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Introduction: The Age of Branagh (1989 to 2002)

Shakespeare on Screen: A Chronicle History -- page 6


The Age of Branagh (1989 to 2002)

It was widely accepted toward the end of the last century that Shakespeare on film would never regain any ascendancy over television, if for no other reason than because of the economics at stake. Jean-Luc Godard's 1987 Shakespeare-based King Lear (#277) also surfaced, though it too was the target of brickbats from mainline critics hostile to the avant-garde. The atmosphere suddenly changed , however, with the release in 1989 of Kenneth Branaghís Henry V (#182.2), which converted Olivierís inflexible epic hero into an introspective almost Hamlet-like monarch. The precocious and courageous young Branagh from then on lived in a bath of publicity, most of it, especially in North America, friendly, but often hostile in England among his compatriots, whose motives varied from genuine distaste to envy. Branagh followed this commercial and critical success with a 1993 Much Ado About Nothing (#000) that brought Emma Thompson, Katherine in Henry V, back as a sparkling Beatrice, a role she apparently was born to play. By 1996 actor/director Branagh was ready for his supreme effort, an unprecedented (on film) four-hour, uncut Hamlet (#000) which set the play against a stark exterior backdrop of Blenheim Palace and an interior world of an eclectic nineteenth-century, State Hall, whose rococo fantasies were constructed inside Shepperton Studios. As an offshoot from Hamlet, he had directed a year before (1995) In the Bleak Midwinter (#000), an unpretentious but poignant tale of a band of impecunious actors playing Hamlet at Christmas time in an abandoned church. By 2000, in a daring move, he directed and acted in a musical comedy version of Loveís Labour's Lost (#000), which substitutes Golden Oldies from Hollywood films by Gershwin, Porter and Berlin for much of the playís original dialogue. Moreover, Oliver Parkerís 1995 release of Othello (#000), starring Laurence Fishburne and Irene Jacob, cast Kenneth Branagh as an unusually ingratiating, though thoroughly untrustworthy Iago.

The tidal wave of Shakespeare films that Branagh almost single-handedly triggered coincided with, and perhaps in some cases encouraged, a gala array of other productions. In 1990 Franco Zeffirelli abandoned sunny Italy for the gray walls of ancient British castles with a Hamlet (#000) that flagrantly but successfully switched codes by casting action hero Mel Gibson and femme fatale Glenn Close as Hamlet and Gertrude. The fin de siècle brought a rash of excellent films, beginning in 1995 with Richard Loncraineís Richard III (#000) that turned adversity into gold by cleverly appropriating landmarks from contemporary London (e.g., the St. Pancras rail station) into plausible settings for the diabolical antics of Richard duke of Gloucester. Ian McKellenís sinister duke cavorts against a historical context displacing the 15th-century Shakespearean world into the incipient fascism of 1930ís England. The next year (1996) saw Australian director Baz Luhrmannís wildly popular Romeo + Juliet (#000), which dared to allow superstars Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes speak Shakespeareís mostly unedited language against a backdrop of hip-hop, MTV, and drug scene squalor. Two versions of A Midsummer Nightís Dream were released in 1996 and then in 1999, Adrian Nobleís (#000) and Michael Hoffmanís (#000). Noble attempted the ploy of having the action viewed through the eyes of young boy but the overall production values failed to generate great excitement nor was the film shown theatrically everywhere. Hoffman exhausted the resources of color photography to put on screen what is indubitably the most visually pleasing version possible of The Dream, while at the same time the director ratcheted up Kevin Klineís Bottom into almost the center of the action. Meanwhile in 1996, Trevor Nunnís Twelfth Night succeeded in capturing the playís exotic blend of effervescence and melancholy, especially through sparkling performances by Helena Bonham Carter as Olivia, Imogen Stubbs as Viola, Nigel Hawthorne as Malvolio, and Ben Kingsley as a haunting Feste. By 1998 a stage production from New Yorkís Lincoln Center of Nicholas Hytnerís Twelfth Night (#000), starring Academy Award screen actress Helen Hunt, was transmitted on public television but owing to the limitations of the medium it failed to capture the same excitement that was present for the live audience.

For whatever portentous reasons, the transition into the twenty-first century saw no fewer than three versions of Shakespeareís blood-thirsty Titus Andronicus huddled around the cusp of the Millennium. Two of these, which were released right after the New Year, were low budget attempts to crack the video market, the first being directed by Richard Griffin on a starvation budget of $16,000 (#000), and the second a somewhat more generously bankrolled production directed by Christopher Dunne (#000), whose tagline of ìShakespeareís Savage Epic of Brutal Revengeî was borne out by the movieís leering sadism. In a different category was Julie Taymorís Academy-Award nominated multi-million dollar 1999 Titus (#000) with Anthony Hopkins playing the role of the cruel but proud warrior driven mad by duplicity and deception. The first major film of the new century than was Michael Almereydaís 2000 Hamlet (#000), which placed Ethan Hawkeís prince not in Elsinore but in a displaced urban ambiance in New York City.

At this writing in 2002, the prognosis for the future of the Shakespeare film still remains very much a puzzle. Whatever develops, however, it would seem that the Luddites who have always resented putting Shakespeare on screen will find themselves with fewer and fewer points of resistance, as filmmakers invent more and more ways to lower the barriers between Shakespeare and popular culture. Meanwhile the extant printed Shakespeare texts remain intact, available for endless study, and basically unthreatened by these technological upheavals.

K.S.R. Burlington, Vt.
 March 18, 1990
 April 5, 2002
 June 12, 2002

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