with The Fugitive Kind, The Pawnbroker, Cold War drama Fail-Safe, The Hill, The Group, The Deadly Affair, The Offence, definitive cop corruption drama Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon (another great Al Pacino role), Network, Equus, Prince of the City, Deathtrap, The Verdict, Running On Empty and his final film, 2007's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Often working in the UK, he also brought his adopted home town of New York to films, an indelible part of its movies for the best part of fifty years.