The most striking aspect of this (very loose) adaptation of Shakespeare is the mist that swirls about the characters, especially at the start as they ride about, lost, in “Cobweb Forest”, and again at the end with its strange uncanny trees. The costume design, too, is richly detailed, as Kurosawa transposes the story to feudal Japan, with a number of competing warlords seeking to usurp one another’s power and thus Shakespeare’s story doesn’t seem out of place at all, even within Kurosawa’s own oeuvre. Toshiro Mifune has never been more expressive in his facial acting — perhaps too much so at times — and the persistent sense of imminent danger, as well as those atmospheric effects, remain the finest achievements of this adaptation.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni (based on the play Macbeth by William Shakespeare) | Cinematographer Asakazu Nakai | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Isuzu Yamada, Takashi Shimura | Length 110 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 7 January 2018 (and years earlier on TV)
If Olivier’s 1945 Henry V was filled with brightly patriotic colours, Hamlet plunges us back into Stygian monochrome gloom, albeit very attractively shot. However, for such a canonical text of English literature, it’s very difficult to inspire a viewer (well, me) to any great excitement, and this feels like a dutiful adaptation of the original, if thankfully somewhat shorter. No doubt many generations of schoolchildren have been marched into this and left feeling bored and uninspired, which isn’t really fair to the play, which has much to like in its writing. However, no one comes off as particularly likeable or sympathetic, least of all its petulantly entitled title character, and it really needs a younger actor to make the drama work (Olivier here is older than the actor who plays his mother). Still, the film is not entirely without merit, and there are some fine supporting turns.
Criterion Extras: Absolutely nothing whatsoever, except for a short essay in the booklet. Still, it’s a fine transfer of the film.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director/Writer Laurence Olivier (based on the play by William Shakespeare) | Cinematographer Desmond Dickinson | Starring Laurence Olivier, Basil Sydney, Eileen Herlie, Jean Simmons | Length 155 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 28 February 2016
It’s not uncommon for one to praise the ravishing cinematography even in films one doesn’t understand, but although there is some fine imagery in King Lear, by this point in Godard’s career — after a period in the 1970s co-authoring films with his partner Anne-Marie Miéville during which they seemingly resisted all kinds of ‘professionalism’ — it is Godard’s soundtracks which are most apt to be called beautiful. The distinctive reliance on texts now manifests as overlapping layers of spoken word, washing over the soundtrack like the Swiss lake by which this film is shot — primarily the recitation of Shakespeare by a stentorian voice, sometimes at the same time as Burgess Meredith’s Don Learo or Molly Ringwald’s Cordelia are speaking the same lines, though sounds of nature and of seagulls vie too for our attention from all sides. The plot, such as it is, has Peter Sellars (the theatre director, not the actor) as Shakespeare Jr. the Fifth seeking to rediscover his ancestor’s works after some vague Chernobyl-related calamity has befallen the planet. Godard himself steps in as a Shakespearean fool/savant, Professor Pluggy, with cables for a wig, farting ostentatiously, and muttering out of the side of his mouth. It’s not that this is exactly an adaptation of Shakespeare, so much as a play on the idea of authorship (“a cLEARing” as one of the film’s interchangeable subtitles has it), and a grand thumbing of the nose to great traditions (whether of cinema or theatre). It also looks forward a little bit to Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma with its use of overlapping film images and oblique commentary. One of Godard’s finest films of the 80s.
Screening alongside the feature is a short film from the year before, Meetin’ WA, in which Godard interviews Woody Allen, though it’s unclear the extent to which this is staged. The encounter is at times awkward, with Godard leading Allen down some rambling metaphorical lanes regarding the radioactivity of television and its effect on Allen’s own filmmaking, and when Allen’s answers don’t seem interesting to him, he fades out the volume or slows down the speed, or irises in (the film starts with an empty black hole over Allen’s head), or smash cuts to an intertitle and a burst of jazz. It’s a comic short, really, in which it’s Godard as the director who is the comedian rather than Allen as the subject.
RETROSPECTIVE FILM REVIEW: Jean-Luc Godard || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Monday 22 February 2016
King Lear (1987) Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard (based on the play by William Shakespeare) | Cinematographer Sophie Maintigneux | Starring Peter Sellars, Molly Ringwald, Burgess Meredith, Jean-Luc Godard | Length 90 minutes
Meetin’ WA (1986) Director Jean-Luc Godard | Cinematographer Pierre Binggeli | Length 26 minutes
As far as kids-oriented comedy/thrillers based around the life of William Shakespeare go, this one is pretty good fun. In fact, for the quality of filmmaking and even set and costume design on show, I’d say it gives Shakespeare in Love a decent run for its money, and is frankly more enjoyable in many ways. If there’s a style it’s going for, then probably early Blackadder with a hint of Monty Python would about sum it up. Mathew Baynton’s Bill is a down-on-his-luck provincial type with a dream of making it in the big city as a writer, and so he ups sticks, leaving his wife Anne (Martha Howe-Douglas) behind and tries his luck — running into little success, but meeting Christopher Marlowe (Jim Howick) along the way. Meanwhile the Spanish King Philip (a properly moustache-twirling bad guy with a nifty line in stupid disguises, played by co-writer Ben Willbond) is plotting to kill Queen Elizabeth, all laid out courtesy of an actually rather thrilling pre-credits sequence. He duly takes advantage of the foppish Earl of Croydon (Simon Farnaby), who has been picked to write a play to be performed in front of the Queen (the perfect place for Philip’s plan), but knowing nothing of the dramatic arts has enlisted as ghost-writer… Bill! So it’s all very silly, and silliness really is the watchword, for while the film is not always as historically far-fetched as you might expect, it’s just mostly very silly indeed. Which turns out to be a good fit to the subject matter, hence an enjoyable film. I’m not sure if it’ll really play well to kids though, but what do I know. All I mean is, there’s plenty for grown-ups too.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director Richard Bracewell | Writers Laurence Rickard and Ben Willbond | Cinematographer Laurie Rose | Starring Mathew Baynton, Ben Willbond, Simon Farnaby, Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick | Length 94 minutes || Seen at Cineworld O2 Greenwich, London, Thursday 24 September 2015
When Kenneth Branagh filmed his own dark and politically cynical vision of this play in 1989 it kick-started his career and marked a resurgence of Shakespeare on film, but Laurence Olivier was the original actor/director and puts the play and its hero in quite a different light. Of course, being made at the height of the Second World War, you might expect a more triumphant hue to proceedings. There’s also an admirable commitment to theatrical non-naturalism in the sets and setting — again, this may have been motivated by avoiding anything reminiscent of the actual conditions of war — but brings to my mind Rohmer’s later experiments in staging the Mediaeval story of King Arthur in Perceval le Gallois (1978). Indeed Olivier’s film itself starts through a recreation of a performance at London’s Globe theatre in the early-17th century (strikingly similar to the reconstruction now on the South Bank), before at length moving away from the theatre, without ever quite relinquishing the stagy feel, though that’s as much to do with the beautifully saturated Technicolor cinematography as with anything in the performances. Whatever its limitations, and however carefully it works to work around the more melancholy notes in the play (most obviously its coda of how Henry promptly lost France shortly afterwards), it’s still a fine staging of a classic English play.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Laurence Olivier | Writers Alan Dent and Laurence Olivier (based on the play by William Shakespeare) | Cinematographer Robert Krasker | Starring Laurence Olivier | Length 136 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 June 2015
After my “Film Round-Up” posts of the last few months, I’m trying out another way to present shorter reviews of things I can’t bring myself to write up at greater length.
After a strong opening, this high school comedy about a washed-up drama teacher (Steve Coogan, playing American with middling effect) sort of peters out a bit. It’s a pity, because even if reminiscent of some of Rushmore‘s Max Fischer Players stagings, the film has the germs of a fine idea — that Shakespeare’s Hamlet can be improved upon and be inspiring to a new generation of students — but the film’s overall failure just reminds us how difficult comedy can be to get right. In the end, there are some good images that might suit an animated gif format (the “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” setpiece for example), but beyond that, probably best given a miss.
FILM REVIEW Director Andrew Fleming | Writers Andrew Fleming and Pam Brady | Cinematographer Alexander Gruszynski | Starring Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener, Skylar Astin | Length 92 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 2 June 2015
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Joss Whedon | Writer Joss Whedon (based on the play by William Shakespeare) | Cinematographer Jay Hunter | Starring Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg | Length 108 minutes | Seen at Barbican Cinema, London, Saturday 22 June 2013 || My Rating excellent
It is undoubtedly a lamentable sign of my own ingrained snobbery to have low expectations going into a film based on the work of Shakespeare which is largely populated by actors from US television. I’d read plenty of good reviews of it, and I have respect for director and adapter Joss Whedon: he made an entertaining film version of Marvel’s The Avengers last year, and has had some success on television since Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And yet I still didn’t trust that this film, made in a two-week break between the filming and post-production on the aforementioned comic book blockbuster, could really succeed. Well it has — better even I think than Kenneth Branagh’s bigger budget and starrier 1993 adaptation — so I am pleased to be proved wrong.
This series is inspired by the Movie Lottery blog, whose author is picking DVD titles from a hat in order to decide which films to watch. I’ve selected another one from the hat to watch and present my review below.
FILM REVIEW: Movie Lottery 5 || Director Gil Junger | Writers Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith | Cinematographer Mark Irwin | Starring Julia Stiles, Heath Ledger, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, David Krumholtz, Allison Janney | Length 93 minutes | Seen at Manners Mall, Wellington, Sunday 6 June 1999 (and at home on DVD on numerous occasions, most recently Sunday 9 June 2013) || My Rating very good
Unlike the previous films I’ve picked from a hat as part of my ‘Movie Lottery’ series, this is one I know pretty well, I think. I’ve watched it many times over the years, and have always enjoyed it, specifically for its likeable ensemble of young actors near the beginnings of their respective film careers. Thinking about it again with the aim of writing a review, I find myself perhaps a little more aware of where its strengths and weaknesses lie. The style, such as it is, leans heavily on the sounds and fashions of the 1990s, and in the end it really does depend on those acting performances, alongside the sparky script, which draws heavily from its trend-setting antecedent Clueless (1995), though here the teen translation is of Shakespeare (where that film took on Jane Austen).
The particular Shakespeare play in question, The Taming of the Shrew, is not one of his best and furnishes a rather silly plot, which the screenwriters have gamely followed through with. Newly arrived at Padua High School, Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) becomes infatuated with the coquettish Bianca (Larisa Oleynik), but her father prevents her from dating unless her older sister Kat (Julia Stiles) does too. So in order to go out with Bianca, Cameron must hook up her sister, for which purpose the school bad boy Patrick Verona suits well (Heath Ledger). The premise doesn’t always make a lot of sense, but here it helps to be adapting one of the Bard’s lesser achievements, so comparisons don’t come off badly for the film.
As this film is based on an over-400-year-old play (itself based on even older history), the events and characters of which are pretty much embedded into Western cultural history, I trust that the usual rules of ‘spoilers’ don’t really apply in the same way. However, if you remain concerned about this, then I shall sum up my review more pithily: track down this movie and watch it. It’s worth it, even if you think you don’t like Shakespeare.
FILM REVIEW || Director Richard Loncraine | Writers William Shakespeare, Ian McKellen and Richard Loncraine (based on the play by Shakespeare) | Cinematographer Peter Biziou | Starring Ian McKellen, Annette Bening, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jim Broadbent, Robert Downey Jr. | Length 104 minutes | Seen at Paramount, Wellington, February 1997 (also at home on DVD, Tuesday 7 May 2013) || My Rating excellent
I first saw this film on the big screen a few years after it was released, which is to say, 16 years ago now. My memory is generally terrible, and there are filmsI’ve seen that I have forgotten to such an extent that I’ve rewatched them and not even realised that I’d seen them already in my life. So it should say something that I still very clearly recalled the opening sequence of this adaptation of the Shakespeare play when I sat down to rewatch it recently at home.