Commentary Magazine


Lights, Camera, Shakespeare

It is sometimes foolishly asserted—recently, for example, by the critic Anthony Lane in the New Yorker—that Shakespeare “works” better on the screen than in the theater. Those knotty iambic pentameters can be spoken softly, and hence understood; soliloquies can be rendered as voice-overs, and hence made dramatically plausible. But if theater conventions are artificial and limiting, the same is true of film, which is hardly the transparent or naturalistic medium it may appear to be. And quite apart from the issue of technique, there is the issue of interpretation: fashions in filming Shakespeare reflect the day as dimly or as brightly as does the mirror of the stage.

We are now in the midst of a mild movie renaissance for the Bard, with four new movies of different plays having been released in the last months alone. On perhaps the grimmest level is the Australian director Baz Luhrmann’s version of Romeo and Juliet, which is actually titled William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet—no doubt to distinguish it from Garbage’s Romeo and Juliet or Butthole Surfers’ Romeo and Juliet, these being the names of rock bands heard, and heard more loudly than any Shakespearean verse, in the course of the film.

This is a hip-hop, MTV, quick-cut movie filmed in a Mexico City that has been made to resemble the Miami Beach of Brian De Palma’s Scarface. We are in Verona Beach, where two rival gang families—drug kingpins, for all we know—rule the roost. Most of the characters seem Latino or black—Tybalt is a muy macho Latino hood, Mercutio a black drag queen—except for the two pretty leads (Leonardo Di-Caprio as Romeo, Clare Danes as Juliet) who are, mysteriously, quite white. The spoken text is admittedly Shakespeare’s, but is more often than not drowned out by visual and aural static: jump cuts, purple twilights, underwater love scenes, gang weaponry, Romeo’s LSD trips.

Even on its chosen turf—what might be called street Shakespeare—this Romeo and Juliet was bested long ago by West Side Story (1961) and, more recently, by Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991). And by a sweet irony, the only intelligible and/or professional performances in the film are given by Pete Postlethwaite (as the friar) and Miriam Margulyes (as the nurse), both veterans of just the sort of classy British productions that it was the announced intention of the director to render obsolete. What Luhrmann has accomplished instead is to define Shakespeare down to the tastes of today’s youth culture, a culture so corrosive that it dissolves anything it comes into contact with. How innocuous, by comparison, seems Franco Zeffirelli’s mildly hippiefied Romeo and Juliet from 1968!

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Another misguided attempt to make Shakespeare intelligible to the groundlings is Looking for Richard, directed by Al Pacino, starring Al Pacino, with narration written by Al Pacino. As it happens, the veteran actor has given himself over the years to Shakespeare productions, and quite patently would like to bring the Bard to the people. So he decided to film his efforts to get a film made of Richard III, assembling a cast of cronies and colleagues to discuss the text over spaghetti and donuts and then to dress up and perform it. These scenes of rehearsal and enactment are intercut with man-in-the-street snippets attesting to the incomprehensibility of English history and Elizabethan language alike, and with interviews of talking heads from England who range from a dotty Vanessa Redgrave to the insightful Oxford don Emrys Jones.

In all this there is a certain amount of silliness, vanity, and even bad faith but also a goofy geniality. In fact, the most interesting parts of the film are the theater people’s confabs and bull sessions; we get to tour their kitchen, as it were, and see how they go about assembling a dish. But the resulting pudding is quite inedible. The few chunks we are given of the play itself, performed in period costume at the Cloisters in New York and somewhere in the countryside, look like a parody of the 1955 Richard III starring Laurence Olivier. Pacino’s Richard lacks all grandeur and is sinister in a wholly traditional way; at his worst—when, say, he is bellowing “My kingdom for a horse!”—he sounds like something out of Damon Runyon. Supporting players like Winona Ryder (Anne), Alec Baldwin (Clarence), Aidan Quinn (Richmond), and even Kevin Spacey (Buckingham) rarely rise above the competent.

And so the film, basically a document confirming the obsession of actors with themselves, is finally left looking at its own navel. Despite its high-minded posturing about the Bard’s essential communicability, Looking for Richard actually demonstrates the incompatibility of Shakespeare with a certain self-important American mode of communicating: namely, Method acting.

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In addition to these two failures, however, the current season has also given us large, bright, intelligent, and relatively straightforward versions of Hamlet and Twelfth Night. Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet is the bigger of the two and is a film marked both by its ambitious effort to turn the play into a political epic and by its director-star’s obsessive personal rivalry with his great predecessor Olivier.

Hamlet runs 3 hours and 58 minutes with an intermission. It incorporates every word of the text and has been filmed, Lawrence of Arabia-style, in wide-screen 70-mm. (The film was originally intended for release in a shorter version in 35-mm in most markets, but the plan was junked.) Fullness of scope, largeness of effect is what Branagh is after, and achieves: the 70-mm format makes possible an amazing sharpness of detail, and doing the entire text proves a good way to emphasize the play’s historical range and sweep.

Branagh sets the story in an unspecified, late-19th-century Northern European kingdom. The men wear military uniforms with gold braid, epaulets, and decorations (red for King Claudius, white for Laertes, black for Prince Hamlet), smoke cigars, and swirl brandies; the women are dressed in corseted, cinched ball gowns. For the exterior of Elsinore, the movie uses Blenheim Palace, the vast seven-acre Baroque pile built by John Vanbrugh in the first quarter of the 18th century to commemorate Marlborough’s military successes in Europe’s dynastic wars. The film’s principal interior, representing the State Hall, boasts a floor covered (according to publicity releases) in “7,500 handmade black and white tiles, each individually ‘marbled’ ”; 30 mirrors line the walls, and a high gallery runs above.

These things are not incidental; they are of the essence. Branagh has inserted a family story into History, with a capital H, and at every possible moment keeps us alert to the bigger political and military picture that lies just behind the action—especially through recurring images of the menacing and armed Norwegian prince, Fortinbras. It is as if we were in a sort of St. Petersburg, on the eve of a sort of revolution, or perhaps in a sort of Leningrad on the eve of a sort of counterrevolution. (As in so many English filmings of Shakespeare, allusions to the comportment and look of the Windsors are also never far away.) The movie’s final image is of a statue of old King Hamlet being pulled down by Fortinbras’s army, a trope evocative of the fall of Communism and more generally of the inevitable defeat of tyranny and its no less inevitable replacement by a triumphant popular will.

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Unfortunately for Branagh, however, Hamlet, unlike Shakespeare’s Roman or English history plays, and unlike Macbeth, is a hard drama to historicize. That toppling statue, for example, misapplies the “end-of-history” motif to what was patently a seizure of power from a flawed but effective native dynasty by a hungry young foreign conqueror. But misappropriations of history are not the only problems with this sumptuous, strenuous, and generally smart movie.

Consider the question of the star’s own suitability to the enterprise at hand. Branagh’s personality floods his incarnation of the Prince, and that personality, though powerful, is not always appropriately so. Thus, in the movie Branagh sports (in addition to his blond Danish haircut) a ferocious scowl and a deep fund of cunning, inventiveness, and will. But he lacks charm or charisma, and this lack is serious.

A hard-faced, thin-lipped Northern Irishman, Branagh was much better suited to the title role in Henry V (1989), his first Shakespeare film as director-star. Henry, after all, is a calculating and cunning man of power who can, when necessary, affect charm or produce a viable simulacrum of grace. Hamlet, by contrast, is what Branagh himself has called a “400-year-old depressed aristocrat,” and our steely man of action and egoistic daring is in essence miscast playing him. The movie’s final scenes feature Errol Flynn-type heroics—a sword flies through the air to impale King Claudius, lithe Hamlet rides a chandelier from balcony to floor—and elsewhere we are shown Hamlet and Ophelia having at it in bed, in a scene that violates not only Ophelia herself (played by the beauteous and cliché-avoiding Kate Winslet) but the unambiguous statements in the text about her virginity. In both instances, no doubt, Branagh must have thought he looked awfully cool.

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The real struggle in this movie, though, is not between the star and his role but between the director and his ghost, namely, Olivier. Branagh remade Henry V to refute the patriotic version done by Olivier during World War II (although in the end the text undid him: the film’s best, most exhilarating moments are the St. Crispin’s Day speech and the post-battle comradely bondings). Then he tried his hand at a romantic comedy, Much Ado about Nothing (1994), in which he and his co-star, Emma Thompson (to whom he was then married) seem to have set out to rival Olivier’s only Shakespeare romance on film, an odd As You Like It made in 1936 with Elisabeth Bergner. And now there is Hamlet. Olivier filmed it in 1948, in black and white, as a Freudian film noir, camera thrusting up and down tubular stairwells, waves forever crashing beneath beetling cliffs, a very young and sexual queen mother: less History than the Cancer that Lurks at the Heart of the Family.

Other vivid Olivier performances include the Richard III mentioned earlier, which he also directed, and Othello (1965). It may be a while before Branagh tries his hand at Richard III—aside from Pacino’s pastiche, there has been a recent film of the play starring Ian McKellen, in a 1930’s stylization complete with tanks and cocaine and fascist decor. And it is safe to say that Branagh will not soon be impersonating Othello—no white male would dare to do so today. But he did play Iago in a mediocre 1995 version with Laurence Fishburne and stole the picture in what was a perfect role for him. And he has clearly not left off competing with his nemesis; he might do well to take on the arrogant title role of Coriolanus, which is suited to him and which Olivier did famously on stage.

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Branagh’s Hamlet has, however, the virtues of its defects. Its epic scale does capture something that is in the play, and is often neglected. And it is full of fine performances: Winslet’s Ophelia; Julie Christie’s dignified Gertrude; Derek Jacobi’s crisp, sincere, plausible Claudius; even Branagh’s own Prince, when the wind is north by northwest. But that brings us to Trevor Nunn’s lovely Twelfth Night, a much more unqualified success. It too is a movie that flirts in passing with contemporary preoccupations, but in the end is content to know, love, and serve the Bard.

Nunn, the longtime head of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and recently appointed director of the Royal National Theater, has previously made two undistinguished films (Hedda and Lady Jane). This time he gets it right. He has set his tale in the same era as Branagh’s Hamlet—a generic late-19th century—but his place, the mythical kingdom of Illyria, is much greener and more summery than Branagh’s chilly Denmark. Nunn and his cinematographer Clive Tickner have cast a pre-Raphaelite glow over the film, which was shot along the wild coast and in the formal gardens of Cornwall. These settings work beautifully to complement the glow of the central story: a young woman impersonates a man and has to contend with both the attraction of another woman to her male persona and her own attraction to a man who treats her as a guy. Although the film exploits its erotic situations with a knowingness very much of the 1990’s, Nunn resists every opportunity to turn sly flirtatiousness into campy gender-bending. Heterosexual decorum is teased but never “subverted.”

The principals are also right on pitch. Imogen Stubbs, as the disguise-wearing Viola/Cesario, devotes less energy to parodying masculinity than to showing the awkwardness of loving and being beloved in the wrong places. Helena Bonham Carter, a pillar of British costume dramas who herself played Ophelia in the not-bad 1990 Franco Zeffirelli/Mel Gibson Hamlet, makes a surprisingly animated, sexy, and likably foolish Olivia, smitten with Viola/Cesario. Toby Stephens as Orsino, who is besotted with the unreceptive Olivia and shares his fond confidences with an in-turn-besotted Viola/Cesario, engagingly presents the figure of a man who can combine authority and modesty. The final resolution of all these confusions is an immensely pleasing and deft piece of romantic cinema.

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This is a Twelfth Night that deserves to be seen and savored. And so, for all its missteps, does Branagh’s Hamlet. The two plays had, in the trajectory of Shakespeare’s career, some interesting connections. Twelfth Night was the last play of its kind, the last “festive comedy” he wrote; and it came right before Hamlet, which has been seen by scholars as a deliberate abandonment of comedy. As the critic C.L. Barber has noted, in Twelfth Night “the unnatural can appear only in outsiders, intruders who are mocked and expelled,” whereas in Hamlet “it is insiders who are unnatural.”

A mark of the playwright’s genius was the ability to hold such antithetical ideas in so close and creative a tension. Likewise, a mark of good Shakespeare productions is to let his stories, ideas, and language breathe. By doing so, Kenneth Branagh and, especially, Trevor Nunn go some way toward redeeming the damage caused by the interposition of cute ideas—whether toxic, like Grunge Shakespeare, or relatively benign, like Method Shakespeare—between ourselves and the plays.

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