The Watchers

The Watchers

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Shakespeare On Film

Yesterday was the 450th anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare. 

Whether you rolled your eyes and groaned when Shakespeare was mentioned at school or if you thoroughly loved his work, there's no denying that Shakespeare was a genius. Thanks to him, the world has some of the most beautiful, powerful, tragic, funny, horrifying, thrilling and engaging theatre ever performed (and which keeps being performed). We also have an expanded vocabulary- Shakespeare is known to have originated many words including assassination, bump and eyeball- and lines from his plays have passed into common parlance ('eaten me out of house and home', 'neither a borrower nor a lender be'). 

Shakespeare's plays are just that. Plays. They are not meant to be read in a stuffy classroom or lecture hall. They are living, vibrant texts that absolutely come to life when performed. 

So, to celebrate the birth of the Bard, we take a look at ten of Shakespeare's plays and their various film adaptations.


The tragic tale of 'star-cross'd lovers' is most pupils' introduction to Shakespeare and it's become one of the most enduring love stories in the whole canon of literature. It's been filmed many times- in the 1936 version directed by George Cukor, Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard played the teenaged lovers (she was 34, he was 43); Franco Zeffirelli directed a rather beautifully lyrical version in 1968 with Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting in the lead roles, whilst the kinetic, frenetic wham-bam visuals of Baz Luhrmann's 1996 version (with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes) kickstarted a whole slew of updated Shakespeare productions on stage and screen.


Four young lovers, fairies, magic spells and a group of wandering players are the elements of this comedy. The 1935 version (directed by William Dieterle and Max Reinhardt) stars Jimmy Cagney as Bottom and the late Mickey Rooney as Puck, whilst the lush 1999 adaptation by Michael Hoffman transplants the scene from Athens to the Sicilian countryside and has a star-studded cast including Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Everett, Stanley Tucci, Kevin Kline, Christian Bale, Anna Friel, Sam Rockwell and Sophie Marceau.


There are three adaptations of Shakespeare's finest tragedy which are of particular interest. 

Laurence Olivier's 1948 black-and-white production holds a couple of firsts: it's the first (and so far only) Shakespearean adaptation to win the Best Picture Oscar, with Olivier as the first (and so far only) actor to win an Oscar for a Shakespearean performance. Thoughtful and powerful, like so many of Olivier's performances, it has remained the benchmark for all others to come after it. 

Franco Zeffirelli's 1990 adaptation with Mel Gibson in the title role is a bit hit-and-miss, but there are great performances by Glenn Close as Gertrude, Stephen Dillane as Horatio and Ian Holm as Polonius, whilst Kenneth Branagh's 1996 version is a full-on, unexpurgated version that stretches to four hours. Absolutely stuffed to the ginnels with star talent, with even minor roles taken by acting royalty, it's the definitive version of the story. 

To give you a glimpse of how good Branagh's Hamlet is, here's a clip which shows the famous 'to be or not to be' soliloquy:


Unashamedly patriotic, this oft-quoted History of the Battle of Agincourt was the perfect morale-booster during the darkest days of the Second World War. Olivier directed and starred in the 1944 version of the play, complete with music by William Walton, and won an Honourary Oscar for his troubles. In 1989, Kenneth Branagh made his directorial debut with a second adaptation of Henry V, following in Olivier's footsteps by directing himself in the lead. 


The seminal performance of Shakespeare's hunchbacked king is, unsurprisingly, Laurence Olivier's in the 1955 film (which he also directed). His tone of voice (famously spoofed by Peter Sellers when he performed 'A Hard Day's Night') and posture have been the blueprint for playing Richard for decades. However, the 1995 film directed by Richard Loncraine and starring Ian McKellen in the title role went in a different direction and is all the better for it. Set in an alternative fascist English setting, McKellen's turn as the scheming king is just fantastic. 


Not one of Shakespeare's best known plays, this searing Roman drama of revenge and betrayal recently had a stage revival at the Donmar Warehouse featuring a powerhouse performance by Tom Hiddleston in the title role. However, it has also been filmed. A 2011 adaptation was directed by Ralph Fiennes (who also took the title role) and also starred Gerard Butler, Jessica Chastain, Brian Cox and Vanessa Redgrave. There are blistering performances by Redgrave and Cox whilst it's a decent adaptation of a tricky play.


This is my favourite of Shakespeare's plays. There are two particularly interesting film version of this lyrical, beautiful and poignant play. Derek Jarman's 1979 version, starring Heathcote Williams as Prospero and Toyah Willcox as Miranda (above), is full of the usual striking and out-there imagery you would expect for a Jarman film- for instance, the masque of the spirits is represented by opera singer Elisabeth Welch singing 'Stormy Weather'. The second is a 2010 version directed by Julie Taymor, remarkable for the gender-swap of the main character Prospero, now a sorceress named Prospera and played with style by Helen Mirren. Too bad about Russell Brand though.

In this next clip, Prospera gives up her magic in what is one of the finest speeches in the play:


There are two very different film versions of this Shakespearean comedy- the first was released in 1993, directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Emma Thompson and Branagh as Beatrice and Benedick (along with a woefully miscast Keanu Reeves as the villain Don John) and Joss Whedon's delightful, minimalist 2012 adaptation with Whedonverse alumni Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof as the central couple, which succeeds to make the more implausible elements of the b-plot into something moving.


The tragedy of the jealous Moor has had a fairly chequered film adaptation history, with two of the best-thought-of adaptations- the 1952 version starring Orson Welles and the 1965 version with Laurence Olivier- having the lead character played by a white actor in blackface make-up. However, Oliver Parker's 1995 version casts Laurence Fishburne in the title role who makes for a ferocious Othello, whose descent into jealous madness is aided by Kenneth Branagh as the duplicitious Iago.


Classed as a comedy but with more than its fair share of drama, Michael Radford's 2004 film version sees Al Pacino in fine scene-chewing form as Shylock, determined to get his 'pound of flesh' from Antonio, the eponymous Merchant. The balance of the comedy and drama goes slightly awry here- its difficult to balance the lightness of the caskets against the drama of the court- but its a wonderfully committed performance by Pacino, plus there's an intriguing decision to play Antonio as a man in unrequited love with his friend Bassanio. 

In this final clip, you get to see Pacino's Shylock in full flow as he is questioned over his desire to exact his revenge on Antonio:

Other great film adaptations include:
  • Roman Polanski's dark and powerful version of Macbeth (1971), with Jon Finch and Francesca Annis
  • Franco Zeffirelli's 1967 version of The Taming Of The Shrew starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as Petruchio and Kate
  • Trevor Nunn's 1996 version of Twelfth Night starring Imogen Stubbs, Helena Bonham Carter and Ben Kingsley
  • Titus, Julie Taymor's 1999 version of the bloody revenge play Titus Andronicus, starring Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange
  • Kenneth Branagh's 2000 musical adaptation of Love's Labour's Lost starring Alicia Silverstone, Alessandro Nivola and Nathan Lane

When promoting the latest version of Romeo & Juliet which he adapted and augmented, Julian Fellowes created a bit of a stir by saying 'you require a kind of Shakespearean scholarship' and 'a very expensive education' to be able to follow the language of a Shakespeare play. 

Utter, abject nonsense. 

What you need to understand Shakespeare is a clear production design, a director who understands the text and can get their vision across, and a cast who know what it is they are saying and can convey the necessary emotions. You don't need a fancy degree or years of study. Shakespeare's plays were written and performed for the masses as well as the aristocracy and speak to us all. 

The play's the thing, indeed


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