Saturday, April 26, 2014

5 Great Shakespeare Films for His 450th Birthday

While William Shakespeare's birthday is traditionally observed on 23 April, we have no real way of knowing the date on which he was actually born. Quite simply no birth certificate nor any other documentation givng the exact date of his birth exists. That having been said, we do know when he was christened, as the parish Register for Stratford records his baptism as taking place on 26 April 1564. While we do not know exactly when William Shakespeare was born, we at least know it was late April from his baptismal record. That means April 2014 is the month of the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare's birth. With that in mind, film buffs might want to check out some films based on his classic plays. Here are five of my favourites.

A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935): MGM's 1935 version of A Midsummer Night's Dream may be best known for its all star cast, which included Dick Powell, Olivia de Havilland, Jean Muir, James Cagney, and Mickey Rooney, among others. That having said, there is much more to recommend this adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream than star gazing. The film was directed by legendary stage director Max Reinhardt, who had already directed the play on stage many times (the first being in 1927). Hal Mohr's cinematography is excellent; it is with good reason he won the Academy Award for Cinematography that year. The film also benefits from Ralph Dawson's superb editing (for which it also won an Oscar). While the performances of the cast vary in quality, none of them detract from the overall quality of what is a very good adaptation of the play.

Hamlet (1948): I must confess that I have never liked Oedipal interpretations of Hamlet. I also dislike the fact that Lord Laurence Olivier entirely cut Fortinbras, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern from the film. That having been said, there is much to recommend his 1948 adaptation of Hamlet. Namely, the performances of the film's principals. As Hamlet Lord Olivier gave what could be the best performance of his career (he won the Best Actor Oscar for that year). Jean Simmons is equally impressive as Ophelia (she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress). Writer  J. Lawrence Guntner has said that Lord Olivier's Hamlet drew from both German expressionism and film noir. As a result Lord Olivier's Hamlet looks incredible, suitably dark and moody. Between its look and the performances, the 1948 version of Hamlet is one of the better Shakespeare adaptations out there.

Macbeth (1948): Nineteen forty eight was a very good year for Shakespeare adaptations, as this is also the year that Orson Welles' version of Macbeth was released. Those looking for a faithful adaptation of the play might wish to look elsewhere, as Mr. Welles did alter it substantially, among other things giving the weird sisters a bigger role. That having been said, Orson Welles' Macbeth is surprisingly effective, both moody and spooky in a way that one suspects the Bard must have meant it to be. Oddly enough, the film may actually have been helped by its shoestring budget, which forced Mr. Welles to make up for a lack of money with some inventive direction and cinematography. The end result is that Orson Welles' Macbeth is a dark and even strange film, in some respects as much a horror film as a tragedy. Macbeth also benefits greatly from its performances, with Orson Welles as Macbeth and Jeanette Nolan as Lady Macbeth being particularly impressive. And while there have been those who have complained about it, I think Orson Welles made the right choice in having the performers speak with Scottish burrs. It gives this Macbeth an authenticity that is lacking many other adaptations of the Scottish Play.

Throne of Blood (1957): Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood is even less of a straight forward adaptation of Macbeth than Orson Welles' version is, but it is among the very best. Indeed, Mr.Kurosawa transferred the action from medieval Scotland to medieval Japan and infused it with the sensibilities of a jidaigeki film. On paper it does not sound like it would work and yet Akira Kurosawa succeeded far more in adapting Macbeth than many Westerners have. While Throne of Blood is hardly a faithful adaptation of Macbeth, it captures the spirit of the play very well. Indeed, it is both moody and violent in the way an adaptation of Macbeth should be. As might be expected both the direction and the cinematography on Throne of Blood are incredible. It can quite rightly be described as poetry on film.

Henry V (1989): Sir Kenneth Branagh's Henry V is not a loyal adaptation. Indeed, he even includes flashbacks from  Henry IV, Part 1 and  Henry IV, Part 2. That having been said, it could very well be the best adaptation of the play on film as well as one of the very best Shakespeare movie adaptations. Indeed, Sir Kenneth Branagh's Henry V is simultaneously both a more true-to-life and yet more epic presentation of the play than has previously been seen on film. Indeed, the Battle of Agincourt takes place amidst rain and mud with the sort of violence one might expect of medieval combat. At the same time Henry V benefits from some truly memorable performances, not the least of which is Sir Kenneth Branagh as King Henry V himself. In my humble opinion no previous adaptation of the play was as great as Sir Kenneth Branagh's Henry V  and I doubt any future adaptation will be as great either.

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