Just as you like it - the Bard on the silver screen
From a four hour-long Hamlet to a tanned Orson Welles as Othello; from the audacious West Side Story to the teen hit Romeo and Juliet, JOHN GORE, founder of StokeScreen Film Club, gives us his top 10 cinematic versions of Shakespeare's plays
Had he been born later, Shakespeare would have worked in the medium of cinema. Of course he would - the money's better! Oh, and he would probably reach a wider audience. From its infancy, the silver screen has attracted adaptations of the Bard. The first of which was, of all things, a distillation of King John. There followed a torrent of comedies, tragedies, classics and histories from stately home diversions to grand theatrical box sets with stars of the day; Sir Beerbohm Tree, Sarah Bernhardt and Astor Nielsen playing Hamlet! Many of these films are available to view online from BFI player. I want to highlight my top 10 films based on Shakespeare, if not strict adaptations. After all, we are taking the primarily verbal medium of Elizabethan theatre and reprocessing it into the immersive visual medium of cinema. Let's begin with further sacrilege: many of the most interesting adaptations are the ones which abandon the original text. Grigoriy Kozintsev made a couple of dazzling adaptations of the tragedies in the late 1960s in Soviet Russia, King Lear and a particularly memorable Hamlet. Boris Pasternak (Dr Zhivago) was, in large part, responsible for the screenplay and the soundtrack was composed by Dmitri Shostakovich. It remains faithful to the original and hangs heavy with atmosphere and portent. Japanese maestro, Akira Kurosawa made two adaptations; Throne of Blood translated Macbeth to 16th century Japan with Toshiro Mifune, the greatest screen actor of Japan's postwar era, as the warlord driven mad by ambition. You will recognise the plot clearly enough and the supernatural elements fit the Japanese tradition like a glove. It is tense and compelling and the climax is a sensational cinematic tour
de force; torrential rain and a shower of arrows against the fortress wall. All in lustrous black and white, rivalling anything he shot in The Seven Samurai. When Kurosawa revisited the Bard in the 1980's with Ran, an adaptation of King Lear, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were producers. There was a far larger budget and it was shot in widescreen and colour. Somehow, it lost some of the power and urgency of the earlier work, even so it still looks wonderful. In passing, I would also mention Vishal Bhardwaj, who has brought a Bollywood bloody aesthetic to at least three tragedies: Omkara (Othello), Maqbool (Macbeth) and Haider (Hamlet). And then, there's The Lion King, cited as a reimagining of Hamlet. This brings us on the Kenneth Branagh, who has committed our local lad done good to screen several times, mostly commendably. His take on Hamlet, however, runs the whole four hours unedited. And here is another contentious issue for purists: one of cinema's greatest assets is its capacity to edit, cut superfluous dialogue with a single shot or juxtaposition. It sets a rhythm. It keeps things moving. It can be ruthless and brash but it can also offer new ideas and lessen the threat of numb bum syndrome. But 222 minutes....? We never got Branagh's promised Macbeth. However, he's done an engaging Henry V and a hatful of comedies but it is as an actor that he really shines and gives a discomfortingly attractive Iago in Oliver Parker's Othello, opposite Laurence Fishburne. Othello looms large in another auteur's canon. Orson Welles indulged in heavy tan rather than full-on minstrel blackface. He assembled the pieces of a notoriously troubled shoot to make a haunting version of the play of menacing shadows and eloquent images. He also made commendable versions of Macbeth and Henry IV part one, Chimes at Midnight.
Of the classical plays, while Joseph L Mankiewicz's Julius Caesar pits Marlon Brando ahead of a stellar cast of Brits, it is very wordy and reverent. Julie Taylor's Titus Andronicus casts Anthony Hopkins at the heart of a graphic gore-fest. Ralph Fiennes made Coriolanus a revelation, setting it in the Balkan War, bringing to it an immediacy and gritty reality. Richard Loncraine possibly paved the way for this with his adaptation of Richard III. Set in Art Deco England of the 1930s, Ian McKellern gives us an understated hunchback as Fascist dictator, with Bosworth Field translated to Battersea Power Station and his horse to a jeep. Of the comedies, Branagh gave us a joyful and energetic Much Ado About Nothing, while, by his own admission, nearly killing Richard Briers from heat exhaustion, gambolling down a hillside in mid summer Tuscany. But I would highlight a small scale, black and white production by Joss Weedon with supporting cast members from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Shot in his own home in the Hollywood hills, it has the feel of The Philadelphia Story. It is short and sweet and works a treat. Does West Side Story count as Shakespeare? Who cares! For the audacious opening sequence alone, it should be on the list of prescribed viewing for anyone who loves movies. Even if they don't like musicals. Or Shakespeare. Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet has plenty of elements of the musical about it but also works as a teen movie; fast paced, vivid and overblown. It is a good starting point for those unfamiliar with or intimidated by Jacobean drama. For me, the richest play has to be The Tempest, where the motley crew of characters, meditations on power, justice and the supremacy of love and forgiveness, fused with elements of the supernatural has made for arresting cinema. Forbidden Planet set the story in space with Robbie the Robot in the role of Ariel but it was with Derek Jarman and Peter Greenaway that it was realised at two extremes. Jarman shot his Tempest in Stoneleigh Abbey on a minimal budget and a post punk aesthetic with Heathcote Williams and Toyah Wilcox and an unforgettable Busby Berkeley style rendition of Stormy Weather by Elizabeth Welch and a cast of frolicking sailors! On the other hand, Greenaway (as Marmite a director as you can get) delivered an eye popping kaleidoscope of images, a narrative divided into books, all presided over by John Gielgud's Prospero and driven by Michael Nyman's shimmering score. This is dazzling cinema to excite all the senses. I have merely scratched the surface of the wealth of Shakespeare movies to be enjoyed. By way of an epilogue, I would draw your attention to three movies which pick, magpie-like, at the Bard's opus: Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead, written and directed by Tom Stoppard with Gary Oldman and Tim Roth as the hapless courtiers sent to befriend Hamlet. Playful, witty and insightful, it bears repeated viewing. Stoppard is behind another intelligent comedy, Shakespeare in Love, where the Bard finds that the path of true love and theatre management never runs smooth. Finally, an elusive entertainment by Kenneth Branagh, In the Bleak Midwinter, in which a theatre company hires a church hall to stage a Christmas production of Hamlet. Michael Maloney plays the director and lead alongside Richard Briers, Julia Sawalha and a host of other eminent thesps. I have never found this on disc and it never appears on TV schedules but recall finding it a joyous celebration of the pleasure and pain of staging theatre and of making films.
Pictured: Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet with Kate Winslet (top) and West Side Story
StokeScreen Film Club meets, coronavirus outbreaks permitting, at the Coventry & North Warwickshire Sports Club, screening the movies that you've always wanted to see. Find out more by logging on to stokescreen.uk or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org