Shakespeare on Film

There have been a lot of Ham-ful tellings of the bard on celluloid. If you'd care to see an excercise in scenery chewing take your pick - Kenneth Brannagh, Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles, Al Pacino. Not that watching seasoned Shakespearian actors isn't fun when you're in the right mood, but for my money there has to be something else to make the words of Shakespeare appear greater than they are. My issue with Brannagh and his type is that they're cause is to be faithful to the source while taking their characters for the most outrageous of spins. It's a little like watching the know-it-all in your class take his turn to speak when the subject of beat poetry comes up. They have EVERYTHING to say about Allen Ginsberg, but nothing that hasn't been said before. The real treat comes when someone puts a little something extra into the works of Shakespeare. Take for example, Mona's favorite, Throne of Blood. Throne of Blood, while it shrinks the action into almost blink-and-miss it status, but the things director Akira Kurosawa does with visuals is practically unrivaled (certainly in the realm of filmic Shakespeare). The details are played with (obviously feudal Japan and 11th century Scotland are too different to make similar), but to great effect. The three witches are made one (a ghastly ghoul he is), the guilt is shifted almost entirely to our Lady Macbeth and the death of the hero is one befitting such a cowardly king, not so heroic as being beheaded by his fated murderer. The barrage of arrows, forest witch hunt, and moving forest are some of the most interesting things Kurosawa ever filmed and serve to make Throne of Blood one of the most madcap and poetic adaptations ever. He knew that in order for an adaptation to be a success you had to have passion enough to throw yourself into the project with all the style in your bones. My other favorite retellings of the bard are chock full and are presented here in no particular order.

My Own Private Idaho: Ask someone what Keanu Reeve's good Shakespeare movie is and you'll likely get a blank stare. You wouldn't know it unless you were paying close attention (or were a theatre-queen like myself) but this dirty, moody gay love story takes its cues from three separate Shakespeare plays. Henry IV: parts I and II and Henry V. The sweetness of watching Keanu Reeves get Shakespeare's words right after muttering such things as "Some hustler, huh?" is gratifying indeed. Also, any film that features a post-pubescent River Phoenix gets an automatic pass over here, but he deals with the themes of the plays using almost none of the fancy wordlery. A triumph all around; the kind of style neccesary to breathe life into Henry V.

The Bad Sleep Well: Displaced from Denmark to the cutthroat world of Japanese capitalism, Kurosawa's take on Hamlet is white-knuckled and ruthless. The amazing use of black-and-white cinematography and contrast is perhaps the best it's ever been. Toshiro Mifune commands the utmost power and is more terrifying here than anytime he ever played a samurai or gangster. When spitting out the crimes of his intended revenge victims, it's more gripping than watching him cut someone's arm off.

King Lear: Peter Brooks adaptation isn't as colorful or stylistically alienating as Kurosawa's or Godard's version, but there's nothing but love here. Brooks shows he not only loves the play, but that he loves Orson Welles and Olivier's versions of his other plays, as by 1971 the definitive editions of most of his best-known tragedies and comedies had been made. The visual cues are taken from those earlier films but here Brooks takes all their missteps and crafts a flawless film of them. The gorgeous cinematography, the harrowing intertitle, the venom in all of his characters juxtaposed with the kindness that shows up in his title character and in the fool and the Earl of Kent, the switches from subtlety to ferocity. Lear is shown initially as a man too big to fit entirely in the frame, but he is slowly stripped of his stature, pride and giant prowess. Brook constructs a truly mesmerizing take on the story.

Romeo & Juliet: Now, I admit this is a straight-up adaptation, but I've never seen the details of the scenery and costume fit the story so like a glove. The dusty realism of Zefirelli's 1968 film is perhaps why it's so fondly regarded among all other versions. It has none of the glam-flam of Baz Luhrman's masturbatory 1996 film and for once the teenagers are believable - emotions, looks, and all. Zefirelli was a Shakespearean purist like Olivier (Olivier even shows up to narrate the thing, and he did it free of charge) and so none of the liberty taking of his peers rears its head, but his romantic style makes it all worth while. It helps of course that Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey are both reasonably attractive kids (Olivia Hussey looked that beautiful until she was about 45. She's gorgeous in Black Christmas six years later, looking like she hasn't aged a day. If there were any justice she'd have a bigger legion of fans).

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