Shakespeare on Film

All the World’s a Screen

An essay by: Witney Seibold

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            The earliest Shakespeare-based film, according to the Internet Movie Database, is a two minute scene from “King John,” produced in 1899. It was intended merely as a showcase for the lead actor, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. The latest Shakespeare-based to be released was in theaters a few weeks ago: an adapted “Macbeth” which took place in the streets of modern-day London. There are even several forthcoming productions as well: there’s a new “Richard III” in the works, and Disney is putting something together called “Gnomeo and Juliet.”

 

            The same site credits William Shakespeare as having inspired at least 690 film productions. Six hundred and ninety films. That’s about 18 films per play. And there are doubtless more to come. That’s more film adaptations than The Bible. More than Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, and Dracula combined.

 

            Most working film actors have, at some point, played in a Shakespeare play, and even ones you would not readily think of. Woody Allen has played the fool in “King Lear.” Samuel L. Jackson has played Othello. Bill Murray has played Polonius. If you were alert during 1993, you would have shared the world’s outrage at seeing Keanu Reeves mumbling the Bard’s words in Kenneth Branagh’s production of “Much Ado About Nothing.” He was also fashioned closely to the young prince Hal in Gus Van Sant’s gay street hustler movie “My Own Private Idaho.” If you’re an actor in England, starring in a Shakespeare production is the Los Angeles equivalent of handing out a résumé; It’s something every working actor must do in order to get a real gig. I’m having trouble thinking of any British actor, from any era, who has not starred in a Shakespeare production. Well, maybe David Thewlis.

 

            If the world of film were any gage, than The Greatest Story Ever Told would actually take place in Elsinore Castle, or the fairy-laden woods outside of Athens, and not in Jerusalem as previously assumed.

 

             The world of film, just as much as the world of theater, seems to need William Shakespeare. He is a tent pole of the art form, an ever-abundant creative well to which actors and screenwriters and directors are always returning. Even (right or wrong) notoriously uncultured directors like Michael Bay or Quentin Tarantino have admitted to including Shakespearean elements in their films. Shakespeare has had a hand in writing forty known plays, and each of them (“Cardenio,” “Edward III,” and “The Two Noble Kinsmen” notwithstanding) have been adapted onto film at some point. Some have been given minimal treatment (“Pericles,” “Cymbeline,” “Timon of Athens” – the “problem plays” – have only ever been adapted once by the BBC), while others have dozens of adaptations (I believe “Hamlet” still holds the record at nearly 100, with “Romeo & Juliet” a distant second).

 

            The man is everywhere, and his stories, his words, his themes, his characters, have all deeply invaded the consciousness of English-speaking culture. Famed stuff literary critic Harold Bloom has proudly said that Shakespeare is responsible for inventing the human; It was The Bard’s plays that dragged humanity from a world of superpowered poetic epic heroes and difficult-to-understand intellectual poetical allegory, toward everyday human beings having everyday (if not horribly difficult or cartoonishly farcical) human struggles. My problems with Harold Bloom aside, I can see his point.

 

            Shakespeare is quoted endlessly in film, to the point where it’s almost trite when a character invokes him, however appropriate or inappropriate. Just watch Kevin Costner’s ill-fated sci-fi epic “The Postman” sometime, and see the hero and the villain trading Shakespearean quips. It’s a bit dreadful. There’s liberal use of the man in “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country,” which, while a touch classier than “The Postman,” still ends with a spaceship blowing up. Yes, The Bard of Stratford is mentioned in the same breath as a gaggle of exploding Klingons.

 

            There have even been some (o.k. many) downright horrid film productions of Shakespeare’s plays. I recently saw a film called “Othello: The Black Commando,” which is the only “Othello” I’ve seen to feature a motorcycle chase. The BBC’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was a dark and dreary production featuring low, haunted-house-style lighting, and the fairies as malevolent destructive vampires. I caught a few scenes of an animated film called “Romeo & Juliet: Sealed with a Kiss,” and, yes, the two star-crossed lovers were seals. I’ll give you this title, and let you ponder for yourself: “Macbeth 3000: this Time, it’s Personal.” Even Kenneth Branagh who is (for better or worse) still the remaining champion of Shakespeare on film, slipped a bit with his fair production of “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” featuring the cast singing and dancing to standards of the 1930s and ‘40s. Neat idea, but not as well executed as it could have been.

 

            But these missteps are mere bumps in the long and bumpy road of Shakespeare. Along the way, we have had some beautiful, challenging, ambitious, funny, and pure adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. This essay will take you through some of the better Shakespeares I have encountered on this unending road of Bard love.

 

            My pedigree: I myself have seen all of the BBC productions (with the exception of “Romeo and Juliet”), and probably over 30 other Shakespeare-based films. From the ones they used to force on us in high school, to the ones I begged by father to take me to when none of my friends would join me. Thank you, dad, for driving me out to the Royal Theater at the end of 1996 to see Branagh’s four-hour production of “Hamlet.” I hope it made up for the time I insisted we watched “Spaced Invaders” so many years before.

             Thanks to the gumption and matched energy from my stepmom, Nora, I have also read every one of Shakespeare’s plays. Yes, every one. Yes, even “King John,” “Cymbeline,” and “Coriolanus.” She and I decided one day, sort of out-of-the-blue, that we should read them all, and the next week began methodically working our way through the entire canon. We even included the weird ones like “Timon” and “Troilus and Cressida,” to the apocrypha like “Cardenio” and “Edward III.” It was a most rewarding experience. I recommend it.  

            Here are some of the Shakespeare-based films, then, that are worth note:

  

            Romeo & Juliet:

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            Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 production of “Romeo & Juliet” is often cited as the best Shakespeare film. There are few high school students alive who have not seen this film; it is a favorite of English and drama teachers the world over. I can agree with them: the film is deft and gorgeous. Zeffirelli shot in Italy, and set the play in the era it was originally written, giving it a classical feeling, but allowed the young cast to act through the stuffy alien world of the past into the contemporary hearts of young viewers throughout history.

 

            The cast is lively and young (for once; there are too many twentysomething Juliets in the world), and they all dive into their roles with appropriate aplomb. Leonard Whiting is perfect as an obnoxiously lovelorn Romeo, and Olivia Hussey is willful and smart and lovely as Juliet. Michael York gives a career-making performances and in the role of Tybalt, and the show is nearly stolen by John McEnery’s manic and intellectual prankster Mercutio; McEnery’s performance has probably inspired more teenage audition monologues than any other Shakespearean actor.

 

            Plus, it makes the material fresh and tragic. The love story is still brought to the front, but the tragedy is not dampened because of it. When Romeo’s tears flow, we can see why, and we ache, like in every production of the play, for Juliet to awaken just a few moments earlier and stop Romeo from drinking the poison.

 

            Olivia Hussey was only 15 when she made the film, and quickly became a long-lived crush of teenage boys everywhere. She give a luminous performance, of course, full of joy and life, but also appeared (for about a second) topless in the film. This has caused a scandal midst some nervous parents as well as entire video outlets which have gone so far as to ban the film for underage nudity (even the Internet Movie Database lists “Romeo & Juliet’s” first sub-category as “breasts.”). Yes, as classrooms full of teenage boys can attest, the scene is indeed titillating, but to ban such a film is foolish and stupid. Even young teenagers can appreciate the messages of the film, even of the heightened language often escapes them.

 

            I have read “Romeo and Juliet” several times. So have you. Most English teachers, because the lead characters are young, feel they can assign the play to young people, I suppose in the hopes that young people will be able to relate to it. Despite my admiration for the 1968 film, and the play’s undying status as one of the best romance/tragedies ever written, I have become largely tired with “Romeo and Juliet.” I read it, literally, every year from the seventh grade to my second year in college. I started to see it less as a perfect romance interrupted by family squabbles, and more a testament as to the folly of young people. Romeo turned from a romantic idealist to a troubled teen with a short romantic attention span who would rather commit suicide than grow up. Juliet transformed from a wily young feminist into a thirteen-year-old virgin who was stupidly duped out of a comfortable life (I’m sure her marriage to Paris would have ended, and on her terms) by the advances of a horny older boy.

 

            This is merely another interpretation of “Romeo and Juliet,” albeit a less romantic one than usual, but I have yet to see a production to match my new admittedly cynical view of the play. The 1968 film is still brilliant, and I can still enjoy it, but I have a lot of personal hazards to overcome before I can see or read the play freshly again.

  

            Laurence Olivier:

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            Laurence Olivier, often cited as one of the greatest actors to ever live, won multiple awards in 1948 for his famed film production of “Hamlet.” He has also played Othello, Richard III, Henry V, King Lear, and Orlando from “As You Like It.” Not to mention Zeus himself. It’s easy to throw Olivier in the pile with, say, “Citizen Kane,” or Babe Ruth, as an easy-answer Best Of All time, to take for granted that many say he’s the best, without ever actually going back to watch him and love him and experience his greatness first-hand. But despite all the hype (and perhaps overexposure) of being The Best, Olivier really does carry the mantle as one of the best Shakespearean film actors.

 

            His style is able to hold the strange language of Shakespeare in his mouth while still sneering realistically at the camera. His makes the often garbled Elizabethan English sound natural and vital. I have seen many, many, many productions in which the actors strain to sound proper and poetic. They pronounce every last syllable, and make sure the meter is just right. There is a lot to be admired in this approach, but after three hours of bombastic poetic speechifying, a play can being to grate on the nerves or put you to sleep, likely both.

 

            Olivier angered many old-time Shakespearean actors with his approach, but opened the doors of Shakespeare to a new generation. His production of “Hamlet” won the Academy Award for best picture in 1948, the only Shakespeare film to do so. I have seen this film. While the direction is a little ham-handed and turgid (which may be appropriate for a melodrama version of “Hamlet”), Olivier himself stands out as a vibrant and complicated prince, truly torn up inside about his own indecisions. Most Hamlet interpretations since then (especially the oft-included Oedipal elements) owe a lot of Olivier’s production.

 

            Olivier also made a wonderful production of “Henry V,” which presented the play as a mere (and very realistic) experience of seeing “Henry V” at The Globe back in Shakespeare’s time, and gradually became a full-blown film production, moving off the stage and into real fields and castles. The approach is fascinating and brilliant, and the reproduction of the old Globe is gorgeous. One again, the approach does lean toward the bombastic (a lot of the political intrigues begin to vanish in a whirlwind of confusing and half-included details), but never to make the film anything less than wondrous.

  

            Much Ado About Nothing:

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            In 1989, a 28-year-old filmmaking neophyte exploded on the indie-movie scene with an unexpected film production of “Henry V.” Like Olivier before him, he included a gradual incorporation of the play into modern times (his narrator, played by Derek Jacobi, was in modern dress), but the film was much grittier, much darker and featured some of the most naturalistic Shakespearean actor in film history. The film became a huge hit. It’s director was Kenneth Branagh.

 

            Kenneth Branagh seems to be a polarizing figure in the world of Shakespeare. On the one hand he is admired for his easy and firm understanding of the hugely complicated language of the great Bard, but he is just as often criticized for being egotistical (he casts himself in most of his own movies, and is fond of letting the camera dwell on himself), noisy, and an overactor.

 

            Yes, Branagh does have an egotistical approach to filmmaking. He is very fond of large, theatrical gestures, he sweeps his camera about, often right toward himself. In 1994, he directed a largely reviled, bodice-ripping remake of “Frankenstein,” and I don’t think there’s a single scene (outside of the Creature) that he did not put himself in.

 

            In 1993, he cast himself as Benedick in a production of “Much Ado About Nothing.” Benedick is certainly the funniest and most vibrant role, although it’s the couple of Claudio and Hero is the one the plot pivots on. Branagh placed so much attention on Benedick – many critics though unnecessarily so – that the part became the lead, and Claudio and Hero became faceless simps in comparison.

 

            “Much Ado About Nothing,” though, despite some of these founded criticisms, is one of the single most successful adaptations of a Shakespeare comedy. I’m not sure if you’ve ever read the play, but it is probably Shakespeare’s happiest. It also makes for one of the happiest films I have seen.

 

            The story: A group of surviving soldiers return to Messina after the wars. They are glad to be home, and are welcomed with open arms by the local governor (Leonato). Equally thrilled to welcome them are the host of local single ladies, each of which finds a new love almost immediately. A young buck (Claudio) falls for the governor’s daughter (Hero), but asks his captain (Don Pedro) to woo in his name. It is pulled off successfully. There is to be a wedding.

 

            The lieutenant (Benedick), meanwhile, is reunited with his ex (Beatrice). They have a tempestuous relationship, which centers of insulting one another. The lieutenant’s friends plot to lure them back together again; everyone recognize that they belong together and are both just too proud to admit it.

 

            The bastard brother of the captain (Don John), though, wishes, for his own villainous purposes, to break up the young couple. He sets up a decoy to make it look like the governor’s daughter is really a tramp, and the young buck falls for it. He rejects the governor’s daughter at the wedding, shaming her. He plans on charging off to war again.

 

            The governor hatches a plan: they will fake his daughter’s death, and the only way the young buck can atone for the “damage” he caused, will be to marry her previously unmentioned sister. The have the wedding, the buck sees that his woman is not dead, the lieutenant and his ex get back together, the bad guy is caught for his treachery, and everyone is happy.

 

            Kenneth Branagh chooses to begin the film with the “Sigh no more, ladies” song, featured in the play. “Men were deceivers ever,” the narrator announces, but advises “sigh not so, but let them go/And be you blithe and bonny.” This film will be light. There will be sighs, but, in the end, we will be blithe and bonny. All of Shakespeare’s comedies end with marriages, and we’re always sure from the outset that things will end well. “Much Ado About Nothing” is not going to be a story of tension and suspense and climaxes. It’s going to be a road that leads from happiness, takes a slight detour though confusion, and ends with greater happiness. The biggest conflict e will have in this play, Branagh is announcing, is the age-old battle of the sexes. That funny way men and women have of relating to one another.

 

            The music (by Patrick Doyle) is loud and joyous. The lighting is bright and sunny during the day, and warm and balmy at night. Watching “Much Ado About Nothing” is like going on vacation to a relaxing resort with a group of your closest friends. It’s an exotic place, full of parties and drinks and good friends who are happy to be with you, and the promise of love lurks around every corner. Yes, there are complications along the way, but it’s the love and joy that will win out in the end.

 

            In the play, the characters are rarely anything but cheerful. There is even a scene in the play that was cut from the film in which, when presented with the news of Hero’s death, Don Pedro and Claudio banter and joke about it. That would have made them seem cruel in a film as natural as this one, but is in keeping with the overall cheery tone of the play.

 

            Some of the casting is inspired, although some of it is a little weird. Branagh of course, cast himself as the bantering and funny Benedick, and cast his wife-at-the-time Emma Thompson as Beatrice. The film belongs to them. They both know the parts well, act them well, and banter very well. It may be the Claudo/Hero relationship that the plot surrounds, but it’s the Beatrice/Benedick relationship that reveals the central theme of the play: that playful, painful, often hard, often silly, usually ambivalent, but ultimately rewarding battle of the sexes. Men and women will always have to deal with one another, so it is a theme that will stretch into time immemorial.

 

            Robert Sean Leonard and Kate Beckinsale are Claudio and Hero, and have little to do other than fall in love and look pretty. They do it just fine; they are both pretty people (Leonard has enjoyed heartthrob status ever since). Imelda Staunton, Richard Briers, Brian Blessed round out supporting roles. Like Oliver before them, they have now all (presumably at Branagh’s behest) adopted a natural approach to Shakespeare: the play is no longer about tired old poetry, and Kabuki-like perfection, and is more about tone. What is the heart of this play? Joy is the heart. We will play joy in every scene.

 

            Denzel Washington is a strange choice for Don Pedro, as he speaks like a man from New York, and not from England or Messina. Luckily Washington is a capable enough actor to give Don Pedro the appropriate amount of authority and emotional heft. There is a brief moment (often played for laughs in stage productions) in which he asks for Beatirce’s hand in marriage. He and Thompson’s handling of this moment is sublime. Romantic tension, humor, melancholy, and wit are all captured in a single moment.

 

            Most controversial (hell, it’s outright bizarro) is the casting of the inscrutable Keanu Reeves in the role of Don John. He sounds like a SoCal surfer, whispers all his lines at the same tone, and sneers like he’s sucking on dirt-flavored gum. The film is well-made enough so that his presence can be forgiven, but he is easily the weakest part of the cast. Imagine what someone like Gary Oldman could have done in the role. Or Tim Roth for that matter.

  

            Hamlet:

 

            “Much Ado About Nothing” was an even bigger hit than “Henry V.” Branagh’s marriage to Emma Thompson was widely publicized, and they were hailed as one of the most talented couples in Hollywood. Branagh has mild hits with “Dead Again” and “Peter’s Friends.” He was hailed as the new Olivier by some, what with his mastery of Shakespearean film. Then he made the largely reviled “Frankenstein,” divorced Thompson, made a little seen indie called “In the Bleak Midwinter” (a.k.a. “A Midwinter’s Tale”), and announced a desperate plan to make a new version of “Hamlet.” Many scoffed at the idea.

 

            That said, Branagh’s “Hamlet” is the best Shakespeare film to date.

 

            Branagh has once again peppered his film with loud, grand music, large sweeping camera movements, and quick cuts, making for typically Branagh-ian bombast. Once again, he has made some odd casting choices (Gerard Depardieu plays Reynaldo. Reynaldo, according to my copy of Hamlet, has exactly thirteen lines of dialogue, most of which are some variation of “good, my lord.”). But this is the first film production of Hamlet that probably does the play justice.

 

            Branagh wisely incorporated the entire text of the play from the earliest known folio. By doing so, he has completed a play that is all-too-often truncated. That means a lot of the stuff about Fortinbras (Rufus Sewell) and the advancing Norwegian armies has been restored. Including talk of the political chess match going down between Old Norway and Claudius (Derek Jacobi). The part of Laertes (Michael Maloney) has been dramatically increased. Ophelia (Kate Winslet) is allowed to really unfold and fall apart in front of us. And the ever-vital play-within-a-play scene (with Charlton Heston as the player king), usually reduced in most productions to a short reading or even a dumb show, is left untouched, allowing the subtle emotional manipulation of Hamlet (Branagh) to really sink in. When the king rises, we understand. Even Gertrude (Julie Christie) is given more to say, and is no longer a wispy, vulnerable matron.

 

            Can I analyze “Hamlet?” I doubt if any single piece of fiction has more written about it, so I will not tire you with my own interpretation of the events. I can, however, point out how Branagh got it right.

 

            By leaving in the entire text, the play begins to take on different rhythms than we’re used to. We all know the perfunctory stuff: Ghost (Brian Blessed), court, soild flesh, revenge, no revenge, players, no revenge, to be or not to be, no revenge, stabbing Polonius (Richard Briers), no revenge, Ophelia’s mad, Hamlet’s away, Hamlet returns, alas poor Yorick I knew him Horatio (Nicholas Farrell), let’s fight, we’re both poisoned, the rest is silence.

 

            But rather than give a perfunctory approach to the material (which is very easy to do with such an old and familiar play), Branagh has allowed the play to speak for itself. Shakespeare allowed all five acts to play out in a very deliberate way, and the action is peppered through at just the right moments. Each character crumbles and emotionally falls because of Hamlet’s irresponsible (and yet moral) behavior. Shakespeare wisely allowed us to see each character as they fell, and how Hamlet’s own rich and indecisive life had a hand in it. It’s easy to read that, but this is the first time we get to see it on the big screen. Every beat is in tact.

 

            Most productions of “Hamlet” focus on the characters and just the characters, while ignoring one important plotpoint in the play: Denmark falls at the end. The entire court is destroyed, eight main characters have died, and Fortinbras is now sitting on the throne. It is indeed fascinating to wander around in Hamlet’s indecision, and to watch characters go mad or fall apart because of it, but largely ignored is the fact that the entire kingdom is in danger. Something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark: we’re standing on the cusp of war.

 

            Too many directors see the politics of “Hamlet” as a distraction from the characters and gloss it over. The play really ants to say, though, that there is much more than the souls of a few obscure royals at stake. There is the crown itself. There is the existence of Denmark as an independent state. Branagh not only leaves in the important dialogue about the advance of Norway, but even gives us one great image of Hamlet, standing on a bluff, giving a speech (“my thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth.”) while an enormous black-clad army approach in formation on the snowy field below him.

 

            The richness of the characters finally comes through in Branagh’s production as well. Horatio, for one, is usually a gratuitous sidekick character who seems to exist for no other reason than to give Hamlet someone to talk to (which seems kind of useless anyway, seeing as how much Hamlet talks to himself). Horatio in the text, though, is a balancing figure for Hamlet. Hamlet is a scatterbrain. A dreamer with a grand imagination. He’s more enthused about acting and theater than he is about politics or family. Horatio is the one who has to appear to drag him back down a bit. Horatio is a realist. Farrell plays Horatio as quiet and pragmatic, but given to the occasional bouts of broodiness. It’s the right note.

 

            Claudius is all-too-often the hideous Snidely Whiplash-type villain of the story. A cackling usurper who killed for power, and raped for spite. It’s easy for us to see Hamlet’s indecision if he refuses to kill an evil man, but how would we feel if Claudius was a charismatic ruler, a charming husband, and a largely righteous man (his crime of fratricide/regicide notwithstanding)? How would we feel about Hamlet then? We’d feel the solid, human, and realistic ambivalence that Shakespeare probably wrote in. Derek Jacobi, who is a fantastic and sorely underused actor (See “I, Claudius” sometime for a wonderful showcase for his talents), has played Hamlet in the past, but is equally stirring as Claudius here. We see his regret, his talent as a ruler, and really believe it when he goes to repent after the play-within-a-play.

 

            Hamlet sits behind the mesh of a confessional in that scene. If you’ve taken classes on Hamlet, it’s certain your professor mentioned the phrase “Hamlet as confessor.” Branagh finally, intimately, gives us the image.

 

            Gertrude, too, is given more flesh. Julie Christie can’t help but play a strong role, and raises a usually simpering victim into an independent woman who largely stands by her decisions. She was not seduced. She met a better man. It makes the play more interesting, and enriches the character of Hamlet, if his mother is strong.

 

            Kate Winslet plays Ophelia just right, but Ophelia is hard to get wrong: fragile, loving, and betrayed to the point of madness. Branagh added the extra wrinkle (through flashbacks) that she and Hamlet were already sleeping together. Her madness makes more sense if the intimacy they shared extended beyond beautified letters.

 

            The rest of the cast all does well. Maloney is a beautifully angry and shallow Laertes. Timothy Spall shows up as Rosencrantz. Sewell is arrogant and smarmy as Fortinbras.

 

            Some of the cast, though, don’t really get over the shock of their stardom; you’re too busy marveling at their presense to pay any attention to their dialogue. Robin Williams, for instance, was cast in the small comic role of Oscric. He overplays the part a bit too much, and then dies inexplicably. Jack Lemmon plays Marcellus (one of the guardsmen at the beginning), and can bring nothing to the role. Depardieu has nothing of note to say, Richard Attenborough stumbles in at the end as if called in at the last minutes, and John Gielgud and Judi Dench only get to mime as Priam and Hecuba (the characters from the player’s speech). Most of the big “name” actors are only stunt casting.

 

            But some of them work. Charlton Heston actually brings heft to the play-within-a-play, and Billy Crystal, as the gravedigger, lends the proper irreverent tone to the most important scene in the play (alas, poor Yorick), and can handle Shakespeare’s language better than one would assume.

 

            Other clever things: The “to be or not to be” speech is given into a two-way mirror. Hamlet is facing his own indecision, his own role as a revenge hero, and thrusting them right into Claudius’ face. Ophelia and Laertes are given a real relationship. The ghost hisses and whispers, and we see flashbacks of the king’s murder. I liked that.

 

            Can anyone ever fully understand the emotional complexities and literal nuances of a play like “Hamlet?” Perhaps scholars who spend years studying it can, but even casual Shakespeare buffs like me still struggle with it. What Kenneth Branagh has done is bring us a step closer to claiming the play for ourselves. That’s no small feat.

            

              Titus:

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            “Titus Andronicus” was Shakespeare’s first tragedy, and his biggest financial success. It’s also his bloodiest and hardest to stomach. Hands get lopped off left and right (yuk yuk), someone is raped, a father kills his daughter’s boyfriend, sons are wrongfully executed, and, the coup de grâce, two character are baked into pies and fed to their mother.

 

            Productions of “Titus Andronicus” are few and far between. None of the characters give speeches about their inner lives to the audience. Motivations are rarely revealed. Poetry and insight are a distant consideration, while the blood and action take center stage. It is a grand guignol horror potboiler.

 

            So why did director Julie Taymor (famous at that point for directing the stage version of “The Lion King”) choose to make a three-hour long, star-studded production of this play? Well, reading the play may not have the answer, but watching Taymor’s colorful and gorgeous rendition of it gives you more clues.

 

            The story, for those unfamiliar: Titus (Anthony Hopkins) returns from the wars victorious. He has lost 17 of his sons, but captures the Gothic queen Tamora (Jessica Lange). Despite her pleas, Titus kills her son in front of her, and she vows revenge. Titus turns down his rightful position as Caesar, and hopes to retire. Tamora, meanwhile, seduces the new Caesar, a warmonger named Saturninus (Alan Cumming), and has an affair with a Moorish advisor named Aaron (Harry Lennix). Aaron frames Titus’ two sons (of three remaining) for murder, and has them executed (but not before tricking Titus into cutting off his own hand). Tamora entreats her two remaining sons (Matthew Rhys, Jonothan Rhys Myers) to rape and mutilate Titus daughter Lavinia (Laura Fraser).           

Titus is more than a little mad at this point. In a final mocking gesture, Tamora goes to Titus to lord over him, and sends her sons in to spend the evening with him. He kills them both, has them baked into pies, and then serves them to Tamora and Saterninus as a dinner. Then everyone is killed, Aaron is sentenced to death, and only Titus’ grandson (Osheen Jones), brother (Colm Feore), and remaining son (Angus MacFadyen) survive.

 

            Yeah. Not very much fun.

 

            But Taymor makes it work.

 

            First, Taymor realized that the events in the play were too weird and violent to present in any sort of realistic way; that kind of production would be more like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Instead, she created a weird timeless fantasy world where various eras are all crushed into one. People speak in Shakespeare’s language, and talk of the old Roman electoral process, but there are also motorcycles, video arcades, leather pants and 19th century costumes. The violence in “Titus” may not be stomachable in the real world, but in Taymor’s fantasy Rome it seems all too palpable.

 

            Her world is utterly beautiful. Like a dream Fellini would have had, her Rome is populated by large stark buildings, golden ruins, cavernous catacombs, and unfriendly swamps. Her interiors are steel, fetishistic, hard-edged, scary.

 

            Second, Taymor understood that violence is less something to shied away from (or, more inappropriate yet, glorified in), and more something that can indeed be beautiful. Look at a crucifix sometime. It’s a gorgeous piece of evocative sculpture, and also one of the most violent things one human can do to another. Her approach to the blood is to present it as another aspect of this universe. It’s not a horrifying aberration, but an element as natural as the ill winds and the dark waters. The characters do feel pain and they do grieve, but the blood cannot be escaped. It’s not sensational, nor is it ignored (it couldn’t be). It is handled just right.

 

            The violence, in fact, is pointed out as a natural and horrifying part of little boy’s fantasies. The opening scene of the film is the young Lucius sitting at his breakfast table, a paper-bag-mask over his head, while he plays with his plastic toys. He smashes them into one another, smashes them against the table, smashes them with his shoe. He makes exploding noises with his mouth, and pours ketchup all over the table. The explosions then become real, rocking the whole room. Taymor seems to feel that this is, essentially, what Shakespeare was doing: giving vent to his little boy fantasies of violence. It gives one a rush of power to build something, and then wreck it. Shakespeare id it for himself and then, in turn, gave it to the audience. And audiences lapped it up.

 

            Third, Taymor understands the basic message of the play: if we, as human beings, work hard, and really put our minds to it, we can be really, really rotten to one another. Hard work and perseverance don’t always mean clean triumph. The same drive that forces us to the seat of saints are the same drives that make us villains. Could “Titus” have ended well? No. The characters are not programmed for happy endings. Saturninus will make weak decisions and fall prey to Tamora’s manipulations. Titus will continue to, due to his age and refusal to change, do exactly the wrong thing and realize three scenes too late how wrong it was. The two sons will always be violent rapists. And Aaron, especially Aaron, the catalyst of evil in this play, will only feel regret a few moments before he dies a long slow death.

 

            The entire cast is fantastic, but Harry Lennix really pulls out all the stops. He is hatred incarnate, he is above all the characters, he is a destructive force. And yet, he is also the only producer of life in this play. His infant child by Tamora lives on in the arms of the survivors. Aaron may be a horror, but the play points out that, in the right arms, even a small bit of life can come from a cataclysmic penny arcade nightmare of death.

 

            In the script for “Titus,” there are a few surreal fantasy sequences not in the play. Taymor calls them “penny arcade nightmares.” I don’t know what possessed her to include the knockout images in her film, but I’m grateful she did. They’re like small abstract interludes, used to enforce the themes of the play, almost Kabuki-style.

  

            Shakespeare’s plays will continue to be produced in film, and we’ll pass way beyond 690 before you know it. It’s a testament to the universality of the Bard’s plays that we must continue to explore the stories and themes hundreds of years after the fact. Hamlet’s moral ambivalence will never be solves, Juliet will always die, all of the comedy characters will always marry, and “Titus Andronicus” will always be ghastly and fascinating. Few stories have that power, and Shakespeare gave us a whole career’s worth. And filmmakers have been savvy enough to continue the tradition in ways that couldn’t be staged. 

             If you haven’t read Shakespeare, give it a try. If you struggle with the text, try a book on tape. If even that is not clear, well, thankfully we have some of the greatest films ever produced to guide us.

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Published in: on August 16, 2007 at 9:28 pm  Leave a Comment  

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