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Shakespeare on Film: A Top 5 (Part 1) Hot

Matthew Henerson
Written by Matthew Henerson     July 19, 2011    
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Shakespeare on Film: A Top 5 (Part 1)

This is the first part of a weekly five-part series of writings on Shakespeare in film.

This essay began as an email. An actor/producer friend of mine asked me to recommend my five favorite filmed adaptations of Shakespeare. Two things surprised me about the final product, which you have in front of you. The first was its length. Had I taken a moment to consider the amount of material available, and the necessity to define terms and defend choices, I might have been less surprised to see my recommendations progress from a long email to a thirty-some page attachment. But I didn’t, and I was. My second—and more profound—surprise was the five films I wound up recommending, only two of which had figured on the list with which I headed my reply to the original email. The fun of this project for me, therefore, has been revisiting and reconsidering the question of filmed Shakespeare in general, and these five films in particular.

A few introductory thoughts: filmed Shakespeare breaks down into three major categories. First, there are the genuine films: productions of the plays conceived in terms of cinema. These films can be based on fully staged productions (Brook’s Lear, Adrian Noble’s Dream); central performances from major productions (Olivier’s Richard III, Branagh’s Henry V); or they may have no theatrical antecedents at all (Polanski’s Macbeth or Mankiewicz’s Caesar). By their nature these films are adaptations—with the exception of Branagh’s Hamlet, they are heavily cut—but at their best, they use the resources and vocabulary of film to illuminate and reinvent the plays in ways denied to standard theatrical productions.

Then there are productions conceived specifically for television. As with the films, these can be based on previous theatrical productions—Trevor Nunn’s Antony & Cleopatra—but are more often conceived as original programming for the medium, e.g. the BBC series in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Television productions contain many compelling performances, but the complete experience is often unsatisfying. There are several possible explanations for the overall failure of this genre: television productions rarely have the resources of fully-produced films, and of course they have none of the primal fire of the best live performances.

Finally, there are filmed plays. These range from three-camera archival footage shot in the presence of an audience—Joseph Papp’s deplorable Dream—to sophisticated camera work and television-style editing of a run-through staged specifically for the recording—Trevor Nunn’s excellent Othello. These recordings have value primarily as museum pieces. At their best, they faithfully preserve excellent productions, but the viewer’s experience is necessarily diminished from what it would have been in the theatre, and the nature of the production can be badly distorted. John Dexter’s National Theatre Othello, starring Olivier, was universally admired on stage. Stuart Burge filmed the production and released it as a movie, and the result is parodic. Olivier’s performance, designed to reach the rear stalls of the Old Vic, devolves into a series of shrieks, grunts and grimaces viewed in close-up. As the inventor, for all intents and purposes, of filmed Shakespeare, Olivier should certainly have known better than to deliver a large-house performance for the camera, and yet he seems to have been unable to help himself.

Given the perfection of the plays as plays, it may seem ironic to consider that the closer one gets to simply recording the plays, the less satisfying the viewing experience becomes. But the plain truth is that the plays are intended to be experienced as live events; the closer a filmed adaptation comes to the play as originally conceived, the more one feels the absence of everything that makes live theatre miraculous. Our imaginations are necessarily more engaged in the theatre, since there are fewer resources at hand to ease our passage into the world of a live play. By contrast, when we sit down to watch a movie, or even a television program, we are conditioned to expect a glimpse into a naturalistic world. And when something is demonstrably artificial—think of the disappointing mechanical shark at the end of Jaws—it pulls us out of the movie. Whereas an aggressively theatrical gesture on stage—red and white ribbons issuing from Vivien Leigh’s mouth and sleeves in Brook’s 1955 Titus Andronicus—can engage an audience’s imagination so powerfully that people supposedly fainted at the sight. All this is not to say that the only good filmed Shakespeare is rigidly naturalistic—Olivier’s Henry V, Derek Jarman’s Tempest, and Julie Taymor’s Titus are all, to some extent stylized—but it does bear observing that film has a visual language and breadth of expression fundamentally different from that of theatre, and the best directors of filmed Shakespeare have harnessed and exploited the difference between the two media, rather than limiting the scope of either by privileging one at the expense of the other.

Now, on to my recommendations. To my way of thinking, these five films represent the most compelling combination of source material and cinema in the 100-plus-year history of filmed Shakespeare. I will say at the outset that this list includes neither silent films nor non-English adaptations. These exclusions leave several wonderful movies out in the cold, most notably the extraordinary work of both Grigori Kosintsev and Akira Kurosawa. I make this distinction on the theory that, since all we actually have of Shakespeare is the text of his plays, the complete Shakespearean experience requires the text to be spoken aloud and in the original. However faithful non-English or silent films may be either in translation or to the spirit of the original text, they don’t directly involve Shakespeare’s text as written, and, for the purpose of this discussion, I do not consider them to be filmed Shakespeare. We all understand and assume Elizabeth Slidall Rosetti’s portrait of Ophelia to be based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but it could potentially exist, even if Hamlet had never been written, or if the story existed in some other form. The same holds true for Throne of Blood. The five films which follow, however, owe their existence as green-lighted projects, as shooting scripts, and as finished motion pictures directly to the plays.


1. Henry V directed by Laurence Olivier

While all sorts of people filmed Shakespeare before Olivier, he really is the father of the genre Filmed Shakespeare. He was the first to exploit film’s ability to buttress the verbal with the visual, and all three of the Shakespeare films that he directed are worthy of study. Because he was the most accomplished and experienced classical actor ever to act as a Shakespearean auteur, he approached the question of filming the plays by asking not what Shakespeare could do for film, but what film could do for Shakespeare. Henry V is the first and the boldest of Olivier’s Shakespeare trilogy—Henry V, Hamlet, and Richard III are the three he directed, and do not admit comparison as achievements in film-making to As You Like It (1936), Othello (1965), Merchant of Venice (1973), and King Lear (1983), in which he only appeared—and, even though it was produced in part as a piece of pro-war propaganda, it remains the most faithful to and engaged with the play upon which it is based.

For Olivier, the camera never represented the eye of a passive observer. As an experienced classical actor, he conceived of the camera as an audience and the audience as an ally. And since Henry V begins with an apology for the limitations of the theatre, Olivier honored that impulse by beginning his film in an Elizabethan playhouse, upon the stage of which, an Elizabethan chorus—the actor/dancer Leslie Banks—invites a visible Elizabethan audience to “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts.” Then, confident of his ally’s collusion, he begins allowing the filmic medium to piece them out for us. Mistress Quickly, a boy in make-up during the first scene, is a weathered middle-aged woman by the time she reports the death of Falstaff. Leslie Banks’ Chorus fades to ghostly translucence even as the Globe’s painted scenery resolves into a tangle of naturalistic shipping as the King—now in full, functional armor as opposed to the garish theatrical costume he wears in the first scene—prepares to embark for Harfleur. By the time we see the sky over the mounted, charging French nobility at Agincourt darken with a cloud of British arrows, we’re as involved as, and perhaps more involved than, we would be at the finest live performance of the day at Stratford or the Old Vic.

Dramaturgically, Henry V is also the least dated of Olivier’s three films. For all of our twenty-first-century cynicism, we are still prepared to credit and admire a young, idealistic and charismatic military man. Kenneth Branagh, in his 1989 film of the same play, brought out more of the play’s ambiguity by allowing his supporting cast a more resonant voice in the proceedings—he cast much better actors, but his performance as Henry differs in approach from Olivier’s far less than Branagh would likely admit. He’s a few shades less confident—Olivier was filming towards the end of World War Two, and Branagh had both Vietnam and the Falklands as backdrops for his film—but he’s still essentially a good-hearted and popular young commander. Olivier’s other self-directed Shakespearean performances, by contrast, seem Victorian in both conception and execution. They betray the actor-manager’s need for the constant attention and affection of his audience, and while both are technically marvelous, the impact of the pieces as a whole are diminished first by his disinclination to cast actors capable of challenging him in supporting roles—Basil Sydney and Felix Aylmer as Claudius and Polonius in the Hamlet—and then, in Richard III, (a film that contains several superb supporting performances from John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Alec Clunes and Claire Bloom) by the wholesale exclusion of roles—no Margaret at all—and the gutting of that part of the play which does not directly involve Richard. All that said, his affection and respect for the audience behind the camera remains consistent, arresting, and unique in the history of Shakespearean film making. We are invited into all three performances, not just permitted to observe from a distance. Orson Welles, Peter Brook and Grigori Kozintsev may have had loftier goals in mind, but Olivier pioneered populist Shakespeare. Like Zeffirelli, another populist, his films were both critical and popular successes. Unlike Zeffirelli, however—in whose Romeo and Juliet Olivier does an un-credited and invisible turn as the opening chorus—Olivier brought both Shakespeare’s language and filmic visuals to bear in his story-telling. Many, if not most, of his successors have privileged the latter over the former.

Check back next week for part two of this five-part series.

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