Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Happy 450th Birthday, William Shakespeare!

Jon Finch in Roman Polanski’s ‘Macbeth’ (1971)

Here’s a nice article from the website Word & Film, which discusses ten Shakespeare movies to watch as a celebration of the Bard’s 45oth birthday.  Yes, 450 years ago today, William Shakespeare was born (and 398 years ago, would die on the same day), and watching a film based on one of his plays would certainly be a fitting way to celebrate.

I particularly like this list’s inclusion of Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight (1965, which I have written about elsewhere on this blog, based on the Henriad), Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957, based on Macbeth), and Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968, based on … you figure it out).  I would enthusiastically endorse all of these three Shakespeare films!

I would add two others: Roman Polanski’s Macbeth and Peter Brook’s King Lear (both 1971). 

In particular, Polanski’s Macbeth is an appropriately cynical vision of what is arguably Shakespeare’s most cynical play.  Perhaps most infamous for Lady Macbeth’s (Francesca Annis) nude “out, damned spot” soliloquy, the starkness of the grim setting reflects both Polanski’s personal despair (it was his first film after the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, by the Manson Family) and the precariousness of a Western world that had lost its confidence in the face of the Vietnam War and other global calamities.  Particularly intriguing is Polanski’s portrayal of Ross (John Stride) as an unscrupulous opportunist, not intrinsic to Shakespeare’s play, who sides with Macbeth’s (Jon Finch) usurpation when fortune favors it but turns against the tyrant after a petty slight.  And rather than end on a note of triumph when the throne is rightfully restored, Polanski’s film ends with the insinuation that the madness of regicide will continue.  (I’m guessing that one reason Polanski’s version is not included in the Word & Film article is that it limited itself to only one adaptation per play.)

Peter Brook’s ‘King Lear’ (1971)

Brook’s black & white, two-hours-plus King Lear, which begins and ends with the same bleak tone, is a rather difficult film to watch.  It portrays a barren land where the people aren’t given much of a reason to survive, and the viewer suspects that the dead are more fortunate than the living.  Still, Brook’s intriguing use of jump cuts and odd camera angles intimates the possibility of a freer and more hopeful world beyond the desolation of Lear’s fractured realm.

Calista Flockhart as Helena in Michael Hoffman’s
19th-century-set ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (1999)

Given the thematic richness of his theatrical works, and their many fascinating interpretations over the years, there will probably never be a definitive film version of any Shakespeare play — although Polanski’s Macbeth and Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet come close.  Still, I haven’t yet seen a completely satisfying film version of one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The Word & Film article recommends Michael Hoffman’s 1999 adaptation, which features some scrumptious cinematography and natty 19th-century costumes, but its Arthur Rackham-inspired vision of the fairy world seems more mechanical than magical, and its tossed salad of British and American accents is distracting.  (However, I’m happy to see the mercurial Calista Flockhart, here cast as Helena, in anything!)
Helen Mirren as Titania and Brian Glover as Bottom in Elijah Moshinsky’s
spooky BBC ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (1981)

Another Dream apparently inspired by Rackham is Elijah Moshinsky’s 1981 BBC version, which, in its replacement of the fanciful with the frightening, is more of a nightmare.  An additional adaptation of same, Peter Hall’s 1968 film, begins with disorienting jump cuts and other cinematic devices that don’t establish a firm sense of place; it would have been wiser for Hall to have saved this disorientation for the magical woodland, for there is not enough to distinguish the inhibition-free woods from the more staid and civilized setting of Athens.  And Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle’s Hollywoodized 1936 interpretation, with James Cagney as Bottom and Mickey Rooney as Puck, looks dated with the air of a film weighted with self-conscious importance and antiquated staging.  I’m still waiting for a Midsummer Night’s Dream that will capture the playfulness of the love stories and the magic of the fairyland. 

Paul Rogers as Bottom and Judi Dench as Titania in Peter Hall’s
disorienting ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (1968)

Happy 450th, Mr. Shakespeare!  Where would the English language and the performing arts — and the movies! — be without you?

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