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Film/Video Reviews

Shakespeare adaptations reviewed with a discerning eye (that might even help you in class...)

Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more. Men were deceivers ever;
One foot on sea, and one on shore, to one thing constant never.

So sigh not so, but let them go and be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe into hey nonny nonny.

This little piece of iambic heptameter (seven beats instead of the usual five)--Shakespeare's version of "turn that frown upside down"--recurs throughout Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. It begins the film--being read by Emma Thompson's Beatrice to the other characters--and afterwards is sung twice (to music by composer Patrick Doyle)--once solo, and at the end by a full chorus. Its simple statement summarizes the action within: there is a conflict after which forgiveness is given, leading to a happy ending.

Kenneth Branagh burst on the movie scene in 1989 with his action-packed Henry V. In 1991, he paid homage to Alfred Hitchcock and the film noir genre with Dead Again and he soon followed with Peter's Friends, a fine entry in the "old mates reunion" genre of The Big Chill and Return of the Seacaucus Seven. Then he returned to his "first love," Shakespeare.

Much Ado About Nothing is not the best adaptation of the play that I have seen (that has to go to the BBC version from 1984; the acting is perfect all around), but it is the one most focussed on bringing out the fun inherent within. Branagh as director does tend toward the overly dramatic (like the opening scene where the soldiers arrive), but seems to know when to tone things down for the quieter, more romantic scenes. His choice to film in Tuscany and use its wondrous landscape to full effect was ideal.

The Hollywood-based members of the cast are surprisingly good. Denzel Washington (Don Pedro) gives a natural line-reading that belies his lack of experience with the bard while accenting his natural ability. Branagh (Benedick) and then-wife Emma Thompson (Beatrice) are obviously comfortable with the language--respectful when the poetry calls for it and more natural when bantering or simply moving the plot along.

In fact, the only detriments to this film are Keanu Reeves' scowling turn as Don John and Robert Sean Leonard's overdone Claudio. Leonard is not bad, per se, he's just stage-acting on film--overemoting for the back row while in extreme close-up. Of Michael Keaton as Dogberry, I'll only say that I wonder if he thought he was in Much Ado About Beetlejuice. He's obviously trying very hard, but doesn't fit with the tone and seems as if he has walked in from a different film entirely.

Branagh differs from previous Shakespearean film actor/directors (like Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles) in that he presents the plays not as art but as mainstream entertainment. He believes that they should be appreciated by everyone, not just so-called scholars. He succeeds, mostly. His Much Ado About Nothing is by far the most accessible of his Shakespeare films and is a fine addition to the canon.

Cover of the British video from Amazon.co.uk Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form in The Green Man Review.

Sadly, as of this writing, Prospero's Books is only available on videocassette, depriving us of the full measure of the director's vision. One hopes that soon we will see this wonderful picture in all its widescreen glory.

Prospero's Books, director Peter Greenaway's adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest, is a perfect example of using the cinematic form to its fullest extent. Greenaway's films are always very visually interesting, but here he has pulled out all the stops. It almost doesn't matter what the story is. One's visual centers are so stimulated, there's little space in the brain left for following the story, anyway.

No such details are necessary, though, in Greenaway's film. Simply know that Prospero (John Gielgud) and his daughter Miranda (Isabelle Pasco) are stranded on an island. Also in attendance are Ariel, a fairy that Prospero once saved from an evil spell cast by a witch, who is now more-or-less his slave in gratitude, and Caliban (Michael Clark), the child of that same witch and one of her demons. There is another ship on the island, but its crew doesn't matter so much except that they are Prospero's enemies, and the son of one of them, Ferdinand (Mark Rylance), falls in love with Miranda. Oh and, of course, there are all of Prospero's books, an invention of Greenaway's (Shakespeare mentions only one book), described in loving detail.

Having the fabulous Gielgud voice all of the roles is brilliant. Playing Prospero as a sort of surrogate Shakespeare, he writes the play--in elegant calligraphy--as we watch it unfold before us. Gielgud's voice resonates with emotion and nuances that come from his 70+ years experience with the Bard.

The portrayals of Ariel and Caliban, in particular, are delights. Ariel is visually represented by four different boys of increasing ages but similar appearances. Seeing two or more of them on the screen at once was confusing at first but, eventually, I just surrendered myself to the experience. As the beast Caliban, dancer/choreographer Clark undulates and contorts his nude body into impossible tangles, yet somehow remains a beautifully pitiful figure.

Speaking of nudity, there is plenty of it on display here. All ages, sexes, shapes, and sizes. One becomes immune to its prurient effects and begins simply to appreciate the human form once again, in all its incarnations.

Greenaway has done a masterful job of taking a very familiar story and making it into an entirely new experience. Like his other films (which include The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover and The Pillow Book), it is not for all tastes. Rarely does one like all Greenaway's films, but one has to admit their artistry.

Akira Kurosawa's Ran

In most cases, an actor will wait until he is of a certain age before attempting the role of Shakespeare's King Lear. It is odd, though, for a director to do the same. But in this case, I would have to say that it was the right decision. Ran is Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's version of Shakespeare's King Lear with samurai. He uses the basic story of the play to illustrate a period of Japanese history replete with land wars and feuding families.

Hidetora is the Lear character. As he is getting old, he wants to split his three castles among his three sons: Taro, Jiro, and Saburo. Saburo, the only one who will not blindly follow his father's orders, is banished during a long, painful scene. The remaining land is split among the two sons. Taro marries Kaede, whose family was killed and their land stolen by Hidetora in her childhood, and who therefore is now living back in her family's original home.

Kaede is the most interesting character in Ran because she has the most pure motive--revenge. She wreaks her vengeance among all the members of the family who cross her, keeping her one goal firmly in her mind: that she will never again be forced to leave this castle. Meanwhile, Taro and Jiro are quick to remind Hidetora that he placed them in charge when he tries to pull rank on them as "Great Lord."

There is a lot in Ran that could have been shortened to make a tighter story, but Kurosawa relishes in the details and gives a far more nuanced picture that takes into account character motivations and individual personalities. Many of the aspects of Lear are evident and nearly every character has a counterpart, but this is really Kurosawa's film, not Shakespeare's. Hidetora goes crazy while the Fool accompanies him on his wanderings and his avoidance of the only son who would tell him the truth, Saburo. Of course, although the story projects a happy ending, this is, at its core, a Shakespearean tragedy in which nothing good can come of characters' prideful motives. It's still shocking to see, and Kurosawa makes it both surprising and inevitable. Ran is definitely one of Kurosawa's masterpieces, and the last one of that rank that he made.

  • ...more to come...
    ...plus a bonus!
  • A Midwinter's Tale -- Kenneth Branagh's fictional representation of a troupe of actors putting on Hamlet at Christmas.