The Guardian (London), May 21
by Michael Billington
Kenneth Branagh's screen versions
of the Bard are better than Olivier's, argues Michael Billington
How do you film Shakespeare?
Clearly, there are as many approaches as there are directors.
You can treat the texts expressionistically (Welles), romantically
(Zeffirelli) or starrily (Olivier). You can see the poetry as
a visual springboard or as the core of the experience: at one
extreme, Baz Luhrmanns Romeo And Juliet; at the other,
Trevor Nunns Twelfth Night. Always, however, one faces
a key problem: Shakespeare works primarily through words, the
cinema through images. Do you allow the poetry to paint the pictures?
Or do you let the camera do the work? The art of making Shakespeare
movies, I suspect, is to strike a balance between word and image
and find an overarching visual metaphor that unlocks the meaning
of the play.
Watching Kenneth Branaghs
three Shakespeare films again Henry V, Much Ado About
Nothing and Hamlet in preparation for an NFT talk, it
strikes me he has had more success than most in realising Shakespeare
on screen. For a start, he has got the films made: no mean feat
when you think of the budgetary struggles Welles had in making
Othello, or of the cruel accountancy that stopped Olivier filming
Macbeth. But, in addition and he is currently editing
his fourth Shakespeare film, Loves Labours Lost
Branagh has found a way of giving the films a cinematic rhythm,
while preserving the texts poetic values. His Henry V,
made when he was 27, is an astonishing achievement, and better,
in almost every respect, than Oliviers. We all know Olivier
was making a morale-boosting wartime propaganda film but, even
so, treating the French as effete ditherers (with the king himself
as a male Margaret Rutherford) undercuts British heroism. What
you are left with and its a good deal is
the incisive glamour of Oliviers presence and that thrilling
voice, with its Rossini-like gift for crescendo.
But Branaghs film seems
much closer to Shakespeares intention: a complex study
of the ambivalence of war and of a young kings self-discovery.
Oliviers Henry exudes instant
patriotic charisma; Branaghs feels more like the Hal of
the previous plays, who, having lost his real father and shed
his surrogate one in Falstaff, is still coming to terms with
his own identity.
However, as well as tracing Henrys
enforced maturation, Branagh finds a metaphor that sustains the
whole film. He begins with Derek Jacobis Chorus switching
on the lights from an empty soundstage and then moves to the
back lot at Shepperton. Olivier gradually turns the Chorus into
a voice-over; Branagh keeps him as a visible, mufflered presence
a reminder that we are watching a version of reality.
And where Oliviers battle
scenes have a rousing Technicolor excitement, Branaghs
show the declension of morning glory into exhausted carnage.
Branaghs film doesnt just recreate Henry V, as many
have suggested, to match a mood of post-Falklands cynicism, it
expresses Shakespeares own complex feelings about heroism
and sacrifice. Henry V is a masterly movie one that adapts
the Brechtian stage idea of the Chorus to remind us, all the
time, that we are watching a reconstruction of reality. In Much
Ado, starting with the on-screen titles of sigh no more
ladies, the intention is clearly to explore the giddiness
of love in the context of a Tuscan fête champêtre.
It works, up to a point: the
film is sunny, charming and popular, and boasts Emma Thompsons
brilliant performance as a Beatrice who hides emotional scars
behind a life-and-soul-of-the-party gaiety. But, although the
film has many good things in it, it is, for me, the least satisfying
of Branaghs Shakespeare trio. It misses the melancholy
at the heart of all Shakespearian comedy, ending with a celebratory
overhead shot of the dancers snaking through the Tuscan villa.
I thought longingly of Zeffirellis stage version, which
counterpointed the revelry with an image of the solitary Don
Pedro brooding in an orange grove.
Dogberry and Verges, played by
Michael Keaton and Ben Elton, are wildly overdone: they are treated
as comic psychopaths rather than a real rural constable
that hath had losses and his loyal sidekick. The
text is also thinned out: we lose such magical touches as the
hymn to a dawn which dapples the drowsy east with spots
of grey. It is a lively film that did a lot to popularise
Shakespeare with young Americans but, although internally consistent,
it seems closer to feelgood fairytale than to Shakespeares
poignant social comedy.
If the text is diluted in Much
Ado, no one could make that accusation of Branaghs four-hour
Hamlet not only the longest committed to celluloid, but
also far fuller than most stage versions. What matters, however,
is that Branagh has again found an image both highly cinematic
and true to Shakespeares play: of Elsinore as palace and
prison. The court becomes a vast hall of mirrors, filled with
diplomatic and political activity, and, simultaneously, a place
of espionage, oppression and confinement. One of the films
most telling images is of Kate Winslets Ophelia locked
in a padded cell a closeted offshoot of the main throne
room and a place that can be spied on from above.
This is one thing cinema can
do better than theatre: create a sense of place. Branagh gives
us a Kafkaesque castle, in which each room tells its own secret
story. But one consequence of creating an Elsinore that is both
palace and padded institution is to emphasise Hamlets own
political subversiveness. Here the play scene is a big public
occasion at which unease spreads among the courtiers as they
realise the reigning monarch is being accused of murder. Never
before have I seen it shown so clearly that Hamlet poses a revolutionary
threat to the state.
More controversially, Branagh
uses the camera as in all his Shakespeare films
to show past or off-screen action. It works superbly in one case:
the image of Claudius keeping wassail by getting
bullishly pissed and dragging Gertrude to the nuptial bed in
full view of his courtiers. I am less sure about the visual re-enactment,
during the Ghosts soliloquy, of his murder: it removes
any ambiguity about Claudiuss villainy, or about the Ghosts
status as unreliable narrator. As with the subliminal shots of
Hamlet wrestling naked in bed with Ophelia, it resolves visually
questions that are left open textually. But this is a minor flaw
in a film which renders a full Shakespeare text without sacrificing
narrative momentum or visual panache.
What Branaghs films offer,
in short, is something of the polyphonic richness of the plays
a quality you very rarely find in cinematic versions.
Oliviers Hamlet, for instance, is a dreary, funereal affair
when set beside the plays theatrical vivacity. And, while
Luhrmanns Romeo And Juliet has its admirers, it is like
a strip-cartoon compared with a full-blooded stage version.
Branagh, however, in two of his
three films, has used the resources of cinema to produce something
with the emotional and intellectual impact of a Shakespearian
theatrical event. Itll be fascinating to see whether he
does the same with Loves Labours Lost, which he has
set in the 30s, and which incorporates classic songs from Porter,
Berlin, Gershwin and Kern.
Whatever the films success,
Branagh has set new standards in Shakespearian film-making, which
makes it all the more puzzling that Branagh-bashing is a popular
British media sport. But I suspect his achievement in Shakespearian
cinema, which, in directorial terms, outdistances Oliviers,
will survive attempts to put this passionate Belfast puritan
Michael Billington will be talking
to Kenneth Branagh at NFT1 on Sunday as part of the NFTs
Branagh season. Look out for sound clips from the interview on
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