Archive for the ‘shakespeare’ category

The Tragedy of Macbeth

January 2, 2022

macbeth

Stripped down for action, shot in black-and-white in the boxy old Academy ratio, Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth couldn’t be much more a hat-tip to film noir — the mode of narrative that has been so good to Coen and his brother Ethan (who seems to have left filmmaking for the nonce), from Blood Simple to No Country for Old Men. In this Macbeth, you don’t feel the pain of violence, as you did in Roman Polanski’s 1971 version, or Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 Throne of Blood. Nor do you really feel the weight of guilt and murder on the souls of Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and his wife (Frances McDormand). What you do get is an art-house riff on Shakespeare’s themes; visually and aurally this is a masterful achievement. Coen is using Macbeth to carpenter a stark, stylized tribute to a film genre he loves.

So throw out whatever Shakespeare-nerd expectations you may bring to The Tragedy of Macbeth; this ride’s for film nerds. The experience isn’t even much about performance, though Washington and McDormand — to paraphrase a critic quoted in the Coens’ Barton Fink — acquit themselves admirably. The star of this Macbeth is nowhere seen on the stage. Joel Coen must be aware that the Scottish play is so baldly a forerunner of noir — with its bargain-bin Macbeths led down the path of sin and doom by conniving dames — it has actually spawned movies that recast it in gangster-flick clothes (1955’s Joe Macbeth, 1990’s Men of Respect). Yet nothing in the design of the film — the costuming, the sets — links it to those earlier chiaroscuro morality tales. It’s dark and bleak and stylish, but more closely resembles, say, Welles’ Chimes at Midnight or Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse.

The problem with Coen’s approach is that it feels like an exercise. The visuals (and the beefy soundscape, where drops of blood seem to fall with thunderous force) are meant to express this or that, but mostly they just convey a director’s nifty ideas. When Macbeth raises arms against Macduff (Corey Hawkins), they’re both in a narrow walkway hemmed in by tall concrete walls, yet they’re also outdoors, so they get to taste teasing sips of the air while effectively buried alive. That design does work emotionally — they’re both like rats in a maze, stuck there by fate, and we feel the claustrophobic guilt and shame that put them there. Elsewhere, the three witches (all played, dynamically, by Kathryn Hunter) stand reflected in a puddle — or, rather, two witches are reflected from the third — or the frame is filled with leaves or crows. Sometimes the style is a bit much, but then noir always was.

As beautifully put-together as this is, though, I can’t help shrugging a little. Joel Coen has successfully told more than a few stories about the folly of crime. It’s as though he had finally worked back to the ur-noir, the original wellspring of crime drama and “Be sure your sins will find you out,” and found himself cowed, insecure. In this respect, Coen’s Macbeth is expressive after all: it expresses a smart director’s nervousness about approaching a capital-C classic — nervousness he resolves by visually showing daddy Shakespeare (and daddies Welles, Kurosawa, Polanski) who’s the captain now. But dramatically he sort of drops the ball.

Perhaps it’s because he has no fun Coen divertissements to fall back on; even in the Coens’ adapted work there are usually scurvy or scary villains, and there really aren’t any here (the hero, in what still seems a radical turn, becomes the villain). Coen sighs with relief when supervising Hunter’s witches, or Stephen Root in a funny bit; their brand of showmanship is more in line with Coen’s comfort zone. But when it comes time to make us feel the full pressure of a man who decides to cross the line you can’t uncross, or the horror of a woman who agitates for murder but whose dreams drown in incriminating gore, Coen doesn’t come up with anything. The morality of it all seems weightless. But, boy, is it something to look at.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

November 7, 2016

amnd2Sixteen years ago, the Rhode Island filmmaker Richard Griffin made his feature debut with an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Now he comes full circle with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which Griffin had wanted to make for years. Artists as diverse as Peter Brook and Neil Gaiman have tackled this supernaturally-tinged romantic comedy, and Griffin, who usually leans dark whether he’s dealing with horror or comedy, lightens up and opens his palette. He and his frequent cinematographer Jill Poisson are like little kids with a big bucket of Crayolas; everything is bold, vividly colorful, magic seen at magic hour.

The play itself I have mixed feelings about. We needn’t go into them. What matters is what an adapter does with it, and Griffin makes high entertainment out of it. He isn’t in the least intimidated by Shakespeare, perhaps because he started out making one of the Bard’s less prestigious plays. (“I knew you when, buddy,” Griffin might be saying to Shakespeare; “I was there when you were hacking off hands and feeding people their own children.”) And he’s comfortable with the story’s otherworldly aspects; he builds an atmosphere where people — whether regular humans or faeries — can be theatrical, stylized. Nobody here goes small. Johnny Sederquist, for instance, creates a Puck in anarchy shirt and rave-club makeup, endlessly amused by what fools these mortals be.       

There’s an element of cruelty in the premise, in which faeries use magic to turn hapless mortals into romantic puppets. The faeries, of course, are romantic love itself, the most simple and baffling of emotions, turning people into animals, or a literal donkey. Almost subliminally, in a matter-of-fact way, the openly gay Griffin turns Midsummer Night’s Dream into a queer-friendly, inclusive ode to l’amour fou. The play toys with gender to begin with; Griffin recasts “rude mechanical” Peter Quince as Rita Quince, who in the person of Christin Goff kept reminding me of Elizabeth Warren.

Griffin’s casts are always eager and robust — his joie de cinema rubs off on them — and the standout here is Ashley Harmon, whose Hermia is vulnerable, rageful, driven to frustrated dementia by her near-complete lack of agency. Harmon grounds Hermia’s suffering, and the play itself, in something real. Without Hermia you don’t have the darkness that the light of the play is designed to dispel; she might be the play’s backbone, its unsung hero. The rest of the cast bathes in Griffin’s and Poisson’s creamy Argento/Bava colors, having a grand old time and sharing it with us, but Harmon comes at things more sharply, speaking for the common woman (who isn’t so common).

A lot of foolishness unfolds under the dappled purple sky, a lot of poetry in the charged night air. Griffin sets the movie in “Athens, Massachusetts, 1754,” but the spirit feels modern, playful. (The occasional anachronistic gag is sprinkled into the mix, giving weight to the idea that the play’s concerns straddle the centuries.) As usual, Griffin manages to make a movie that looks — and also sounds, thanks to Daniel Hildreth’s lush score — as though it cost about a thousand times more than it did. As before, he brings the Bard to the screen with no fuss or pomp. If you’ve heard me go on about Griffin before, but you were too bashful for his naughtier films and too squeamish for his gorier efforts, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is as fine an introduction as any to his raffish charms.

Chimes at Midnight

August 28, 2016

462776_154

Orson Welles was just 49 when he started filming Chimes at Midnight in 1964, but he looked 70 — the age he was when he died, in 1985. Partly that’s due to make-up, and partly it’s because he always seemed older than he was. The movie, one of Welles’ finest works and a personal favorite of his, has been difficult to find outside of dodgy bootlegs until it was restored recently, and this week it appears on shiny new Criterion DVD and Blu-ray editions. It’s essential viewing for fans of Welles and of Shakespeare, whose great comic-tragic buffoon Falstaff is at the film’s center, played by Welles as though he knew he might never again get such a juicy opportunity.

As director, Welles contended with a puny budget, which resulted in some infamous issues with dubbing. The words and the images aren’t always in sync; sometimes the characters, played by stand-ins, face away from the camera to hide the fact that Welles didn’t have a particular actor that day. None of this matters, though, because what comes through is Welles’ passion — and, of course, his genius, which presents here as creative workarounds. In the end, Chimes at Midnight is as radiant an example of film-love as any of Welles’ other train sets. Somehow, the movie gods smiled down on Welles’ efforts, and what could have been an embarrassing boondoggle takes its place as a classic.

Falstaff was close to Welles’ heart. At its core, Chimes at Midnight tells the story of an old scoundrel who loves a young man — Prince Hal (Keith Baxter), destined to become King Henry V — as though he were Falstaff’s son. The young man must eventually reject Falstaff and the juvenile antics he represents, in order to earn the gravitas that being the king demands. That Falstaff understands this doesn’t make the rejection any easier, and there may be no more heartbreaking moment in Welles’ career as an actor or as a director than when the former Hal rejects Falstaff and Falstaff’s expression speaks of both pride and despair. The entire dark, stylized movie leads up to that moment, which in its original context as a two-part play about the passing of power from Henry IV (John Gielgud) to his son might come off more as a sad footnote about a supporting character.

The movie is famous for its ahead-of-its-time depiction of the Battle of Shrewsbury, filmed in chaotic fragments that nonetheless cohere into a vision of the horrific nonsense of war. Pauline Kael pointed out that the sequence was the only one in the film in which Welles could use editing as an artist rather than as a magician trying to misdirect us from budget problems. It’s ferocious and saddening without an ounce of schmaltz, leading up to the duel between Hal and the rebellious Hotspur (Norman Rodway). The movie gives the impression that this is either the first life Hal has taken or the first one that means something to him, and it sets the stage for his maturing and his rejection of his surrogate father. Thus does war destroy anything decent in its path.

Welles said that the movie was less a study of the passing of Falstaff than of the passing of a way of thinking about England. Chimes at Midnight, whose very title resounds with awareness of mortality, is stylistically a bleak and cold vision, with steam often visible on the actors’ breath in the frigid air. At one point, John Gielgud’s ailing Henry IV exhales steam through his nose disdainfully, like a dragon in repose. In opposition to this is the warmth of Falstaff, who in this telling is only incidentally a clown, waddling into battle in his armor and then hiding behind bushes. Falstaff’s “cowardly” response to war seems the only sane reaction to it, and his subsequent attempt to take credit for killing Hotspur reads as a way for him not to gain glory but to forestall the reality that Hal is no longer the Hal he knew. It’s a great, sad, exhilarating, stinging accomplishment.

O

August 31, 2001

It’s probably best to think of O as a teen melodrama inspired by Shakespeare’s Othello — much as we view West Side Story as a riff on Romeo and Juliet — and not as a re-interpretation. To me, if you’re not speaking Shakespeare’s language, you’re not really doing the play. Shakespeare has been transmogrified so many times, though, that it seems senseless to object to a teen movie that uses Othello‘s basic narrative spine (nobody complained very much about Ten Things I Hate About You, which borrowed The Taming of the Shrew).

Those who love Othello probably won’t tolerate O, directed by Tim Blake Nelson and written by Brad Kaaya. Those who don’t feel one way or the other about the play or who don’t care for it — I myself consider it probably the most mechanistic tragedy of Shakespeare’s peak period — should settle in for a cleanly directed, passionately acted film about a prep-school basketball star, his supportive girlfriend, his duplicitous teammate, and a telltale handkerchief. As a modern-dress Othello riff, too, it beats the hell out of the Richard Gere-Andy Garcia cop thriller Internal Affairs (forgot about that one, didn’t you?).

Odin Jones (Mekhi Phifer), the star hoop playa in question, is beloved and respected by everyone — so beloved, in fact, that even a drug dealer hesitates to sell to him. The one notable exception, naturally, is Hugo (Josh Hartnett), Odin’s teammate, who gets overlooked (unlike Iago) not once but twice — Hugo’s own dad (Martin Sheen) is the team’s coach, who publicly says he loves Odin like his own son, and Odin shares his MVP award with another player, Michael (Andrew Keegan), the movie’s Cassio. So Hugo conspires to make Odin believe that the fair Desi (Julia Stiles), Odin’s true love, is making the beast with two backs with someone else’s back.

Tim Blake Nelson is an actor himself (you may have seen him in O Brother, Where Art Thou? playing back-up hick for George Clooney and John Turturro), and he’s a fine actor’s director, drawing out long, quiet scenes in which his cast can both relax and coil up. I particularly liked an early bed scene between Odin and Desi, both shirtless but chastely cloaked from the camera, as they tease one another; Phifer and Stiles build an erotic rhythm out of nothing but a few shared jokes. You may believe in their love moreso than you’ve believed it between Othello and Desdemona in most previous Othello films. Nelson also actually gets a performance out of Josh Hartnett, whose pinched poutiness for once works for him as the resentful Hugo. No longer acting out of “motiveless malignity,” Hugo isn’t the baffling evil puppetmaster Iago was, but Hartnett underplays his hand and keeps steady.

Nelson gets a little fancy at times, with repeated “O” visual motifs and recurring images of hawks and doves, but then he’ll also pull out a great set-up like an extended, quiet discussion between Hugo and his father, filmed in one long take from outside a window, in which Hugo is the only one visible. And Julia Stiles, completing her neo-Shakespeare trilogy (after Ten Things I Hate About You and Hamlet), continues to be well worth watching. A natural, laid-back actress, she makes her lines sound like a bemused shrug, so when she’s moved to anger — here, a small, amazing outburst when Odin brings his suspicions to her — it counts for something. Like most everyone else in the film (even Martin Sheen turns the volume down when necessary), Stiles comes up under the story rather than going over the top, which has been a mistake in some renditions of Othello. The movie is classy and dead serious, but it may not meet with the approval of either Shakespeare die-hards or teen audiences. For the rest of us, though, it works.

Scotland, PA

January 22, 2001

Please don’t. Trust me — just don’t. This is the worst film I have seen in years. Set in the ’70s for some reason, it’s at least the third modernization of Macbeth (after Joe Macbeth and Men of Respect), only this one concerns the power struggle over — are you sitting down? — a burger joint. And the laughs keep on not coming! James LeGros and Maura Tierney (wife of writer-director Billy Morrissette, who’ll be lucky if he gets another project based on this sludge¹) are the young couple who murder greasy-spoon owner James Rebhorn and turn it into a McDonald’s-type place complete with drive-thru. It’s yet another indie movie that’s supposed to be hip and funny but never is.

Things get off to a bad start with the introduction of this movie’s version of the three witches — stoners Andy Dick, Timothy “Speed” Levitch, and Amy Smart — and actually get worse from there, with scenes that drag on into an infinity of stupidity and pointlessly obscene dialogue for Tierney’s character that gets really fucking boring really fucking quickly, as you can imagine. The only small saving graces are Christopher Walken as the inquisitive detective McDuff (I wouldn’t even recommend renting this just for him — that’s how annoying it is) and the selection of ’70s rock that probably usurped half the movie’s budget. Otherwise, you have been warned. The whole thing just made me wish a serious director would do Macbeth again for real (the last theatrical feature based on the play was Polanski’s 1971 version).

¹He didn’t. He’s not married to Tierney any more either.

Titus Andronicus

August 26, 2000

At a time when so many people complain about our increasingly crude and tabloidish culture, maybe it’s not surprising that Shakespeare’s most notoriously grisly play, Titus Andronicus, is enjoying a bit of a comeback. It puts things in perspective, actually. Forget Eminem, There’s Something About Mary, or the Scream films; here’s the Bard himself, 400 years ago, baking human pies and writing the incomparable stage direction “Enter Messenger with two heads and a hand.” (For laugh value, it’s second only to “Exit, pursued by a bear” in A Winter’s Tale.)

Why are gifted directors — from Peter Brook in his 1955 Stratford production, to Julie Taymor in her 1999 version, to Providence’s Richard Griffin in his 2000 $16,000 digital-video adaptation — drawn to such disreputable, lowly material? Well, partly because it’s fun. And it’s not all that lowly: you can see the seeds of Shakespeare’s later tragedies in this youthful work. Finally, unlike standards like Hamlet, Othello, or King Lear, it hasn’t been done to death. A director can come to it with fresh eyes, a spirit of play. Neither intimidating nor stodgy, Titus Andronicus may be the richest found object among Shakespeare’s lesser-performed works.

Technically, and in many other ways, Griffin’s film is superb — I’d put it up against just about anything I’ve seen in a multiplex this year. Where Julie Taymor went for a kind of graphic-design fantasia, Griffin takes the Kubrick route, with plain, elegant compositions sliding out one by one. He gives us an almost corporate vision of evil, with some scenes unfolding among the Macintosh clutter of a modern office space (the setting is like a hybrid of now and ancient Rome). Since this film was already in the can (or, more accurately, the hard drive) when Mary Harron’s American Psycho and Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet came out earlier this year, Griffin may have caught something in the air — the same something that informed those other two films, an aesthetic in which bright blood and white collars mingle like a dark potion.

It helps, too, that Griffin has a vigorous cast, many of whom work wonders, all of whom (like Griffin and his crew) worked unpaid. British actor Nigel Gore, as Shakespeare’s first poster boy for circumstantial insanity, brings the weight of morality as well as madness to Titus. He’s matched step for step by Zoya Pierson as the devious Tamora, driven to revenge by her enslavement at the hands of Titus; Pierson plays this Queen of the Goths as if taking her cue from our modern goths (and Griffin, in one of his best inspirations, dresses the Goths accordingly, complete with black lipstick). I also enjoyed Kevin Butler’s robust Aaron, the Moor in cahoots with Tamora; Christopher Pierson’s perpetually offended Saturninus; Molly Lloyd’s innocent Lavinia, for whom ugly things are in store; and John Capalbo’s complexly drawn Lucius, who more or less emerges as the play’s hero by default.

Griffin has used the architecture and nature of Providence in a way that brings Shakespeare into our world and also pushes us into Shakespeare’s rather harsh moral world. It wasn’t long before I forgot the movie was shot in Providence; Griffin pulls us into the story, and even when he goes in for a bit of stylized violence (as in the rape and mutilation of Lavinia, in a scene that reminded me of the woodsy horrors in Last House on the Left while making The Blair Witch Project look pretty anemic), it packs all the more punch for coming in the midst of a restrained style. Yet this doesn’t look or feel like a televised BBC adaptation, either; regardless of its digital-video format, this is as much a film as Julie Taymor’s version. Like other interpreters of Shakespeare’s least respected work, Griffin sees the gold in what many had considered the dross of the play, and he lets us see it, too.

Hamlet (2000)

May 12, 2000

This is undoubtedly the first screen rendition of Hamlet in which “Blockbuster Clerk” appears among the character names in the credits. Shakespeare, of course, failed to write any dialogue for the mute Blockbuster Clerk; in an equally stunning failure, he neglected to set any scenes in a laundromat, as this new movie does. Lest any of this sound ridiculous — a youth-chasing MTV Bard spectacle á la 1996’s Romeo + Juliet — bear in mind that this Hamlet, directed on the cheap by Michael Almereyda, is in its own way as honorable and serious an attempt as Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet. True, it’s also not completely successful, but then neither was Branagh’s version, which pointlessly included the pointless bits of the play in its thirst to film everything. This new Hamlet tosses out scenes by the dozen, and works quite well as a stripped-down, modern-dress vision of Shakespeare.

We’re in “New York, 2000,” where the young Hamlet (Ethan Hawke) slouches around in a haze of depression and contempt. His father (Sam Shepard), the CEO of Manhattan’s thriving Denmark Corporation, has just died, and his mother Gertrude (Diane Venora) has jumped quite happily — too happily — into the arms of his uncle, Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan). Hawke, moping fashionably into the camera, turns out to be a feasible melancholy Dane for this uptown Hamlet. Hawke doesn’t get Kenneth Branagh’s dynamism, but Branagh didn’t get Hawke’s nihilistic despair. Put the two together and you might have the perfect Hamlet (who is said to be perhaps the most unplayable character ever written — an actor is lucky to get a bit of it down). Hawke’s Hamlet also makes artsy videos (of himself and others), which we see a lot of, and which I could’ve done with a little less of.

Almereyda (who made the experimental vampire film Nadja) and his cinematographer John de Borman walk the line between sleek and grungy; they seem equally at home in Claudius’ well-groomed offices and in Hamlet’s VHS-littered pit. At first, as always, it’s a bit jarring to hear Shakespeare’s words coming from people in modern dress, and when Claudius makes his first speech he waves a copy of that morning’s USA Today, with a blaring cover story on Fortinbras. (Even the eagle-eyed may not identify Fortinbras as Ben Affleck’s brother Casey.) But none of it comes across as gimmicky; the movie is almost playful in its mission to burrow around inside Hamlet and discover what’s still relevant about it.

Some of the actors are playful, too. Bill Murray’s reading of Polonius’ famous advice is a little too recitatory — he reminded me of when I had to memorize it for school and rattled it off to a bored teacher — but when he sends Laertes off with “The time invites you. Go!”, it sounds like pure Murray; he could almost be saying “Geddouda here, ya nut.” Kyle MacLachlan and Diane Venora make a great, glittering dark couple, devoted to the pleasures of the rich. (Claudius belongs in a limo with tinted windows.) Julia Stiles is a fine, sullen Ophelia — she and Hamlet are the Prozac twins — and comes up with an amazing breakdown scene at the Guggenheim. Even the raffish Steve Zahn (Out of Sight) turns up as a party-boy Rosencrantz; he’s incongruously terrific, as is Paula Malcomson as “Marcella” (yes, Horatio’s soldier acquaintance has had a sex change).

Hamlet drives steadily and forcefully to its traditionally bloody conclusion, in which Hamlet and Laertes (Liev Schreiber gives a surprisingly imposing performance) duel it out; Almereyda manages to toss in a gun on top of the usual swords and poison. Before that, there’s a nicely telescoped scene in which Hamlet, in lieu of having a band of players enact his guilt-inducing play, puts together his own video pastiche pointing a finger at the murderer of his father. This video, unlike the other Hamlet snippets we’ve seen, has genuine power; what could have been artsy and pretentious instead cuts to the quick. By and large, the same is true of Almereyda’s movie.

Shakespeare in Love

December 4, 1998

500fullThe central premise of Shakespeare in Love — its title is self-explanatory — is so juicy that it’s amazing no movie has done it before. Perhaps everyone was afraid to do it — intimidated by the Shakespearean scholars who seem to think they own him. As directed by John Madden (Mrs. Brown), from a script by Marc Norman and playwright Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead), the movie wastes no time setting itself up as a rowdy, colloquial piece of popular entertainment — the farthest thing from a fussy biopic of the Bard. Yet it doesn’t trivialize its subject; if anything, it’s truer to Shakespeare than a more refined movie would be. It’s great popular entertainment about the genesis of great popular entertainment.

Rather shrewdly, the movie gives us a young Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) who, with his stylish short hair, goatee, and single earring, could almost be a modern-day poet slaving over a notebook in Starbucks. Shakespeare in Love is full of enjoyable parallels between Shakespeare’s time and ours, but the filmmakers don’t stress them too much; they’re there for us to notice if we want to. There’s some comfort in the idea that even Shakespeare worried about appealing to a mass audience and staying ahead of creditors: Some things never change.

It does no good to approach the movie too literally. Shakespeare in Love is historical fiction, conjecturing what — and who — might have influenced some of the early great plays. Sometimes this cause-and-effect logic falls flat, as in Ken Russell’s biopics of composers — this tragedy inspired that symphony — but here the touch is lighter; Shakespeare has been given his own story to star in, just as the playwright himself did with the British monarchs, and nobody complains that those plays were inaccurate. For example, it does just as little good to point out that Shakespeare actually cribbed the plot of Romeo and Juliet from a poem, not from his own doomed love affair with the beautiful Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow), who loves him but is engaged, against her will, to another man.

The movie’s plot motor is Shakespeare’s attempts to write Romeo and Juliet — he seems to hand it in a piece at a time — and get it produced so that his theater-owner friend (Geoffrey Rush) can pay off his debts. I think that’s why we go along with the movie’s conceit: Shakespeare’s motivation is primarily monetary. He doesn’t write the play to win Viola’s heart: she’s already smitten with him because of his earlier work. Nor do the play’s events explicitly mirror the love affair, or vice versa; they seem organically intertwined, and Shakespeare finds a way to pour both his passion and his anguish into the play without turning it into a melodrama about a playwright who loses his lover to a clueless twit.

Shakespeare in Love is a very smart and relaxed movie; the more it trusts us to make connections on our own, the more engaging it is. Nobody involved seems to be worried about losing us or explaining things; we pick up what we need to know as the film moves us briskly along. Everyone in the cast, from Geoffrey Rush as the panicky theater owner to Tom Wilkinson as the creditor who becomes an unlikely ally, works with ease and confidence. And the romantic leads are perfectly cast. Joseph Fiennes is handsome enough to resemble his brother Ralph, but he’s also scruffier and friendlier — he’s Will Shakespeare as a hands-on writer, who hawks and spits as part of his ritual before sitting down to whip the play into shape.

And this, I think, will be remembered as the movie in which Gwyneth Paltrow finally got the respect — and the role — she deserved. Smart and passionate, her Viola isn’t merely Shakespeare’s muse — she’s his ideal audience and his great subject, the promise of perfection, the gentle illusion that all artists need. But she’s also a full-blooded woman with a mind and will of her own, and when she and Shakespeare are together, they reach out to each other intellectually as well as physically. Ah, yes, the pre-feminist woman resisting the sexism of her times: how often have movies botched that theme? Yet it works here, and a lot of other things that haven’t worked in other movies work like a charm here. How? To quote Rush’s character: “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.”

Hamlet (1996)

December 25, 1996

At his best, and sometimes at his worst, Kenneth Branagh is an exuberant and playful actor-director. His excess was wretched when applied to the sedate Mary Shelley, but it’s perfect for Shakespeare. In Hamlet, Branagh gives you both barrels — the full play, which usually takes about five hours to perform on stage. Branagh brings it in at just over four hours, and it hurtles ahead like the bus in Speed (a comparison Branagh might enjoy) — bulky but fast and exhilarating.

As Hamlet, Branagh wears a triangular goatee pointing down at his body, as if to indicate that this production will be preoccupied with the physical. Branagh’s camera circles around huge, opulent sets; he delivers his pre-intermission soliloquy in front of a vast expanse of snow, with Fortinbras’ army approaching far in the distance. (It’s a glaringly obvious process shot, but I didn’t care.) The cumulative effect of four hours of Ken’s Magic Show is far from boredom; it’s closer to happy exhaustion, like the aftermath of a great meal or great sex. And Branagh keeps serving up one irresistible dessert after another.

In his eagerness to lure the mass American audience, Branagh also serves up a batch of novelty cameos. Ooh, there’s Billy Crystal as the gravedigger! (He’s actually pretty funny.) And here’s Jack Lemmon, Charlton Heston, Robin Williams, and a few others in a variety of walk-ons ranging from amusing to meaningless. A gross example of the latter is Gerard Depardieu, whose sole function in his one brief scene is to listen to Polonius and say “Yes, my lord.” Scenes like this make you wish that Branagh had settled for an almost complete adaptation.

Still, even Branagh’s insistence on retaining the pointless moments is refreshing nowadays, when every scene in a Hollywood film timidly serves some Screenwriting 101 purpose. And when Branagh gives the floor to his main actors, all is forgiven. Derek Jacobi, who directed Branagh in two productions of Hamlet, makes an imposing and lusty Claudius. Kate Winslet’s Ophelia is earthy and lively, making her descent into madness all the more vivid. Julie Christie, a newcomer to Shakespeare, is a touching and conflicted Gertrude. (Branagh has ditched the Oedipal interpretation as seen in the Mel Gibson Hamlet.)

Hamlet is a notoriously difficult role, and Branagh does some amazing things and some other things that don’t work. His gestures often seem too smooth and practiced (watch him in his first soliloquy), and he’s too openly furious a lot of the time. Branagh never met a rant he didn’t like; he’s Dennis Miller as a tragic hero. Mostly, though, Branagh the actor-director just wants to put on an eye-popping show, and he does. Consider, for instance, the brilliant conception of “To be or not to be,” which Branagh delivers into a two-way mirror, with Polonius and Claudius behind it watching him. At the end, Fortinbras’ soldiers crash through the mirrored doors, as if shattering the narcissism, paranoia, and rampant deceit in the corridors of power. It’s an action climax; finally, John Woo meets Shakespeare! Die-hard Bard students may quibble, but this gargantuan and glorious Hamlet is a movie-lover’s paradise.

Macbeth (1971)

October 13, 1971

In 1969, Roman Polanski’s pregnant wife Sharon Tate was murdered by members of the Manson Family. When Polanski chose as his post-Manson project what is arguably Shakespeare’s most disturbing play, critics thought they knew what to expect and responded accordingly. Seen today, Macbeth is dark, malignant, shot through with the most upsetting and gut-wrenching violence you will ever see in a major-studio release — and it’s also one of the finest film versions of the Bard. Polanski made the play his own, incorporating it neatly into his body of work without lessening its impact.

This Macbeth (Jon Finch) is young and opaque, a man whose throes of guilt aren’t quite convincing. Polanski is after something more distressing than murdered sleep. He humanizes the victims, not the various killers (an understandable approach for him at the time); that’s why we feel each stabbing and bashing so intensely. By the end, we root for Macduff to go kick Macbeth’s ass — and, of course, he does, in a clanging, exhausting swordfight that climaxes with a truly shocking decapitation.

In keeping with the Polanski tradition of complex female characters, Francesca Annis creates a Lady Macbeth who looks and acts soft yet is capable of the coldest schemes. The men are locked into cycles of violence. Polanski may be saying that even kings or would-be kings share the same animalistic DNA as Manson and his followers. The violence is far from the airborne, romanticized stuff you see in something like 300; when Macbeth unsheathes his dagger and slices open a man’s face, the man gasps and clutches his now-ruined cheek before Macbeth finishes him off. It’s that gasp that makes you wince. You don’t need to see the blood; Polanski has made you feel the man’s pain. The prevailing mood of this Macbeth is disgust, not remorse, and many Shakespeare purists loathe it. But movie lovers who feel there’s more than one way to approach the plays should take a look (albeit through their fingers).