Skip to main content
Shakespeare 400 Anniversary Acmi Romeo And Juliet Feature
  • Shakespeare on Film: A Mirror Up to Nature and Ourselves


    Posted on: 14/07/2016

    In honour of Shakespeare's 400th Anniversary, film critic Jo Di Mattia explores the enduring appeal of adapting the Bard's works for the screen.

    Kenneth Branagh has noted that, “the elasticity of Shakespeare is extraordinary.” 400 years after Shakespeare’s death, his influence continues to stretch into all corners of culture, especially film. Shakespeare’s vivid poetry and rich storytelling have found a happy home in the cinema since 1899, when Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree made the first, the silent film, King John.

    Shakespeare’s work has been adapted into film more often than any other writer. Audiences continue to flock to screens to see his plays imagined anew. Inevitably, there are as many different approaches to adapting Shakespeare to film as there are possibilities for staging the plays. It’s also inevitable, that every choice made by a filmmaker, will be interrogated. Is it faithful? Are textual cuts confusing? Is it relevant to today? What is lost in transposing it to another time period? What is gained? Is this even what Shakespeare intended? As Branagh wittily reflected, “One of the problems with Shakespeare is that you can never give him a ring.”

    What no one can argue with is that Shakespeare on film reinforces the idea that the Bard’s appeal is universal. For most of us, watching an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet or Macbeth after studying the plays in a classroom is our first encounter with his work ‘come to life’. We identify with his characters, engage with his language, and immerse ourselves in his dramatic themes, via that most familiar of mediums – the screen.

    A realistic approach to adapting Shakespeare, where the play is recreated with historical authenticity, is no longer popular. These films are now too stuffy for modern tastes. But spectacular examples exist, including Franco Zeffirelli’s operatic Romeo and Juliet (1968), which makes sumptuous use of location to add to the tale’s heightened sense of tragic romance. It’s one of the most ‘old-fashioned’ Shakespeare films, in both look and feel, but a benchmark that even Baz Lurhmann drew inspiration from.

    Laurence Olivier’s work in bringing Shakespeare to film in the 1940s is both part of this realist mode yet wholly modern. After the success of his adaptation of Henry V (1944), Olivier turned his attention to Hamlet (1948), which won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor. Directing and starring as the melancholy Dane, Olivier absorbs influences from film noir, German Expressionist film, and Freud. His Hamlet isn’t ‘stagey’ but makes ample use of inventive film techniques that allow audiences to see Hamlet like never before – via innovative camera work, including high angle shots and dissolves.

    Often seen as a direct heir to Olivier, Branagh spearheaded a revival in Shakespeare filmmaking in the 1990s with his intimate epic, Henry V (1989). Branagh’s aim was to make the play’s text accessible to audiences by having them connect with both the language and the characters speaking it. As a result, close-ups feature heavily in Henry V to draw us into the texture of his world.

    Branagh found even more user-friendly modes of communication in Much Ado About Nothing (1993). This high-spirited, sensual romp uses a mix of actors both practised and untried with Shakespeare, such as Keanu Reeves and Michael Keaton, to broaden the film’s appeal. Added to this, the idyllic Tuscan setting and overall ebullience make Much Ado About Nothing one of the most satisfying and pleasurable of all Shakespeare films.

    Film allows a director and actors to do things that the stage simply can’t. Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth (2015) presents one of the most visceral adaptations of the Scottish play ever seen. It’s a film of blood, guts, and mud, where the excessive use of red in the film’s colour palette, suggests these characters are already living in hell. Kurzel’s film is also a fine example of an adaptation that chooses to emphasise one particular theme over others. Here, it is grief, the unnatural death of the Macbeth’s child, which is repositioned as the origin myth of evil, and the primary cause of upheaval in the film’s moral universe.

    One of the finest examples of an adaptation that finds resonance for a play in another time period altogether is Richard Loncraine’s Richard III (1995), starring Ian McKellen as the titular villain. Loncraine transposes the action to 1930s Britain, where fascism is on the rise. Using a number of visual motifs suggestive of the Third Reich, the film takes on an increasingly sinister tone when Richard claims the throne. Such period translations of Shakespeare often expose a gap between the original prose and the specifics of this modern setting, but Richard III bridges this wonderfully, upending our expectations of expected lines, such as when Richard’s jeep becomes stuck and laments, “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”

    There are also approaches to Shakespeare on film that refuse categorisation. Theatre of Blood (1973) is a black comedy that gives new meaning to the horror present in many of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Starring Vincent Price as an actor who plots to kill all the London critics who have overlooked him for an award, the film is bloody with revenge, recreating the violence in plays including Julius Caesar and King Lear.

    Similarly, The Angelic Conversation (1985) uses Shakespeare’s sonnets (read by Judi Dench) as the basis for a visually poetic meditation on another of the Bard’s great themes, the nature of love. Derek Jarman’s stark homoerotic imagery emerged at a time in history when the AIDs crisis was escalating and gay bodies were becoming increasingly visible in complicated ways. Juxtaposed with Shakespeare’s poetry (often thought to be addressed to a young male), Jarman creates a new way of understanding both.

    It is clear that as long as Shakespeare films continue “to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature” (Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2), we will continue to watch them. They provide a mirror in which we see our own world, and ourselves, reflected back to us. And we see that Shakespeare is both an entertainment, but never just this – that his work contains nothing less than all the drama, comedy, love, and truth of life.

    - Joanna Di Mattia

    Our Shakespeare on Film program runs from 14 July – 26 July.

    comments powered by Disqus