It’s turning out to be a Shakespearean kind of year. Not in that the Queen has died, I’ve written a bunch of plays, and I’m going to die by the age of 52. I mean, chance would be a fine thing. But more in the fact that I’m posting a shit-tonne of Shakespearean insults at anybody who’ll look at me, I’m currently reading 1606: Shakespeare and the Year of Lear, by James Shapiro– one of the best books I’ve read in years — and, well, there’s this post. Inspired by both the above occurrences, and to help scratch a serious yen to watch some more celluloid Shakespeare again, here are five of the best filmic Shakespeare adaptations you could use to fill your eve.
5 for Friday: Is That a Camera I See Before Me?
Let’s start at the top. Titus Andronicus is not one of Shakespeare’s best plays (although it is, if you’re in the mood, still pretty bloody good. Especially the bloody bit). It’s an early potboiler, overflowing with blood and gore and grrrr and arrrggh — more of a revenge epic than a true tragedy. It seems much more an attempt by an aspiring ‘upstart crow’ to win over audiences than the work of a mature, confident wordsmith at the height of his powers. Nothing wrong with that, but let’s just agree that it wouldn’t seem an obvious choice when discussing the contentious Which Shakespeare to Best Adapt to Fillum? category.
And yet, here we are. Because Julie Taymor’s 1999 Titus is as mad as a bucket of weasels, right from the opening scene, where a dust-and-leather clad army led by Anthony Hopkins in full world-weary mode drive Harley Davidsons and jeeps into an empty ampitheatre to deposit their spoils of war. And it just gets nuttier from there. Alan Cumming’s Saturninis is a foppy latex fetishist who tools about in an open-topped Rolls and addresses the mob via an antique radio microphone. Dutch angles threaten to topple dizzy cinemagoers into the aisle, they lurch so wildly. Jessica Lange as Tamora couldn’t be more True Housewives ubercougar if you skinned her and wore her as a stole. Eras clash, visual styles wrestle naked and drunk, and the whole thing careens madly towards cannibalism, bloodshed, rape, murder, and twigs for hands….
What underpins a film that could so easily have been a sodden mess is Taymor. She’s a brilliant visual director, and in paring the story back to its strong central spine, and giving actors the calibre of Hopkins, Cumming, and Colm Feore (amongst others), room to do what they do best– be brilliant deliverers of character and line– she creates a visual twin to the spiralling madness that overtakes the story’s protagonists. It is watchable a thousand times: each viewing reveals new business, new hints and tricks that the constant movement, colour, and frenzy had hidden before. It is a masterpiece: unarguably the best Shakespearean film adaptation of the last thirty years, and arguably the best ever.
One of those Anthony Hopkins performances where he transcends the acting of which mere mortals are capable, as good as anything he has ever done.
Sometimes an adaptation swings so hard on the adaptor’s choice of approach that it can make or break the production before you even begin. Think Branagh’s much-debated intellectual-minor-nobility approach to Hamlet, or any college production of anything where someone’s brilliantly announced “I know! Let’s make it a comment on (pick the Government of the day’s policy of the day)”. This is one of those adaptations.
Brilliantly, Ian McKellen and co-adaptor Richard Loncraine choose to set this version of one of my favourite Shakespeare plays in 1930s Britain, the explanation being that they felt this was the last time that a fascist-style overthrow of the crown could be seriously attempted (Obviously this was before the current, somewhat more successful, one). It’s also a visual treat: draping the York dynasty in cod-Nazi livery and regalia, and setting many of the film’s key sequences in empty construction sites, railway sidings, and public bathhouses brings a coldness and austerity to the narrative that echoes the kind of shivering immediacy Shakespearean audiences would have felt, but which 400 years of distance has denuded from the modern telling.
It’s a stripped-down, sparse narrative, removed of many of the side-plots and supporting narratives that time has not served well. What remains is a surprisingly modern story of betrayal, avarice, and lust for power. It’s incredibly moving, extraordinarily powerful, and the only real contender Titus has for the best Shakespearean movie of the modern era.
Heil, darlings. Heil.
Long before we all learned that he was a filthy child-rapist, Roman Polanski saved Shakespeare for me. More specifically, he saved me from the Shakespeare-killing efforts of my Year Eleven English teacher, whose approach of “Read the first line. Now what does that mean? Now, read the second line. What does that mean? Read the third line….” — and yes, she did that through All. Five. Acts. — almost destroyed any desire I ever had to expose myself to the bard from the first moment.
Damned if I remember her name, which is exactly what she deserves.
The only good thing about that school year, and I do mean the only good thing, was watching Polanski’s 1971 Macbeth on video. Because, quite frankly, I had never seen anything like it. And I don’t just mean anything like it in a film-of-a-Shakespeare-play way. I mean anything anything. This was the mid-80s. To say films were stylised would be to undersell things a wee frigging bit. I mean, it was 1986, the year I saw Labyrinth, Top Gun, Platoon, Little Shop of Horrors, Ferris Beuller’s Day Off…
Realism? Realism could go fuck itself.
And there was Macbeth, with everything coated in 1970s faux-realism. Faux-realism and mud. I mean, mud everywhere. Mud and shit. Mud and shit everywhere. Mud, and shit, and gloom, and blood, and sweat, and… well, you get the idea.
Grim? This film was positively fucking suicidal.
I was hooked. I’ve been hooked ever since. And, of course, I can look at it now and see how stylised it is, and how much it depends on lighting, and sound, and all the artifice of the day. But the fact remains that it is a Shakespeare play filmed largely on the ground, in real settings, with grit, and authenticity, and palpable verisimilitude. Macbeth remains my favourite Shakespeare play, and this my favourite retelling. Nowhere is the desperation of the Macbeths more palpable than this production– Jon Finch and Francesca Annis seem genuinely terrified and at their wits’ end, and by all accounts, as actors they were. Nowhere else have I seen the odds seemingly so knife-edged, and the rewards the characters vie for so brutally undercut by the reality of their world. Rarely have I ever seen a Shakespeare production where the consequences seem so painful, and immediate, and real. It’s Shakespeare on the streets, maaaaan.
I love it.
By the way, the first line means she wants to know when they’ll meet again.
“I bet Olivier never smelled of horse shit. I wanna go home.”
Confession: of all the Shakespeare plays I’ve seen (and I haven’t seen them all by any stretch), Twelfth Night is by far my least favorite. Much of this is down to an abominable TV production I was forced to endure during my high school years, starring 1970s interminably perky chipmunk-woman Felicity Kendal. If I had discovered this later adaptation, also for TV, first, things might have been different.
Kenneth Branagh directs his own stage production with all the flair for inversion that he displays in his grander, more grandiose film productions: rather than a rich, sumptuous villa, the action takes place in a stark, snow-laden, monochromatic garden. Frances Barber’s Viola and Richard Briers’ Malvolio (and it helps to have that sort of calibre of actor, dunnit?) are played ramrod straight, as real people, rather than the prancing cyphers Shakespeare comedies have tended to give us in recent years. And Anton Lesser plays Feste as a tragic figure, every utterance laden with self-awareness and fatalistic doom, so that the comedy — far from being presented in the fay, salad-days manner we see so often (think the interminably fluffy 1999 Midsummer Night’s Dream) — is so deeply etched in acid it feels like all the warmth has left the world and all that is left is this dark, doomed, group of malcontents and deluded fools.
It is, in short, utterly unforgettable.
Lesser as Festes, by way of a razor blade dipped in lemon juice.
Is there a Shakespeare play so undervalued and needlessly ignored as Coriolanus? Consigned to the list of ‘minor plays’ completed between Macbeth and The Tempest. Sparingly staged, critically mentioned in passing, if at all. An also-ran in a field of eternal classics.
Well, bollocks to that. It’s fucking great. A bloody, sprawling revenge tragedy with a complex, brutal protagonist who might just be the least sympathetic lead character Shakespeare ever wrote, and yes, I am including Shylock in that count. It’s an utterly unbending, unforgiving evisceration of a man hoist by pride, and arrogance, and the betrayal of weaker men. If you could boil down all of Shakespeare’s great tragic figures to a jus, it would taste like Coriolanus.
And Ralph Fiennes gets it. I mean, there’s no great surprise that he’s a great actor who turns in a great performance– his General C is a muscle-twitching, spitting ball of rage who tears off the ears of anyone who approaches with the vitriol of his words. But what is more surprising is how well Fiennes directs this film. It’s claustrophobic, even when scenes are set outside or in huge, airy rooms. The camera screws in so tightly on the character’s faces — on their twitches, their asides, their prevarications — that the audience begins to see each one of Coriolanus’ accusations, paranoid fantasies, and twisted motivations as he sees them, writ large in every tiny, revealing gesture. The setting is a vaguely contemporary, vaguely hereish everynowhere. The fashions are either nondescript or military, with that sense of drab monotony that most European military uniforms have. There’s nothing for the audience to grab onto, except those tortured, twisted characters as they interact with, wilt before, and ultimately fail to deal with, Fiennes’ rampaging monster of a man.
And if that’s not enough to tempt you, consider this: in a film containing the legendary Brian Cox, Vanessa Redgrave, James Nesbitt, and Fiennes himself, perhaps the most astonishing thing that happens is that he manages to get a superb performance from Gerard Butler, as General C’s counterweight, Aufidius. I’ll say those words again: super performance, Gerard Butler.
This is a relentless, austere, almost brutal performance of a play that welcomes exactly that approach, and a play that deserves a much more exalted position in the canon. It’s Shakespeare via action movie, with one of the most ceaselessly vicious performances I’ve ever seen from a Shakespearean lead. It is a thoroughly modern Shakespeare, in the best possible way.
There was me, that is Coriolanus, and my droogs…
Disagree with my choices? Of course you do: it’s bloody Shakespeare! You can’t stop at just one…
So what are your favourites, then?