Shakespeare Quadruple Bill

So, just back from Stratford-upon-Avon where I spent the weekend being a sophisticated, cultured man about town by attending a Royal Shakespeare Company staging of King Lear in the famous theatre there (spoiler alert - it doesn't end happily). Since I followed things without getting (too) confused, did the town tour and bought some souvenirs, I now consider myself an expert on Shakespeare, which thus leaves me qualified to review four Shakespeare film adaptations. Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.....

The latest version of Macbeth (Justin Kurzel, 2015) is a bit of a mixed bag - so fair and foul a film I have not seen, AMIRITE? It's fair because it's a stylish, well staged and suitably grimy telling of the medieval tale, with committed performances from Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. But it's foul because it doesn't really nail the tragic nature of their fall from grace and inexplicably omits some of the most evocative text (where the hell is 'Macbeth does murder sleep?!'). More unforgivably, it wastes the chance to have a glowering Paddy Considine (as Banquo) shake his gory locks at the banquet. Is this a good film I see before me? Methinks, sort of.

Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon, 2013) is showing off a bit. There's something faintly irritating about a big shot Hollywood director using a few days holiday from one job (Avengers Assemble) to gather together his friends at his expensive-but-trying-not-to-look-it-house-his-wife-built to perform a play and make another film, you know, just for fun, like. Couldn't he just sit around in his pants like everyone else? That said, this is a nice enough modern take on Shakespeare's always fun play, filmed in B&W and with good turns from Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof as the quarrelsome-but-clearly-meant-for-each-other Beatrice and Benedick, although it's a portly Nathan Fillion as the hilarious Dogberry that steals the show. That said, I much prefer the colourful 1993 version, which is sunnier, funnier and altogether chummier.

Othello (Oliver Parker, 1995) is a great story, but this is simplified, rather uninspired adaptation, which relies heavily on several direct-to-camera addresses which are not entirely successful. Laurence Fishburne is suitably brooding and handsome as Othello, but struggles a little with the Bard's verse, whilst Irène Jacob as Desdemona makes for a pretty, but rather insipid lover. Together, they don't really do enough to convey the controversial love of the characters, or to stir the emotions when tragedy inevitably rears its head. However, it does have an ace up its sleeve with the casting of Kenneth Branagh as the villainous Iago, whose scheming underpins all the trouble. He's the best thing in it by a million miles and I couldn't help feeling that having him behind the camera as well might have elevated this to greater heights.

Luckily, he is behind the camera for the epic Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh, 1996), as well as in front of it in the title role. Anyone with even a passing interest in Shakespeare will know this is a feast of a tale, with love, death, sex, betrayal, madness, murder, incest, ghosts, suicide and revenge all on display - this Shakespeare fella sure knew how to throw together a crowd-pleasing potboiler. Little wonder then, that a calvalcade of stars (Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Billy Crystal, Gérard Depardieu, Charlton Heston, Derek Jacobi, Jack Lemmon, Judi Dench and Robin Williams among others) jumped at the chance to appear in it, even if it was just a small role. But even if you've never heard of this dithering, blithering idiot Hamlet and haven't a notion what's going on, this is still a feast for the eyes. The costumes and the art design (both Oscar-nominated) are incredibly lavish, all captured on 70mm film format, which really does deserve to be seen on the big screen. But it's Branagh who deserves the plaudits, not just for putting it all together in an accessible fashion, but for a striking, immaculate performance as the peroxide-blonde prince struggling with his personal demons. Yes, it is 37 hours long (actually, just over 4 hours), so you'll probably need a toilet break, but it's worth the effort for a great screen adaptation. Incidentally, my original review of this film was written with a pencil. Can't remember if it was 2B or not 2B. BOOM!! What do you think of that joke, Shakespeare??

“Methink’st thou art a general offence and every man should beat thee.”

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