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The Ghost at the Feast

It’s the skittish handling of the language, though, that reduces Luhrmann’s film to little more than a stunt. While he gets a bit of mileage from the accidental intersections of Elizabethan with contemporary usage (as when his gang members call each other “coz” and “man”), any speech longer than a few lines just gets in the way, and the effect all too often is of sitting in on the tryouts at a high school drama club. The Shakespearean text begins to seem like an embarrassment that everybody is trying to avoid facing up to; Luhrmann would have been better off dropping the dialogue altogether and hiring Quentin Tarantino to do a fresh job. There are many ways to get Shakespeare’s language across, but trying to slip it past the audience as if it might pass for something else isn’t one of them.

Of course it’s possible to think of Shakespeare outside of language altogether (especially if you’re Russian or Japanese): as inventor (or repackager) of endlessly serviceable fables, a choreographer of bodies on a stage, a visual storyteller whose most celebrated moments (Hamlet leaping into Ophelia’s grave, Macbeth confronting Banquo’s ghost at the feast) can be reduced to dumb show. It would be perfectly possible to stage the plays in pantomime without losing their structural force. This is the Shakespeare who is the inexhaustible font of ballets and engravings, musicals and comic books.

A remark by Grigori Kozintsev, the director of Russian versions of Hamlet and King Lear, pretty well sums up the orthodox “cinematic” view on filming Shakespeare:

The problem is not one of finding means to speak the verse in front of the camera, in realistic circumstances ranging from long-shot to close-up. The aural has to be made visual. The poetic texture has itself to be transformed into a visual poetry, into the dynamic organisation of film imagery.4

This is an unexceptionable precept for a director working in a language other than English, and one need only turn to Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood or Ran, or Aki Kaurismäki’s Hamlet Goes Business (filmed on location in a succession of unbelievably sterile Helsinki office suites), to see it put sublimely into practice. But when a Shakespeare film is made in the English language, the unavoidable problem is precisely one of finding means to speak the verse in front of the camera. No way to sidestep the embarrassment of poetry, even if it is a term by now so fraught with difficulties that some contemporary academics in their discussions of Shakespeare prefer to enclose it in quotes, an awkward relic of superannuated discourse.

The Kozintsev doctrine has been carried through by one English-language director, of course. The Shakespeare films of Orson Welles triumph over the sheer inaudibility of much of their dialogue through an idiosyncratic vocabulary of spaces and masks. Othello is more like a symphonic poem inspired by the play than the play itself: but what a poem. Welles proceeds by analogies. Shakespeare’s language is like the waves dashing against the walls, is like the cage in which Iago is hauled laboriously to the ramparts, is like the glimmers and shadows with which the frame is irrigated. Even the few brief surviving scenes of Welles’s unfinished TV film of The Merchant of Venice (shown in Vassili Silovic’s documentary Orson Welles: The One-Man Band) instantly create a distinct universe, as Shylock, making his way into the Venetian night, is hounded by silent ominous bands of white-masked revelers, a commedia dell’arte lynch mob.

The long-deferred restoration of the currently unseeable Chimes at Midnight—a film whose visual splendor is matched only by the inadequacy of its soundtrack—will I am sure confirm it as the best (and most freely adapted) of Welles’s Shakespeare films. When it came out in the late Sixties, its elegiac note was drowned out by the more belligerent noises of the moment. Welles described it as a lament for the death of Merrie England—“a season of innocence, a dew-bright morning of the world”5—as personified by Falstaff, but it could as easily be seen as a lament for Welles, for the kind of movies he wanted to make and no longer could, and beyond that for Shakespeare as he receded however gradually into an unknowable past.

In lieu of lament, Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard proffers jokes and exhortations, backtalk and man-on-the-street interviews and off-the-cuff commentaries. Pacino intervenes in his own partial production of Richard III to question and elaborate, almost in the same way a puzzled member of the audience might be tempted to: What’s going on? Who is this Margaret? The Richard III scenes themselves—including some very strong work by Kevin Spacey, Winona Ryder, and others—are so freshly conceived that it seems a pity not to have done the whole play; Pacino looks as if he could give us yet another kind of Shakespeare movie. His Richard is far scarier than Olivier’s or the somewhat campy Mosleyite portrayed by Ian McKellen in Richard Loncraine’s recent film version, a real killer especially when he’s suffering verbal assaults in silence. It’s all the more jarring to revert to the present and the jovial sparring of actors among actors; but that back-and-forth movement makes this one of the best movies about the acting life. Actors here are the true scholars, the ones who mediate between the text and the world, a secret order of preservationists keeping alive what elsewhere is only mummified. We are left with the implication that the players know things the scholars have forgotten, and that they are joyful in that knowledge.

It is not precisely joyfulness, and certainly nothing like glee, that is exuded by Trevor Nunn’s melancholic adaptation of Twelfth Night; or if so it is a joy sufficiently muted to accord with prevailing moods that range from Chekhovian-autumnal to Beckettian-wintry. The tone is set by Ben Kingsley’s Feste, conceived rather scarily as a prophetic beggar lurking in the background and seeing all, a figure whose intimations of latent violence and mad wisdom suggest that Lear’s fool has been grafted onto Olivia’s. The revels of Sir Toby and Sir Andrew are played with excellent flair while at the same time evoking a down-beat Last Tango in Illyria. At every turn we are given to see how the comedy is about to slip into the realm of the tragedies, the shipwreck into that of Pericles, the duel into that of Hamlet, the wronged Malvolio into a figure of vengeance capable of destroying the whole household.

That said, Nunn’s film succeeds beautifully in its chosen course. It is for the most part superbly played, although Helena Bonham Carter is somewhat lacking in the haughty disdainfulness required of Olivia; her surrender to love isn’t enough of a humiliation, and so fails to echo the far harsher humiliation of her steward. Imogen Stubbs by contrast is a tough and wary Viola who keeps the film focused on the real risks and terrors of someone cast up in hostile territory. The sadistic tormenting of Malvolio, always the trickiest passage to negotiate, is here allowed to play itself out into the exhaustion, moral and physical, of the tormentors. When one sees Twelfth Night back-to-back with Hamlet (as it may well have been written), it is hard not to think of the plays as mirror images, a comedy that just barely avoids being tragedy and a tragedy that tries against all odds to be a comedy.

This Twelfth Night, like Branagh’s Hamlet, is set in a mythical nineteenth century which seems to stand vaguely for the whole European past, as if that were as far back as we could go without suffering hopeless disorientation. Despite the clothes and the furniture, neither film has a particular nineteenth-century feel; it’s more a question of meeting the seventeenth century halfway, settling on a space which is neither quite our own world nor quite Shakespeare’s, inventing a historical era which—like the period in which cowboy movies take place—never quite happened. We want urgently to step outside of history but have perhaps forgotten how.

Finally—speaking of risks—there is Branagh’s Hamlet, a movie on which he appears to have gambled his whole career. If this one doesn’t fly, who knows when we shall see another of his Shakespeare films? On the one hand, the film pertains to the universe of high-concept marketing: a 70-millimeter epic (the first such in Britain for twenty-five years) with sumptuous sets, an all-star cast with cameo appearances in the manner of Around the World in 80 Days (Jack Lemmon, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, and Charlton Heston, not to mention the Duke of Marlborough, all assume minor roles), and a four-hour running time complete with an intermission to bring back memories of the early-Sixties heyday of blockbuster filmmaking, the days of Spartacus and Lawrence of Arabia.

Branagh has another concern, however: his desire to respect against all odds the integrity of Shakespeare’s text, and this puts his movie paradoxically closer to such resolutely marginal projects as Eric Rohmer’s Perceval le Gallois (1978), in which Chrétien de Troyes’s twelfth-century courtly romance is recited to the accompaniment of quasi-medieval stage effects, and Jacques Rivette’s Jeanne la Pucelle (1994), which in recounting the career of Joan of Arc restricts itself to the language of the earliest chronicles. (Branagh’s version actually is completer than complete, since it conflates the First Folio text with the extensive passages that appear only in the Second Quarto, thus producing something longer than any known version of the play.) The word—or more precisely Shakespeare’s words—is the life of this film, to which everything else, Blenheim Palace, Billy Crystal, FX, SurroundSound, is incidental.

The result might be pedantic except that Branagh isn’t a pedant, although his passion has its pedagogical side. In order to resolve the contradictions of his approach he has to resort to a kind of aesthetic violence which can easily be misread as vulgarization: the horror-movie visuals (the blade piercing Claudius’s head, the ground splitting open), the sometimes schmaltzy musical underscoring. The resort to such tactics has rather the effect of restoring a necessary vulgarity which other films have tended to polish. As in his previous adaptations but even more deliberately, Branagh undertakes to clarify the literal meaning by any means necessary. The silent movies he has concocted featuring the career of Fortinbras and the death of Priam function as footnotes, supplying a visualization which in a stage production would be left to the audience. This is the first Hamlet in which Old Norway (not to mention Hecuba, Priam, and Yorick) actually figures as a participant.

Branagh’s decision to present the play uncut was a brilliant one, however one may differ with one detail or another of his execution. The differences are of more than scholarly concern; the narrative rhythm is transformed, and Hamlet himself, while no less central, concedes a good deal more ground to those around him. The sententious digressions, contests of wit, and theatrical recitations—the repetitions, the circuitous approaches toward a point of negotiation, the interruptions and side chatter and discussions of urgent diplomatic affairs—these are what give the flavor of the milieu, without which Hamlet appears to take place in an abstract void. The full Hamlet has a different specific gravity, a density which makes it seem like the first great English novel, a Renaissance novel like such roughly contemporaneous Spanish works as the Celestina of Fernando de Rojas or the Dorotea of Lope de Vega, unplayably long narratives in dialogue form, interspersed at times with songs and poems. It works with time in a more expansive and open-ended way, sharing the ceaseless discursiveness and purposeful sprawl of Rabelais or Montaigne.

With all the rests restored, it becomes possible to look beyond the intrusive shocks of the plot and get a feeling for the life they have interrupted. In general, modern productions, and most especially modern film productions, cut to the plot line, as if the rest of it were bothersome persiflage. We pare Shakespearedown to streamline him, bring out “meanings” that we have planted there. Driven by an obsession to bring things into sharp focus, we simplify. Hamlet is a much more interesting and surprising work—and, with its roundabout strategies and gradual buildups and contradictions of tone, a more realistic one—when all of it is allowed to be heard, and it is bold of Branagh to have gambled on this more ambitious dramatic arc.

Olivier’s Hamlet, steeped in that marriage of Romanticism and Freud which is film noir, threads a lone path among expressionistic shadows and wreaths of mists before returning to confront the Others. In Branagh’s interpretation, Hamlet is one among a crowd of powerfully differentiated figures who play against each other as much as against him. He is a disturbing element in the midst of a very busy and brightly lit Renaissance court. Even “To be or not to be” is staged here as a two-character scene (or, more exactly, a three-character scene): while Branagh faces himself in a mirror (it is the mirror-image who is seen speaking), we see him also from the viewpoint of the hidden Claudius. This is a Hamlet in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern function for once as central characters. The convergence of that pair and Polonius with the simultaneous arrival of the players and the recitation of the Hecuba speech (superbly done by Charlton Heston’s Player King, with just enough restrained hokum to identify him as an actor) is allowed all its complexity.

Branagh can be forgiven every failed touch—even the 360-degree pans (presumably intended to prevent visual stasis) which sometimes make it look as if the inhabitants of Elsinore are all on rollerblades, even Hamlet’s absurd final swing from the chandelier into the lap of the dying Claudius—for having maintained an essential lightness, the verbal quicksilver at the heart of it. For all the sometimes athletic action, this Hamlet is strung on its language. The words are the play, unfolding in a space open enough to give scope to its unruly energies.

  1. 4

    Quoted in Shakespeare and the Moving Image: The Plays on Film and Television, edited by Anthony Davies and Stanley Wells (Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 56.

  2. 5

    Quoted in Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, This Is Orson Welles, (HarperCollins, 1992), p. 100.

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