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

Matthew Henerson
Written by Matthew Henerson     August 22, 2011    
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Shakespeare on Film: A Top 5 (Part 5)

This is the fifth part of a weekly five-part series of writings on Shakespeare in film. Read the Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

5. Twelfth Night directed by Trevor Nunn

With Trevor Nunn’s 1996 film of Twelfth Night we come to a crossroads at which converges virtually everything that has come before in filmed Shakespeare. Let’s begin with Nunn himself. The second Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, he took over from Peter Hall in 1968. Like Hall, he was Cambridge educated, young—28 when he took over the RSC—and ensemble minded. Unlike Hall, however, who’d directed Olivier’s final Coriolanus at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1959, Nunn had no experience with, and no particular reverence for, either the actor-manager tradition or the star system which replaced it. Enough of a star in his own right, after directing a series of phenomenally successful first run musicals, including Cats and Les Miserables, Nunn has avoided star-driven projects, preferring to assemble the kind of top tier ensemble cast which powered his Macbeth. Ian McKellen is the exception which proves the rule in Nunn’s case; the two have collaborated on several projects. Nor is Nunn averse to a little good old fashioned nepotism. It’s fortunate for his reputation that he has married two such talented actresses: Janet Suzman, an RSC leading lady from the mid 60s to the early 70s, and, famously, Nunn’s 1972 Cleopatra, and Imogen Stubbs, Desdemona in Nunn’s 1989 Othello (with McKellen as Iago) and Viola in his 1996 film of Twelfth Night.

Nunn’s choice of the play was itself revolutionary. Ever since Beerbohm Tree filmed a silent excerpt from his King John in 1899, the history of Shakespearean film has been dominated by the tragedies and the histories. In 1989, 90 years of filming the plays had produced a total of two Shrews, two Dreams and an As You Like It. A few others had made it to television, and there were a handful of non-English films. By contrast the same period had seen three Romeos, three Macbeths, two Caesars, two Hamlets, two Othellos, King Lear, Henry V, Richard III, and Antony and Cleopatra, not to mention Chimes at Midnight; and all this in addition to silents, non-English films, television productions, etc. There are any number of reasons for the discrepancy, the most obvious of which harkens back to our discussion of 18th and 19th century Shakespeare. The prime movers behind most filmed Shakespeare are and were men: Olivier, Welles, Brook, Zeffirelli, Hall, Polanski, Mankiewicz, Branagh, George Cukor, Charlton Heston, Maurice Evans, and Max Reinhart. There are also practical considerations: the tragedies and histories tend toward single protagonists—Caesar and Romeo being two obvious exceptions—and it’s both easier and cheaper to hire a Hamlet or a Macbeth than it is to round up, for example, Rosalind, Celia, Orlando, Touchstone, and Jaques. And there is cultural prejudice: filmed Shakespeare is, by its very nature, significant; the greatest actors of an age recording performances of the greatest works in the history of English dramatic letters. Public perceptions simply lend more weight to tragedy. Comedy is entertainment; tragedy contains meaning, moral directives, profundity. Finally there is the persuasive fact that Shakespearean comedy just doesn’t seem to translate to film as comfortably as tragedy. Directors have tried a number of approaches: Reinhart’s Dream is romantic and lyrical, while Peter Hall’s shoots for edgy and sexy. The Fairbanks/Pickford Shrew tries for pluck, while Zeffirelli’s fails at farce. And nobody has a good word to say about Paul Czinner’s 1936 As You Like It. Much of what existed pre-1989 was labored, little was fun, and almost none of it was actually funny.

Again it fell to Branagh to point the way forward with a beautifully shot if unevenly acted 1993 film of Much Ado About Nothing. This film has much to recommend it, including Branagh’s charming Benedick, Richard Briers’ thoughtful Leonato, and—best of all—Emma Thompson’s exquisite and melancholy Beatrice. A beautiful score and lush Tuscan settings capture the romance of Much Ado, but flat and mannered performances from Robert Sean Leonard as Claudio, Keanu Reeves as Don John and Michael Keaton as Dogberry kill much of the play’s tension and almost all of its laughs. Finally, Branagh’s Much Ado is a decent film of a minor comedy, significant chiefly for bringing a previously unfilmed play to the screen: a serviceable romance, but neither good comedy nor particularly distinguished Shakespeare.

Actor-director Branagh’s choice of Much Ado must have been at least partially determined by a desire to play Benedick opposite his then-wife Thompson’s Beatrice. Given a quest for balanced romantic leads in the comedies, he was limited to either the rambunctious comedy of Shrew or the witty banter of Much Ado. Nunn, a director with no ambitions to act in his film, had no such constraints, and his choice was nothing if not ambitious. Twelfth Night, the last of Shakespeare’s high comedies, is also the most complex and difficult to cast. There are ten major roles, none of which can truly be called the lead. Viola is the play’s heart, but Sir Toby is its engine and speaks the greatest number of its lines. Malvolio and Olivia must be skilled both in farce and in tragedy, and Feste must be singer, clown and mimic, while both Toby and Andrew must be skilled physical comedians as well as competent swordsmen. Sebastian and Antonio also fight, and Orsino, Sebastian, Olivia and Viola speak variously in prose, verse and rhymed verse, often jumping between the three in the course of a single scene. The cast Nunn assembles to tackle all this is an achievement by itself, ranging as it does from A-list movie stars Ben Kingsley and Helena Bonham Carter, to art-house regulars Imelda Staunton, Nigel Hawthorne, and Richard E. Grant, to British repertory actors Mel Smith, Toby Stevens and Imogen Stubbs.

Like dozens of directors before and since, Nunn reverses the first two scenes of the play, beginning not with Orsino’s monologue, but with the shipwreck which separates Viola and Sebastian and casts them up at different points along the Illyrian coastline. The film actually opens with a disembodied voice (Ben Kingsley as Feste) singing an extra-textual first verse of “The Wind and the Rain.” The same voice then narrates the shipwreck. The narration is thankfully sparse, couched as it is in some not particularly distinguished blank verse which Nunn probably wrote himself, but the wreck as shot demonstrates both Nunn’s appreciation of the difficulties involved in filming Twelfth Night, and the boldness with which he intends to tackle them.

Twelfth Night as written has two narratives which wind together throughout the play: a main plot, the love triangle between Orsino, Olivia and the disguised Viola, and a sub-plot, the conflict between Malvolio and Toby. In the first two scenes of the play, we are introduced to the four protagonists of the main plot, two of whom we see, and two of whom are described at some length. To further confuse the issue, the most practical and approachable character in the first two scenes—the person towards whom we gravitate and from whom we hope to hear more—is an attractive young woman in a bedraggled dress whom we may not recognize when next we see her, since she’ll be disguised as a man. In the following three scenes we finally see Olivia, about whom we have heard so much, and we are introduced to five brand new characters whose interaction makes up the sub plot. In the play’s sixth scene we finally meet Viola’s brother Sebastian, about whom we have heard, in the company of a brand new character about whom we know nothing at all. So the question facing a director of a filmed Twelfth Night: what resources does my chosen medium give me to simplify my audience’s introduction to this bewildering array of characters? Nunn’s answer is the shipwreck.

He begins the sequence with a costume party below decks at which two attractive young women—twins—in veils and black wigs sing a chorus of the song “Oh Mistress Mine” while one of them accompanies the song on an upright piano. At the line “That can sing both high and low...” a stray baritone note creeps into the proceedings. The two young women stare at each other, then one reaches up and tears the veil of her sister’s face, uncovering a small moustache. The mustached sister, now revealed as a brother, tears the veil off his sister’s face, discovering that she has a moustache too. The camera picks out faces in the audience, including a round-face older man with white whiskers, roaring with laughter at the double act; all except for one handsome man in a naval uniform at the back, who looks pensively out the window at the thickening storm. The first brother then peels the moustache off his brother/sister’s lip, and just as the newly revealed sister reaches towards her brother’s moustache, the cabin lurches, the white-whiskered man jams a captain’s hat on his head and lunges for a companion ladder, and all hell breaks loose. The camera cuts frantically between the sailors dodging falling masts on deck of the ship and the twins’ cabin, where brother and sister huddle together stuffing their belongings, cabinet pictures, make-up etc. into bags. Shouting and crashing send the twins up on deck, where the sister looses her footing and plunges into the sea. The handsome man we saw at the window tries to restrain the brother, but he plunges in after her. We then see the twins under water, as they cling to one another until the sea and would-be rescuers pull them apart. The sister is dragged into a life boat by the white-whiskered captain, and she watches helpless as her brother disappears beneath a wave.

This sequences allows Nunn to reverse the introduction process of Shakespeare’s I, ii. We have now seen, and our emotions have been engaged on behalf of, both Viola and Sebastian, even though we know neither of their names. We’ve also been introduced both to the captain of the ship, who rescues Viola, and we’ve seen Antonio, Sebastian’s savior. His presence at Sebastian’s side in the scene which corresponds to Shakespeare’s II, i, will not come as a complete surprise. Nunn then brings us to the beach for the beginning of Shakespeare’s I, ii. He doesn’t cut the scene entirely, but he does fragment it, giving the captain some lines of Antonio from III, iii with which to introduce a mostly extra-textual merchants’ conflict. This is Nunn’s way of front loading both Antonio’s conflict with Orsino and the captain’s ultimate arrest by Malvolio. It also allows the director to introduce a uniformed cavalry patrol which chases Viola and the sailors off the beach and into the hills.

The film’s detractors, and there are a fair few of them, rail against this sequence in particular. They refer to the extraordinary economy with which Shakespeare introduces his characters and point to a 1987 television production, directed by Branagh, which simply records the scene as written. It’s worked for something like 400 years, goes the cry. What makes Trevor Nunn think he can do any better? I’ll spare you my opinion of self-stylized Shakespearean purists and their frantic and futile pursuit of some unknowable “authorial intent,” but I will address their most persuasive point. Twelfth Night was written to be performed in a theatre in front of an audience who were accustomed to absorbing theatrical information through their ears rather than their eyes. In stage productions, I am myself impatient with directors who invert the order of the first two scenes for no other reason than that they fear their audience is too moronic to deal with a second and more central character—Viola—after being introduced to the preoccupations of the more peripheral Orsino. By contrast film is a visual medium, a fact that bears constant repetition when you’re working with four-hundred year old source material. A collection of inert figures talking is a less efficient way of putting across exposition on camera, because it is counter to the way in which movie audiences absorb information, through the eyes. Nunn has done, with his opening sequence, exactly what Shakespeare presumably intended to do with his: he has drawn his audience into the story of a group of characters by engaging both our curiosity and our compassion. Now, as a veteran of six productions of Twelfth Night, I do not absolutely require Nunn’s shipwreck sequence for narrative clarity. I know who everybody is, and I won’t be taken out of things when, six scenes into a filmed version of the play as written, two new characters show up, one of whom looks a lot like Viola. However, Nunn’s opening draws me into the story far more quickly and efficiently than any production I’ve ever seen. The purists would no doubt contend that I have yet to see the right production, that Nunn has somehow cheated, as Polanski, Zeffirelli and Olivier did before him, by introducing extra-textual content, or by cutting counter to the structure of the verse. These kinds of squabbles invariably degenerate into entirely subjective intellectual shoving matches. The truth of the matter is that the plays are not that fragile. They’re not museum pieces to be mounted in pristine condition and never afterwards touched. Trevor Nunn’s film of Twelfth Night does not prevent another director from filming every word of the Folio text, and the play will endure long after both Nunn and his detractors are gone.

To return to the nuts and bolts of the film, Cornwall, where Twelfth Night was shot, is not many miles from Snowdonia in Wales, where Polanski shot his Macbeth. Here too is a rugged coastline, here too is woodland—ash rather than pine, and if there are no jagged mountains, there are wind-swept cliffs overlooking a grey sea. Like Polanski, Nunn allows the beauty of his locations to inform the story of the film, but where Polanski’s actors occupy the bottom and sides of his masters, small and marginalized against the grandeur of the indifferent landscape, Nunn tends to shoot his people from the waist up, allowing them to dominate the frame. Man is very much the master of these surroundings. Indeed the ferocity and violence of the opening storm at sea, make the still and barren coastline seem peaceful by comparison. And presiding over this tranquility, we have Feste sitting atop a cliff, looking down, God-like, as Viola and the sailors seek shelter from Orsino’s cavalry in a cavern on the sand. Then there is Olivia’s stately home against which and within which much of the film takes place: a 19th century stone mansion surrounded by gardens and cultivated parkland. It begins the film as a dark and somewhat severe place, its mistress given over to mourning and its management in the hands of a humorless and punctilious steward. Then, as Olivia, and to a lesser extent Malvolio, thaws, drapes are pulled aside, windows are thrown open, and light and color enter and animate the place lending it a beauty to offset its gravity. Where Polanski’s Wales made humanity itself of no account, Nunn’s Cornwall makes its inhabitants’ troubles seem trivial. This Illyria is a utopia born of a romance, where the dead can rise again, where love takes no account of gender, and from which, in a bittersweet extension of Aristotelian comic logic, those who fail to find love—or who fail to find it in time: “Youth’s a stuff will not endure.”—must finally depart. And most of the cast does so over the end credits, leaving Orsino and Viola, and Olivia and Sebastian free to marry and have children in an idyll untroubled by drunken cousins, lovesick stewards, or even loyal friends: handsome, troubled Antonio—a heartbreaking performance by Nicholas Farrell—does not stay to compete for Sebastian’s affections with Helena Bonham Carter’s radiant Olivia.

Finally, a word about the extraordinary cast which Nunn assembled to populate his 19th century sea-side Shangri-La. Of all the challenges facing the director of a film of Twelfth Night, none can have been as daunting as the realization that he needed the dramatic equivalent of eleven concert masters content to play in almost continual harmony. Olivier had several excellent actors in his Henry V—Robert Newton, Max Adrian, Leo Genn—none of whom had any real effect on the final product. Henry V belongs to Henry. To extend the music metaphor, he sings the melody, and if the harmony is played too skillfully, it can detract from the central theme of the piece. Branagh’s film of the same play occasionally suffers from exactly that problem. It was both generous and bold of him to cast Paul Scofield, Ian Holm and Judi Dench, but watching that film I found myself wishing for more from the King of France, Fluellen and Mistress Quickly and less from Henry. By contrast, the director of Twelfth Night cannot relax once he’s cast his Viola, Olivia and Malvolio. Great stretches of the play belong to Toby, Andrew, Maria and Feste. The ending of the play can’t work without an excellent Sebastian. And even Fabian helps to drive several vital scenes in the second half of the play.

Trevor Nunn has always had an amazing eye for actors. By this I mean less that he can spot raw talent—I’m sure he can—than that he understands how a given actor’s abilities will suit both the demands of an individual role and that role’s position in the context of a given production. Witness his Antony and Cleopatra, in which Corin Redgrave’s ice cold affect and precise tenor voice made the audience at once more sympathetic to and more frustrated with Richard Johnson’s warm-hearted, ranting, baritone Antony. Consider also his discovery of opera singer Willard White as an Othello who could wrest the play away from Ian McKellen’s superb Iago; or his transformation of the young, earnest, and comical Roger Rees into an intelligent, manipulative, and politically savvy Macolm in the RSC’s 1974 Macbeth. So in assembling his Twelfth Night actors, Nunn never loses sight of the fact that he’s casting a comedy, but that the laughs in the play are more often situational, or even psychological, rather than language driven. To clarify: we laugh at Beatrice and Benedick because they say funny things. But we laugh at Malvolio because he has reached late middle age—in Nigel Hawthorne’s remarkable performance—without a working definition of happiness. We laugh at Andrew because he just doesn’t get it, whatever “it” may be. And we laugh at Olivia because we were all once young enough for our every emotional state to have a profound, not to say life-altering significance, until the next one came along. These are not simple pie-in-the-face laughs, and every one of them depends upon the life experience of each individual audience member. A recovering alcoholic will respond differently to Sir Toby than a fifteen-year-old prep-school student, but Twelfth Night is a comedy, and ideally both should respond, at least part of the time, by laughing.

So Nunn has to find at least eleven top-drawer film actors, all of whom have the courage to look ridiculous and the restraint not to sacrifice psychological credibility in pursuit of the cheap laugh. Watch the way the movie is cut and you’ll marvel at how hard his cast works, and how effortless they make it all look. A given scene might begin in two-shot, open up to a master, and thereafter bounce between the two, augmented with close coverage of everybody from principals to featured extras. I could easily double the length of these recommendations praising individual performances, but I’ll content myself with a few observations on Nigel Hawthorne’s magnificent Malvolio and Helena Bonham Carter’s enchanting Olivia.

Casting an ingénue as Olivia is a relatively new development in the production history of Twelfth Night. Up until the second half of the 20th century, the role was cast for gravitas, often with a middle aged actress. Then in 1958, Peter Hall apparently took a second look at Feste’s admonitions to his mistress—“Beauty’s a flower.” “Youth’s a stuff will not endure.”—and at Olivia’s declared intention to mourn for seven years, and decided that she should be at once young enough to make that kind of emotional and impulsive vow and old enough to imperil her marriage prospects if she keeps it. He cast 20 year-old Geraldine McEwan in his 1958 Stratford Memorial Theatre production, and kept her on when he remounted the production two years later in the RSC’s inaugural season. The production was a hit in both iterations, and from that point onward, Olivia was an ingénue, and often rather a silly one, throwing herself at the appalled Cesario in paroxysms of hormonal ecstasy, and melodramatically horrified by Malvolio’s clumsy advances. The glory in Bonham Carter’s performance lies in her exploitation of the tension between Olivia’s public and private personas. And Nunn brings a film-maker’s resources to bear in supporting her.

In Shakespeare’s play, Olivia receives quite a build up. She’s mentioned in each of the first four scenes, but doesn’t appear until the fifth, when she’s confronted by Feste. Nunn provides Bonham Carter with two extra textual, public appearances before she speaks. Viola sees her escorting her brother’s coffin in Nunn’s fragmented I, ii, and a few scenes later, Nunn inserts a sequence of Olivia attending Mass between Feste and Maria’s initial dialogue in I, v and her—Olivia’s—actual appearance later in the scene. In both cases, the diminutive Bonham Carter is all in black and heavily veiled. She is constantly surrounded by at least half-a-dozen attendants of both sexes, with Nigel Hawthorne’s Malvolio hovering protectively just behind her. Her face, what we can see of it, is grief stricken but resolute. She is now the mistress of a great house and estate upon which dozens of people depend for life and livelihood. Her intelligence and her will are equal to the task, although the heaviness of her movements and the pallor of her complexion make us wonder if she has the physical strength.

Nunn stages what would be her initial appearance in the play on the steps of the church. Feste greets her, and after a pause to register his presence, she takes Maria’s arm and blows past him as if he were some anonymous beggar. He follows, excusing his “dishonesty,” dividing his explanation between her back and the pack of attendants as she stalks across a hedged garden, and finally catches her and faces her with his offer to “prove you a fool.” A half completed gesture and a resolute frown suggest that she agrees primarily to be rid of him, and he courts real danger when he lifts her veil on “I must catechize you for it...” It’s the first we see of Bonham Carter’s beautiful, pale face, and her expression is set and miserable. His punch line gets the barest half-smile from her, but her face softens, and she invites Malvolio to share in the joke. Nunn keeps her in a two shot with Malvolio, and we see her disappointment at the malice of his reply. After leaning confidingly close to her steward to admonish him for being “sick of self love,” she steps to Feste, laying a hand on his chest as she defends him to Malvolio and Malvolio to him, her whole person a reproach to both men, as if to say: ‘Don’t I have enough to deal with without two of my oldest and most familiar companions clawing at each other?’ In the next moment, Maria announces the arrival of an embassy, and Olivia, catching sight of the uniformed soldiers at her gate, darts back to Malvolio’s side taking his arm and whispering “From the Count Orsino, is it?” as if her intimacy with the scruffy Feste might somehow compromise her gravity. In that moment, years fall away from her, and she seems desperately vulnerable. She quickly and efficiently dispatches Malvolio to deal with the intruders, maintaining her dignity until he’s out of sight. Only then does she signal for Feste to follow her inside. As he unpins her veil in front of a mirror, she maintains the “great lady” pretense for a single line before falling into his arms and sobbing against his chest. Toby’s drunken passage into and out of the room puts her back on her dignity for the duration of their scene, and then, as the door shuts after him, she plops down on the couch laughing, a quick release of tension in the presence of an old friend—Feste—before a wan expression creeps back into her eyes as she realizes that she has to manage her drunken cousin as well as everything else. A couple more stolen moments with Feste, then she sends him off to look after Toby, and picks up a newspaper with a sigh.

The sequence—six minutes, if that—is astonishing both for the amount of information it conveys and for the amount of pleasure it gives. We laugh out loud not at Feste’s tired little paradox, but at the effect it has on Olivia. Having seen her smile, we want nothing more than to see her laugh, and when she finally does it, we laugh with her, not at Toby’s drunken excesses, but at skill with which this tired and put-upon young woman manages to endure a day which has degenerated into a succession of one damn thing after another. Bonham Carter’s transitions are seamless and lightning fast. Her public persona is almost perfect. The actress has both gravitas and aristocratic beauty enough to carry it off. And her struggle to maintain it takes us through a gamut of emotions usually reserved for Chekhovian stage directions. Fortunately for her audience, we have the rest of the film to watch it fall away, revealing a vibrant, charming and mischievous beauty. And we don’t give a second thought to her marriage to a man whose twin she’s spent the film wooing. If anybody can make a success of such a preposterous proposition, this Olivia can.

Nunn’s camera is Bonham Carter’s staunch ally in this performance. He leaves her in two shots and groups for most of the early part of the movie, which paradoxically emphasizes her isolation. When she does interact with other characters, Feste, Malvolio, Maria, she touches lapels, and sleeves as if constantly seeking connection to mitigate her loneliness. When, later in the film, Cesario pushes her hands away, Nunn leaves Bonham Carter alone in the frame, bewildered and isolated, denied even the casual contact which is second nature to her. His method of shooting Nigel Hawthorne’s Malvolio is equally idiosyncratic but totally different.

Although he spent many years in the theatre, including a stint with the National in the late 60s and early 70s, Hawthorne came to public prominence on the British sit-com Yes, Minister, and there is about his Malvolio the on-camera ease and playfulness of the professional funny man. Physically, Hawthorne is of middle height and neither particularly thin nor fat. His face is unremarkable, but there is intelligence and whimsy behind his eyes, and he is frequently compared, both in style of performance and in types of roles played, to Ralph Richardson. Nunn’s camera seeks out that face, paradoxically coming closest in Malvolio’s most extreme moments. It’s a risky choice, but it pays off beautifully, providing the audience a compelling psychological portrait of a man so governed by rigid notions of propriety that he is no longer physiologically capable of spontaneity. The performance is Richardsonian in its weirdness. It shouldn’t work, but it does precisely because Nunn allows his camera’s lens to study it so closely.

Emblematic of Hawthorne’s Malvolio is a bit stolen from John Barton’s 1969 RSC Twelfth Night. Taking an afternoon constitutional in the garden, the steward stops by a sundial, checks his watch against it, and then adjusts the sundial. For Hawthorne, the bit is almost an afterthought. He doesn’t, for example, trouble to recheck the newly adjusted sundial. Minutiae are in his blood. He’s never seen a forest, but knows every tree by family, genus and species. He also constantly adjusts a rigidly pomaded toupee. It’s an excellent rug, and you might almost forget that it is a rug, except that he keeps adjusting the damn thing. He is competent, but never comfortable, at his ease only when there is a proscribed position for his body and his face, as when, early in the film, we see him at prayer, on his knees in church, his hands clasped beneath his chin. But then Olivia rises and leaves. He pulls himself to his feet to follow, then turns towards the altar, offering a stiff little bow to the Lord, as if unsure of the appropriate depth.

When this man is confronted with the potential fulfillment of both his political and sexual fantasies, his attempts to police his physical responses according to his imperfect understanding of how a man in love should behave are both hysterical and terrifying. Nunn has him in close up at the end of Shakespeare’s II, v, when he resolves to obey a written command to smile. The muscles of his face quiver and jerk as his features resolve themselves into a strangely toothy grin. A standard choice here is for Malvolio to try smiling as if he’s never done it before. It can become quite the protracted bit. For Hawthorne’s Malvolio, it’s another throw-away. He’s smiled before, but it’s been a while, and it requires a conscious act to re-engage the muscles.

Perhaps the strangest and most compelling sequence corresponds to Shakespeare’s III, iv, in which Malvolio comes to Olivia dressed in the yellow stockings and cross garters he assumes she wants him to wear. Again Nunn begins with an extreme close up of Hawthorne’s face as he peeks tentatively through a door he has just opened. The smile muscles twitch slightly as if, in the agitation occasioned by her presence, he’s half-forgotten his instructions. She invites him in and he flattens himself against the wall. On Shakespeare’s line “Sweet Lady, ho, ho,” Nunn has Hawthorne framed from just below his neck. The smile leaps onto his face and instead of vocalizing the “ho, ho” his head jerks back and forth and back: three quick movements intended to convey we’re not quite sure what—insouciance perhaps? As he advances into the room, the camera pulls back to reveal him in a dressing gown, his legs hidden behind a divan. He’s fiddling with the belt, unsure of his moment. The line “It did come to his hand...” is accompanied by a wink so pronounced it’s almost aggressive, perhaps something else Malvolio hasn’t done for a while. The belt comes off and the stockings are revealed on “Not black in my mind, though yellow in my legs...” and he advances on Olivia, hands holding the dressing gown open behind his back, with a strange dancerly gate, the better to show off the stockings. He kneels before her into a tight two-shot, accompanies the line “I think we do know the sweet Roman hand.” with a slow pantomime of cursive writing, and takes her hand to kiss it. In another actor, all this could appear to be the grossest indicating, but Hawthorne has laid his foundation brilliantly. Nigel Hawthorne isn’t a bad actor, Malvolio is, and Malvolio’s performance is at once laugh-out-loud funny and excruciating. Olivia then removes her hand from his, and he leans his face forward, eyes closed, anticipating a kiss. But she lays the back of her hand against his forehead, feeling for fever, and asks “Wilt thou go to bed, Malvolio?” The culmination of Nunn’s study of Hawthorne’s face occurs with his reaction to this line. It’s very quick, but if you look closely, you can see the question momentarily fry his brain. His face goes slack, and just before his mouth falls open, he regains control of his lips to say “To bed? Ay, sweetheart, and I’ll come to thee.” accompanied by a roll of his eyes almost as gross as the wink and a raised finger to direct her to his bedroom. As she rises appalled, his features resolve themselves into an anticipatory grin, and they’re in a wider two shot, when Maria walks in and distracts Olivia just long enough for Malvolio to get his hands onto her elbows whence they leap almost immediately to her waist. (This may actually be a continuity screw up. His hands go from elbows to waist in the cut to the reverse angle, and we never see them move.) His hands grope inexpertly at her forearms before he embraces her at some point slightly north of her waist and south of her bosom, and with the awkwardness of this embrace, an earlier moment snaps into focus. In the scene in which he discovers the letter, he sits to read it in an artificial grotto pebbled with seashells and surrounding a statue of Venus rising naked from the sea to which Malvolio addresses some of his earlier musings about the M.O.A.I. poem. He crosses behind the statue to read the majority of the letter, but as he understands its import, he comes around to the front of the statue and addresses “Daylight and champian discovers not more...” to her naked belly. Improbably he embraces the statue on the line “I will baffle Sir Toby...” and it’s rather an odd embrace: his hands grasp the haunches of the statue, as if cupping the bare buttocks of the thing would be somehow less seemly, and he presses his cheek against a fold in the marble belly perhaps six inches below the breasts. But as we watch him grapple with Olivia, we realize that in the earlier scene, having reached the conclusion that he might actually be required to embrace his mistress, he was practicing. And of course her forearms get in his way because the stature, like the Venus de Milo, has no arms.

For Nunn, as for Einstein, God is in the details, and it’s his attention to detail, of setting, of blocking, and most importantly of character that makes his Twelfth Night such a wonderful film. After all, Shakespeare’s comedies deal with the transformative power of love, and the more detailed that process appears, the richer will be the audience’s experience of the story. And then too, Nunn’s meticulous story telling seems to involve most of the best artistic impulses that have gone into the previous 97 years of Shakespearean film making. Here are something like half a dozen stars working together with the precision of a world class ensemble. Here are radical and effective cuts and transpositions juxtaposed with clarity of expression, confidence in the language, and emotional credibility. Here is text work worthy of Olivier, camera work worthy of Mankiewicz, Zeffirelli’s eye for detail, and Polanski’s feel for location, all in the service of one of the most perfect plays ever written. I could go on, but I have neither the time nor the inclination to write a book. To my mind Shakespearean film making culminates in Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night. For now.

Final Thoughts and Supplementary Recommendations

As I’ve said repeatedly in the last five parts, these are my five favorite Shakespearean films, but they do not by any means contain all that is good in the genre. And of course the fact that they’re my favorites means only that. Other people will compile Top-5 lists without a single one of these films on them. Here follows a short list of some additional films and television productions worth the watching.

Richard III directed by Laurence Olivier: Brilliant performances by Olivier, Richardson, Gielgud, Alec Clunes and Claire Bloom. (DVD)

Othello directed by Orson Welles: Shakespeare on a budget. Atmosphere and imagery as or more compelling than most of the performances. (DVD)

Hamlet directed by Tony Richardson: Abrasive central performance by Nichol Williamson, and truly perverse dramaturgy. Compelling claustrophobic camera work. (DVD-PAL)

King Lear directed by Peter Brook: Grim, tough and thought-provoking, based on Brook’s 1962 RSC production. Fearless work by Scofield as Lear, Tom Flemming as Kent, and Irene Worth as Goneril. (DVD-PAL)

The Tempest directed by Derek Jarman: Excellent, if fragmented, film. Observes the spirit, if not the structure of the original better than any other filmed Tempest. (DVD)

Prospero’s Book directed by Peter Greenway: Some exquisite and disturbing visuals, and the mature John Gielgud narrating almost the entire play. (DVD)

Titus directed by Julie Taymor: Unevenly acted but lavishly and originally conceived visuals. And of course the only big screen Titus Andronicus. (DVD)

Henry V directed by Kenneth Branagh: Amazing individual performances by Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench, Ian Holm, Paul Scofield, Geraldine McEwan, Emma Thompson, etc. (DVD)

Much Ado about Nothing directed by Kenneth Branagh: Emma Thompson’s Beatrice. (DVD)

Hamlet directed by Kenneth Branagh: Demonstrates the pros and cons of filming uncut Shakespeare. Some excellent performances. Some embarrassments. (DVD)

Hamlet directed by Franco Zeffirelli: Deeply cut text doesn’t preclude excellent character work from Gibson’s Hamlet, Bonham Carter’s Ophelia and especially Paul Scofield’s Ghost. Beautifully shot as well. (DVD)

Chimes at Midnight directed by Orson Welles: Something of a mess, narrative-wise, but lovely performances from Welles and Gielgud as Henry IV. (DVD)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Peter Hall: Misconceived, but fascinating to watch Dench, Holm, Ian Richardson, Diana Rigg, Helen Mirren, David Warner, Paul Rogers, Derek Godfrey, Sebastian Shaw, Michael Jayston etc.

Romeo and Juliet directed by Baz Luhrmann: Indifferently acted except for Claire Danes and Pete Postlethwaite, but compelling and consistent updating. (DVD)


BBC Hamlet with Derek Jacobi, Patrick Stewart, Claire Bloom: Despite some dull performances and sound-stage scenery, the most compelling performance of the title role I’ve ever seen given. (DVD-PAL)

BBC Richard II with Derek Jacobi and Jon Finch: Jacobi is excellent as the King and Polanski’s Macbeth makes a world-class Bollingbroke. Finch continues as Henry in the Henry IV plays. Part 1 is primarily notable for Finch, Anthony Quayle’s magnificent Falstaff, and Tim Piggot Smith’s Hotspur; Part 2 for Finch and Quayle.

BBC King Lear with Michael Hordern: Idiosyncratic central performance from Hordern with strong support from Norman Rodway, John Shrapnel, and Frank Middlemass. (DVD)

BBC Merry Wives of Windsor with Richard Griffiths, Ben Kingsley, and Judy Davis: Dark and dysfunctional production: Short on laughs but novel in its approach.

Othello directed by Trevor Nunn with Willard White, Ian McKellen, Imogen Stubbs and Zoe Wanamaker: Best and most balanced Othello I’ve ever seen. (DVD)

Antony and Cleopatra directed by Trevor Nunn with Richard Johnson, Janet Suzman, Patrick Stewart and Corin Redgrave: Excellent central performances, and creative use of limited sets and props.

King Lear directed by Richard Eyre with Ian Holm: Filmed record of my favorite Lear. Badly mishandled storm sequence, but otherwise well worth the look. (DVD)

Addendum, 2011:

Since completing this essay, I have had two excellent experiences of a new hybrid form—the simulcast—of which I make no mention in this essay, and which have already caused me to reconsider some of my ideas about the efficacy of filming stage productions. Since, as I said at the outset, this essay grew out of a specific request made at a specific time, I have elected not to do a radical revision, but to allow the essay to reflect my thoughts at the time the request was made.

This concludes our five-part series on Shakespeare in Film.


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