Shakespeare on Film – Revisited

6th May 2016

The BFI’s current Shakespeare on Film season is a delight for me. It’s not only because it coincides with the recent publication of the second edition of my Palgrave book Shakespeare on Film, completely updated and revised. It also allows me to revisit some of the best large screen adaptations of Shakespeare’s dramas ever made. I thought I’d offer a few comments on some of the screenings I’ve viewed so far, starting with Kurosawa’s Ran, his 1985 take on Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Like his version of Macbeth, Kumonosu-Jo (‘Throne of Blood’ in the West), Kurosawa set Ran in Japan’s feudal period. Shakespeare’s tragedies allow audiences some kind of cathartic release after the evil endured in the play has been (however temporarily) vanquished. But the tsunami of betrayal and blood unleashed in Ran when Hidetora’s three sons battle viciously for supremacy releases no redemptive outcome. It left me feeling harrowed and emptied out. Its negative energy was apparently driven by 75 year old Kurosawa’s fear of nuclear apocalypse in the mid 1980s, Japan having endured the US nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. I invoked the nuclear threat at the end of my Penguin Classic introduction to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (also 1985), and I can appreciate where Kurosawa was coming from in that period. The 160 minute film was shot in beautifully elegant interiors or in wide painterly landscapes, so that in some ways the artistry of Kurosawa’s film could be seen as the redemptive element helping us to rise above the unremitting bloody carnage. But for me, thoroughly gripped by the drama of blood, death and betrayal on screen, such an aesthetic value did not come through, and I left NFT3 thoroughly disheartened. Perhaps I should view it again at some point, and hope to gain more access to what may have been Kurosawa’s fuller intentions the next time.

I wrote an essay on each of Laurence Olivier’s three Shakespeare adaptations, Henry V, Hamlet and Richard III, for my book, and still remember my enjoyment of discovering the evidence of Olivier’s multiple filmic skills when doing the research. This time round I just saw Henry V and Hamlet at the BFI. But it was good to be reminded of how impressive Olivier’s film-making techniques are, especially in his manipulation of the movie camera, so amply revealed on the big screen projection. Henry V was the first truly successful Shakespearean film adaptation to gain a popular audience back in 1944. Olivier was determined to  avoid the deadly reverential approach  of previous movies like George Cukor’s Romeo and Juliet and Czinner’s As You Like It (in which Olivier played Orlando), failures which left producers convinced that film Shakespeare was box office poison. But film savvy Olivier decided to introduce his popular film audience to Henry V in a different way. By bringing us into the midst of a live theatre audience on screen watching a production at Elizabethan London’s Globe playhouse, we the screen audience become so involved by being put in the ‘frame’ of this action on screen that we are entertained as much as the onscreen audience are, cutting through all that stupid prevailing prejudice that ‘the Bard’ is ‘difficult’. Only gradually are the techniques of film introduced and we enter into the world of Olivier’s film. By the time we see the first filmed representation of the battle of Agincourt ever made for the screen (in Ireland), Olivier has brought us fully and utterly into the action using a camera that moves along a mile of track. It gathers and gathers pace moving alongside the galloping French military who advance on the patiently waiting English troops. Great stuff, all in wonderful Technicolor, and with William Walton’s superb musical score to drive the action along. We know very well the film was made as war propaganda. But it’s very simplistic to evaluate it on that level only, as many critics have done: it is also heavily cut, with much of the play’s politics removed – but it could not have been otherwise in 1944. The point is to  notice how innovatively Olivier uses the film medium to communicate Shakespeare’s play to us; no one else had bothered enough to do that. Communicate! Olivier’s own and the other actors’ forthright playing does the rest. Superb.

I followed this up by seeing Olivier’s multiple-Oscar-winning 1948 Hamlet, and seeing it on the big screen reinforced my conviction that here again was brilliance – a revelation in fact. Olivier again uses the camera skillfully, this time  bringing us much closer to the action, and drawing particularly and very successfully on the then popular film noir techniques in order to convey to us his Freudian take on Shakespeare’s drama (look out for the lingering and devouring kiss that Gertrude and Hamlet exchange early on). A combination of chiaroscuro lighting and deep-focus camera work enables Olivier to communicate the play’s dark and sometimes brooding, alienating effects. These effects embrace many of the characters, not just Hamlet, and we cannot but help experiencing a sense of unease in this noirish adaptation. This NFT1 viewer cannot recall experiencing so well and so fully the ravishing texture of the film’s close-up images, especially those of Olivier himself as Hamlet: perhaps the digital rendition helped, but being taken deeply into this eerie but dynamic onscreen world is quite an experience. That’s presumably why the film got four Oscars, a record still unbeaten in the Shakespeare film genre.

I next saw Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight (Falstaff in the US). Olivier’s movies drastically cut the Shakespeare play text in order to communicate filmically with the entertainment film audience, the primary aim of any genuine adaptation being to replace the verbal with visual poetry. What Orson Welles did in order to put Shakespeare’s larger than life character Sir John Falstaff at the centre of his film was to cut and paste elements from all of the Shakespeare plays in which Falstaff appears in order to construct his own (often somewhat sentimental) movie. Welles sewed the pieces of drama together with brilliance, so much so that I think this 1965 black and white film approaches being a masterpiece. Welles literally looms large as Falstaff, playing the part with subtle brilliance. The ‘honour’ speech is brilliantly done and rarely so. Yet the whole ensemble of actors play brilliantly too, from the boisterous Boar’s Head tavern scenes in Eastcheap where Falstaff and Hal josh and banter with each other, to Welles’s  gruesomely realistic ten-minute battle sequence that has been so widely admired among film makers. But for me, when after his father Henry IV dies and young Henry V has to suddenly grow up and mature into a king who cannot but reject the unrealistically sentimental approaches of his former boon companion Falstaff in what has become a famous scene, Welles plays Falstaff’s humiliation to perfection. The moment of shaming sadness in Falstaff produces tears in Welles’s old man eyes, just visible on the revealing big screen. What a film.

I have more I could say about other films I saw at BFI such as Polanski’s Macbeth, Branagh’s Henry V and Ian McKellen’s Richard III, but it feels as if I have said enough for the moment.

If anyone wants me to say more, please just ask and I will try!