Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Shakespeare on film

Latest prize acquisition: Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. One of the best things about the DVD is that it has two subtitle options, one by Linda Hoaglund and the other by Donald Richie. Both are Japanese film experts – I have Richie’s comprehensive book on the director, The Films of Akira Kurosawa - and so either set of subtitles should be better than the terrible ones on the print I first saw around 10 years ago. Even better, there’s a very informative commentary track by another expert, Michael Jeck.

Throne of Blood is an undeniably great film but I’ve always been slightly perplexed by the irony-laden chorus about how a non-English movie is perhaps the best Shakespeare film ever. I wonder about that sometimes; it’s easy to see that Kurosawa’s epic captures the spirit of the Bard’s great tragedy but is it strictly speaking a Shakespeare film? Are the original words, the poetry of the original language, completely irrelevant? One of the reasons I’m ambivalent about this is because I grew up with the strict sense that you can’t claim to have read a classic if you’ve only read an abridged version of it. (I remember snootishly informing a schoolfriend who’d laboured his way through a Lamb version of a Shakespeare play that he mustn’t imagine he had read Shakespeare – "it isn’t enough to just know the story, the work is defined by the words the author originally used".)

Another reason is that I have a very special relationship with my favourite "conventional" Shakespeare movies: soliloquies that I couldn’t remember after merely reading the play somehow miraculously stuck in my mind after I heard Olivier, or Gielgud, or Branagh, or even Brando, declaim them. Pleasant way to learn. (Though the casting agent who put poor Brando in the position of repeatedly having to mumble the word "honourable" in Mark Antony’s funeral speech must have been one of Satan’s little helpers.)

I’m probably nitpicking about Throne of Blood; I’d have no problem at all if it was designated "best film based on a Shakespeare play". So I’ll just be tactful and say that it’s more Kurosawa’s triumph than it is Shakespeare’s. Meanwhile, here are some of my favourite films that do employ the Bard’s language:

Macbeth (Roman Polanski, 1971)
Great director puts his own distinct stamp on this tale of guilt and overvaulting ambition. One of Polanski’s most effective devices is to introduce an element of stream-of-consciousness by presenting soliloquies as half-spoken, half-in-voiceover (often alternating from one line to the next). Loved his final, typically macabre touch of showing Macbeth’s successor, the young prince, entering the witches’ coven for consultation. But far more morbid is the way art holds up a mirror to life in the scene where Macbeth is told that Macduff was “from his mother’s womb untimely ripped”; Polanski’s wife Sharon Tate, eight months pregnant, had been stabbed to death by Charles Manson and his gang a few years earlier.

Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh, 1996)
Branagh took on the task of making a four-hour version of Hamlet with the full text of the play, and somehow managed to make it cinematic. Great principle cast, Derek Jacobi superb as Claudius. Some of the many cameos – Jack Lemmon as Marcellus, Robin Williams as Osric – are distracting, but some – Charlton Heston as the Player King, Billy Crystal as the Gravedigger – work brilliantly.

Titus (Julie Taymor, 1999)
Shakespeare’s strangest, queasiest, most unwatchable play (assuming it was his at all) gets the post-modernist treatment in this visually fascinating movie that doesn’t shy away from any of the text’s horrors, and in fact even punks them up. Sir Anthony Hopkins, on a break from playing Hannibal Lecter, feeds Jessica Lange her sons’ cooked remains.

Julius Caesar (Joseph L Mankiewicz, 1953)
With apologies. This is a star-spangled, slightly Hollywoodised production but it has a lot going for it. John Gielgud’s mellifluous, classical reading of Cassius makes for a fascinating contrast with Marlon Brando’s rough-hewn performance as Mark Antony; two completely different acting theories, separated by hundreds of years, but occupying the same frame here. And Edmond O’Brien in his brief role as Casca shows how Shakespeare’s lines can be spoken in a completely natural, non-theatrical way (and with a gruff American accent to boot) – and still be utterly convincing.

Henry V (Laurence Olivier, 1944)
Brilliant use of Shakespeare as a rallying call for an England that was in the thick of WWII. In his directorial debut, Olivier – until then always more of a stage performer/director - showed an unanticipated understanding of film technique.

Much Ado About Nothing (Branagh, 1993)
No consistently good but great fun throughout. Branagh at his most democratic, with roles for actors like Denzel Washington and even Keanu Reeves.

Othello (Orson Welles, 1952)
Brooding, impressionistic movie that Welles somehow managed to get made despite the inevitable financial problems. The cinematography is dazzling.

Richard III (Olivier, 1955)
No, it isn’t anywhere near as cinematic as Olivier’s other Shakespearean forays but his performance as the conniving hunchback king is enough to place this high on the list.


  1. Wish you knew your Bengali and had seen a few of Utpal Dutt's Shakespeare plays. Really. Of course, despite knowning my English, I haven't seen most of anything...

  2. Branagh's Henry V? A reviewer called his Crispin's Day oration the greatest incitement to violence yet filmed. Paul Scofield as the French king, Michael Maloney as the Dauphin and Emma Thompson (the best, ever) as the French princess. I'd prefer Branagh's endearing blonde mop to Olivier's confidence any day.
    Strange you though Brando mumbled his way through the funeral oration -- I loved his clear enunciation of all four syllables of the word 'honourable' and his unplaceable RP diction throughout.
    Michael Keaton, I thought, was the most abominable thing in Much Ado.

  3. Nakul: haven't seen Branagh's Henry V (yes, I admit it! Out my eyes!) though from what I hear it's very different from Olivier's, which was a film-within-a-play-within-a-film if you get what I mean. I think Branagh's was a more straightforward, realistic version.
    Saw Julius Caesar a long time ago and might be mis-remembering Brando's enunciation (or confusing it with his definitely mumbled "The horror! The horror!" in Apocalypse Now). Also, contrasted with Gielgud, wouldn't ANYONE come across as mumbling?

    Shamya: You're being unkind to yourself. When Adam Stiller plays Coriolanus, I'm sure you'll be first in line at the box-office.

  4. Tho unrelated to most on this post but related in the sense of a best of adaptation of shakespeare.. (and am not sure how much of hindi film viewing u do.. not much reading ur posts :)) but 'maqbool' is a brilliant rendition of macbeth... dark, superb emphasis on shadows and great characterization...

  5. Yes, so I've heard. But again, like Throne of Blood (which is in Japanese), Maqbool wouldn't fit on the above list, which is my idiosyncratic selection of Shakespeare movies that employ the original language of the text.
    Should probably start watching Hindi films again but then my movie-watching in general has been so scant in the past few months. The rare times I do get down to it, I have to pare my viewing options right down.

  6. Ah, John Gielgud, the greatest actor in the world from the neck up, as the man said :). I had recorded Brando's Friends, Romans, Countrymen oration off the television to the computer when it was telecast on TNT some years ago. Brando sounds quite unlike himself: that could be Olivier talking, if you strain a little bit. And yes, the metrically correct four-syllabic hon-our-a-ble is in place.

  7. Branagh's democratic spirit is fortunately practiced more widely even though there is an on-going debate about "color-blind casting." I remember attending A Midsummer Night's Dream at Berkeley's Shakespearean Village where Lysander was played by a black actor. I think it's a welcome trend and opens up Shakespeare to actors of all ethnicities.

  8. Are you serious Jai, that you did not watch Olivier's Hamlet? It was very good. Also, it was craftfully made with the techniques available at that time. I loved the movie.


  9. Huh? WHere did I say I hadn't watched Olivier's Hamlet? It just wasn't on my list of 6-7 favourite Shakespeare films. Preferred Henry V and Richard III, for different reasons...

  10. Thanks for the explanation!


  11. Had heard of these film versions of the Bard, but have only seen Much Ado, probably the slightest of them all...

    Have faced opposition whenever i've suggested this before, but i thought Romeo + Juliet ( Baz Luhrrman) was brilliant. the more risks it takes, the more they seem to come off, which was probably the feeling shakespeare's audience got when they saw one of his plays for the first time...

  12. Jabber Jee, happy birth centenary today to Orson Welles. A good occasion to celebrate this beautifully realized scene from Othello - https://youtu.be/A5nfj6DfwCs.