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Sunday, August 10, 2008

Cinematic Shakespeare (originally published 3/05)

Although I have never cared much for the writings of film critic Pauline Kael, I am fond of one remark attributed to her. "If you think movies can't be killed," she once said, "you underestimate the power of education." But it's not only true of movies. More than one creator of living art has discovered that the attention of the academy is both a blessing and a curse. Too often, the price of admission to the required reading list is the squelching of the fire and passion in your works.

Down through the years, no one has suffered more in this way than poor old William Shakespeare. After nearly four centuries of the ministrations of university graybeards, not to mention critics, it's amazing that the old boy's plays are still around at all. Their survival can only be attributed to the actors and directors who regularly revive them on the stage and on the screen. Their work keeps us reminded, if only just barely, that those dusty old tomes contain not only fodder for scholars, but also great theater.

The latest filmmaker to take on this noble task is Michael Radford, whose recent production of "The Merchant of Venice" will soon be released on DVD. If you happened to catch the film and found that Al Pacino's spirited incarnation of Shylock whetted your appetite for more, there are plenty of excellent earlier film versions of Shakespeare's plays available on home video. Lots of talented filmmakers have adapted the Bard for the screen, but there are three who tower above the rest.

Laurence Olivier is perhaps the most obvious one. Renowned as a stage actor, his film work is sometimes unjustly overlooked. Once he realized that film acting is different from stage acting, Olivier got the hang of performing for the camera very quickly. But even more impressively, he became an accomplished film director as well. In particular, his eye for pictorial composition was sharp and inventive.

His "Hamlet" (1948) and "Richard III" (1956) are both excellent, but my own favorite Olivier Shakespeare film is his first one, "Henry V" (1945). He was encouraged to make it because its story of an embattled England steeling itself to fight a formidable enemy resonated with the then-current threat from Nazi Germany. Olivier used a wonderfully imaginative device to frame the play. The film begins in London in the time of Shakespeare. The camera takes us into the Globe Theater for a performance of "Henry V." We even get a peek at the backstage bustle and fussing with props just prior to curtain time. The play begins, still on the Globe stage. Then, as we are drawn into the story, the confines of the Globe are gradually left behind. By the time we reach the Battle of Agincourt, the film has long since moved entirely to naturalistic locations. By the end of the film, Olivier has reversed the process, bringing us back to the Globe for the final scene.

Orson Welles is the second great film interpreter of Shakespeare. His moody, quirky "Macbeth" (1948) is fascinating and his recently restored "Othello" (1952) is sublime, but my favorite is an audacious masterwork called "Chimes at Midnight" (1967). Because of the length of the plays, you can't very well do Shakespeare on film without cutting some of the lines, but no one had ever had the nerve to perform the kind of radical surgery attempted here. Welles decided to make a film about the relationship between Prince Hal (who would grow up to be Henry V) and the two men who most influenced his life. One of these was his royal father, Henry IV, and the other was Sir John Falstaff, the rotund blowhard who was Hal's drinking buddy throughout his misspent youth. But because these relationships are played out over the course of several individual plays, Welles found it necessary to collapse material from "Henry IV, Part One" and "Henry IV, Part Two" into a single sequence of events, while mixing in bits from "Richard II" and "Henry V." The exemplary result is a finer commentary on the meaning of Shakespeare's histories than any grind of a scholar will ever produce.

The third great film interpreter of Shakespeare took a somewhat different tack than either Welles or Olivier, but with equally impressive results. Next week we'll take a look at his unique adaptations of the Bard's plays.

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