Shakespearian Hero

The Guardian (London), May 21 1999
by Michael Billington

Kenneth Branagh's screen versions of the Bard are better than Olivier's, argues Michael Billington

How do you film Shakespeare? Clearly, there are as many approaches as there are directors. You can treat the texts expressionistically (Welles), romantically (Zeffirelli) or starrily (Olivier). You can see the poetry as a visual springboard or as the core of the experience: at one extreme, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo And Juliet; at the other, Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night. Always, however, one faces a key problem: Shakespeare works primarily through words, the cinema through images. Do you allow the poetry to paint the pictures? Or do you let the camera do the work? The art of making Shakespeare movies, I suspect, is to strike a balance between word and image and find an overarching visual metaphor that unlocks the meaning of the play.

Watching Kenneth Branagh’s three Shakespeare films again — Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet — in preparation for an NFT talk, it strikes me he has had more success than most in realising Shakespeare on screen. For a start, he has got the films made: no mean feat when you think of the budgetary struggles Welles had in making Othello, or of the cruel accountancy that stopped Olivier filming Macbeth. But, in addition — and he is currently editing his fourth Shakespeare film, Love’s Labour’s Lost — Branagh has found a way of giving the films a cinematic rhythm, while preserving the text’s poetic values. His Henry V, made when he was 27, is an astonishing achievement, and better, in almost every respect, than Olivier’s. We all know Olivier was making a morale-boosting wartime propaganda film but, even so, treating the French as effete ditherers (with the king himself as a male Margaret Rutherford) undercuts British heroism. What you are left with — and it’s a good deal — is the incisive glamour of Olivier’s presence and that thrilling voice, with its Rossini-like gift for crescendo.

But Branagh’s film seems much closer to Shakespeare’s intention: a complex study of the ambivalence of war and of a young king’s self-discovery.

Olivier’s Henry exudes instant patriotic charisma; Branagh’s feels more like the Hal of the previous plays, who, having lost his real father and shed his surrogate one in Falstaff, is still coming to terms with his own identity.

However, as well as tracing Henry’s enforced maturation, Branagh finds a metaphor that sustains the whole film. He begins with Derek Jacobi’s Chorus switching on the lights from an empty soundstage and then moves to the back lot at Shepperton. Olivier gradually turns the Chorus into a voice-over; Branagh keeps him as a visible, mufflered presence — a reminder that we are watching a version of reality.

And where Olivier’s battle scenes have a rousing Technicolor excitement, Branagh’s show the declension of morning glory into exhausted carnage. Branagh’s film doesn’t just recreate Henry V, as many have suggested, to match a mood of post-Falklands cynicism, it expresses Shakespeare’s own complex feelings about heroism and sacrifice. Henry V is a masterly movie — one that adapts the Brechtian stage idea of the Chorus to remind us, all the time, that we are watching a reconstruction of reality. In Much Ado, starting with the on-screen titles of “sigh no more ladies”, the intention is clearly to explore the giddiness of love in the context of a Tuscan fête champêtre.

It works, up to a point: the film is sunny, charming and popular, and boasts Emma Thompson’s brilliant performance as a Beatrice who hides emotional scars behind a life-and-soul-of-the-party gaiety. But, although the film has many good things in it, it is, for me, the least satisfying of Branagh’s Shakespeare trio. It misses the melancholy at the heart of all Shakespearian comedy, ending with a celebratory overhead shot of the dancers snaking through the Tuscan villa. I thought longingly of Zeffirelli’s stage version, which counterpointed the revelry with an image of the solitary Don Pedro brooding in an orange grove.

Dogberry and Verges, played by Michael Keaton and Ben Elton, are wildly overdone: they are treated as “comic psychopaths” rather than a real rural constable “that hath had losses” and his loyal sidekick. The text is also thinned out: we lose such magical touches as the hymn to a dawn which “dapples the drowsy east with spots of grey”. It is a lively film that did a lot to popularise Shakespeare with young Americans but, although internally consistent, it seems closer to feelgood fairytale than to Shakespeare’s poignant social comedy.

If the text is diluted in Much Ado, no one could make that accusation of Branagh’s four-hour Hamlet — not only the longest committed to celluloid, but also far fuller than most stage versions. What matters, however, is that Branagh has again found an image both highly cinematic and true to Shakespeare’s play: of Elsinore as palace and prison. The court becomes a vast hall of mirrors, filled with diplomatic and political activity, and, simultaneously, a place of espionage, oppression and confinement. One of the film’s most telling images is of Kate Winslet’s Ophelia locked in a padded cell — a closeted offshoot of the main throne room and a place that can be spied on from above.

This is one thing cinema can do better than theatre: create a sense of place. Branagh gives us a Kafkaesque castle, in which each room tells its own secret story. But one consequence of creating an Elsinore that is both palace and padded institution is to emphasise Hamlet’s own political subversiveness. Here the play scene is a big public occasion at which unease spreads among the courtiers as they realise the reigning monarch is being accused of murder. Never before have I seen it shown so clearly that Hamlet poses a revolutionary threat to the state.

More controversially, Branagh uses the camera — as in all his Shakespeare films — to show past or off-screen action. It works superbly in one case: the image of Claudius keeping “wassail” by getting bullishly pissed and dragging Gertrude to the nuptial bed in full view of his courtiers. I am less sure about the visual re-enactment, during the Ghost’s soliloquy, of his murder: it removes any ambiguity about Claudius’s villainy, or about the Ghost’s status as unreliable narrator. As with the subliminal shots of Hamlet wrestling naked in bed with Ophelia, it resolves visually questions that are left open textually. But this is a minor flaw in a film which renders a full Shakespeare text without sacrificing narrative momentum or visual panache.

What Branagh’s films offer, in short, is something of the polyphonic richness of the plays — a quality you very rarely find in cinematic versions. Olivier’s Hamlet, for instance, is a dreary, funereal affair when set beside the play’s theatrical vivacity. And, while Luhrmann’s Romeo And Juliet has its admirers, it is like a strip-cartoon compared with a full-blooded stage version.

Branagh, however, in two of his three films, has used the resources of cinema to produce something with the emotional and intellectual impact of a Shakespearian theatrical event. It’ll be fascinating to see whether he does the same with Love’s Labour’s Lost, which he has set in the 30s, and which incorporates classic songs from Porter, Berlin, Gershwin and Kern.

Whatever the film’s success, Branagh has set new standards in Shakespearian film-making, which makes it all the more puzzling that Branagh-bashing is a popular British media sport. But I suspect his achievement in Shakespearian cinema, which, in directorial terms, outdistances Olivier’s, will survive attempts to put this passionate Belfast puritan down.

Michael Billington will be talking to Kenneth Branagh at NFT1 on Sunday as part of the NFT’s Branagh season. Look out for sound clips from the interview on Monday.

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