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Going to the pictures with Shakespeare

Not so long ago, we ‘went to the pictures’ (or ‘the movies’) and now they tend to come to us. For many people, visiting a cinema to see films is no longer their principal means of access to the work of film-makers. But however we see them, it’s the seeing as much as the hearing of Shakespeare in this medium that counts. Or rather, it’s the interplay between the two.

Some Shakespeare films appeal directly to the kinship between cinema-going and the live theatre. Olivier’s Henry V (1944) begins in an Elizabethan theatre, involving both a historical period and the viewers’ sense of themselves as an audience — the effect doubly appropriate in a film made in wartime, asserting the values of communal spirit and shared emotions. His Hamlet (1948) begins with an overture – a device used for ‘event’ films since the advent of sound — and the image of theatrical paraphernalia, and although it moves beyond this frame, the architecture of its sets suggests on a magnified scale the kind of spaces created in the theatre with the adaptable steps, rostra, and archways of the ‘unit’ set common in the middle of the last century.

Liberation from the studio – the movement outdoors for Olivier’s Battle of Agincourt – is what marks Henry V as a particular kind of cinema, whilst Hamlet remains a handsome, elegiac but almost entirely indoors affair. That claustrophobia is an important element of Olivier’s psychology-centered interpretation of the play, where there is no Fortinbras and no political context, whereas in the Russian director Grigori Kozintsev’s 1964 Hamlet we see Elsinore in daylight, as a busy military and administrative machine in a landscape. This widens the scope of the play, supporting the view of a tragedy of a society and not simply of an individual and his associates.

This suggests one of the important advantages the film can have over the theatre. Not only can the camera bring us close into the faces of the actors, it can also show us with greater effect the world beyond and around them. Film-makers can use Shakespeare’s dialogue to great effect, but usually need relatively little of it.

The pictures we are shown in Shakespeare films can haunt our imagination; the delivery of the lines often has less impact. Think of the death of Washizu, the Macbeth figure in Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957), grimacing in dismay and agony as he is skewered by the arrows of his own men; or the relentless, mud-churning battle of Shrewsbury in Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight (1964); or the spectacular death-fall of Ian McKellen as the anti-hero of Richard Loncraine’s 1996 Richard III.

Charlton_Heston_as_Antony,_1950,_B&W_image_by_Chalmers_Butterfield
Charlton Heston as Antony, 1950. Photo by Chalmers Butterfield (via Sba2 at English Wikipedia). CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

Now try to identify a sound-byte from these films that has stayed with you. In the case of the Japanese film, it’s probably the eerie music and silence of the scene leading to the murder of the ‘Lord’ and the swishing sound of the kimono of Washizu’s wife as she goes to fetch the drugged sake from a closet. With Welles’s film, as with his others, it’s probably the sound of the actor-director’s voice as much as anything he actually says. In McKellen’s performance, it’s the incisiveness of that first soliloquy, though it is made memorable in cinematic terms by the novelty of being delivered partly from the stage of a ballroom and partly in a gents’ lavatory.

In each of these cases – and we could multiply them from many other films – the pictures live alongside the words, not simply when they illustrate an event (such as a battle or a storm) that cannot be presented as fully on stage, but more generally because these sights, welded to the spoken dialogue, are more often than not the main reason why we go to the pictures. But now turn the argument round; the pictures have to grow out of the words, and however few of them the script uses (usually no more than 25 or 30%), they are the ultimate source of vitality. In some cases, such as Olivier’s mesmerizing performance as Richard III in his 1955 film, it is the actor’s personal performance that gives them a centrality unusual in the cinema. Kenneth Branagh’s epic Hamlet, with its claim to present the whole of the text, has an extraordinary variety and clarity of interpretation through speech as well as imagery. In another mode, the versions of Much Ado About Nothing by Branagh (1993) and Joss Whedon (2013) achieve the intimate comedy of relationships that we find in the screwball comedies of the 1930s.

Moreover, the language animates many films that take off from Shakespeare but have no claim to deliver the play itself, such as Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (the two parts of Henry IV), Tim Blake Nelson’s O (Othello), or even Gnomeo and Juliet (Shakespeare’s tragedy, the garden gnome version). The secret lies in that dynamic relationship between dialogue and image, and the effect of both in inspiring and giving vitality to that imaginative quality we can call the vision of a film.

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