I'm procrastinating by means of Shakespeare. Which I guess is more productive, anyway, than procrastinating by means of Star Trek, which was the other option.
Until fairly recently, I was actually -- as absurd as it may sound -- sort of opposed to the idea of seeing Shakespeare on film, or even at a theater: I was quite sure that the only way to really appreciate Shakespeare's work was by reading it. And I still hold that Shakespeare does need to be read; but I've also finally realized how much one gains by watching different versions of the plays. Gods know when I'll ever actually get to see a Shakespeare play on a stage, but for the time being, I've been making use of Netflix for... slightly more academic purposes than usual. Sort of.
Anyway. Ten films so far. I'm sure you guys are dying to know what I thought of them. ;) There's some picspamming, anyway...
Hamlet - 1948: Laurence Olivier
So. The classic Olivier Hamlet.
I actually did rather like this version, in spite of the fact that, being from 1948, it's inevitably pretty dated. There were things about it that were very annoying, the foremost being the fact that half of the monologues were just voice-overs, with Olivier wandering around looking pensive and dramatic, with nothing to do. I don't know why everybody wants to do voice-overs; a couple even show up in Branagh's version. Really, people, we know they're thinking this stuff in their heads. But it's Shakespeare, for heaven's sake. The point is to actually recite it.
So that was one problem. Another was the excessively Freudian nature of the whole business between Hamlet and Gertrude. I mean, seriously:
Look -- even if we assume that Hamlet is a creep who really does want to get it on with his mother, there's no reason why his mother should reciprocate that creepiness. Egads!
I also rather wish they hadn't totally cut Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from the play, not because they're so personally necessary, but because you lose a lot of really good lines of Hamlet's, that way. Of course, there's not really any way to cut the play down to a reasonable length without cutting out good lines of Hamlet's, so I guess it is what it is. The lack of Fortinbras was less noticeable, and closing the play with "flights of angels sing thee to thy rest" worked just fine.
It would have worked better if I'd liked this version of Horatio. He was pretty unremarkable, and didn't give the impression of being especially close with Hamlet. Also, his codpiece had tassels, which is... never, ever a good thing.
Stuff I liked about the film, though, included Claudius and Polonius, and also Laertes -- I liked this Laertes best, in fact, of the three I've seen. Ophelia was... acceptable, when she wasn't writhing and screaming. I did really, really like the Mousetrap in this version, though, with the dumbshow for a prologue; that was nicely done.
As for Olivier, he was all right. He looks more like my image of Hamlet than anyone else I can think of, and he also cuts quite a figure in tights, so he had that going for him. His acting was a bit hit-or-miss, sometimes very good, sometimes... less so. For the first half of the movie, he was very broody and theatrical, but lacked passion; the voice-over monologues were particularly bland. But he seemed to get better -- quicker, wittier, more sarcastic -- as the play progressed, and there were a few scenes that I thought were really excellent. I particularly liked the "we fat ourselves for maggots" scene.
I wish we could have had a bit more of that vicious cheerfulness, and a bit less dramatic brooding. Still, not bad, on the whole.
Hamlet - 1990: Kevin Kline
I would never have thought of Kevin Kline to play or direct Hamlet, but it actually worked all right. It was a stage production, and I think Shakespeare generally works better on a stage than a film set, so that probably helped. The opening, with the guards calling out to each other in the dark, worked better here than in Olivier or Branagh's films, and I also much preferred the ghost of old Hamlet in this version, where he walks in sedately and silently, without any excessive ghostly makeup or effects -- just a kind of otherworldly demeanor and intonation, and the mist on the stage. The Mousetrap was also very good here, maybe as good as the Olivier version. It was all very well directed.
Kline was... good, but not great. He falls somewhere between Branagh and Olivier, I think: he's more tragic and serious than the former, and he's funnier and more physically Hamlet-like than the latter, which ought to make him a nice compromise; but he lacks the conviction of either one. There's just something about the way he drags out his lines, too theatrical, deliberate, practiced. It's not that he lacks sincerity; it's just that he seems acutely aware that he's onstage, and he seems to speak every line with the audience in mind, and not as if he were wrestling inwardly with himself.
So that's Kline. Now, Horatio, on the other hand, was wonderful: understated but very sincere, and perfectly oblivious to being a character in a play. He seemed to believe every line as he spoke it, and to believe every line Hamlet spoke, too. The relationship came off well, too; Horatio was obviously there only for Hamlet, while Hamlet was obviously aware of Horatio’s devotion, and appreciative of it, but very much preoccupied with other things. Gertrude was also excellent, and I appreciated that there was much less Oedipal stuff going on between her and Hamlet in this version. And I thought it worked well to have Ophelia, in her first scene, come off as irritated at Laertes rather than bending at once to his will. The rest of her scenes were just okay, but the first one I liked a great deal.
Claudius was all right; Laertes was good. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were just so-so, but I was glad they were there, at least. Polonius... well, I appreciated that they made him a bit more likable here than in other versions; I really don’t think Polonius should be such a bumbling, arrogant fool that his death becomes a joke, because that, by extension, makes a joke out of Ophelia and Laertes' grief, too. I was glad to see a version where he's played as a good man, and Hamlet seems really sorry to have killed him, at least when he first realizes what he's done. On the other hand, though, the actor, much like Kline, always seemed to be talking more to the audience than to the other characters.
Basically: this version isn't particularly innovative, but in that, it's not much at risk of botching anything, either. And I did highly approve of Horatio.
Hamlet - 1996: Kenneth Branagh
First off: I'm so, so glad that Branagh decided to actually film the entire play, even though it does run more than four hours long. For that alone, this version is exceptional.
And Branagh himself made a much better Hamlet than I'd expected, though still not really a... Hamlet-y sort of Hamlet, if that makes any sense. He's rather manic, which works great for the clever and the funny parts of the play; he makes for an exceedingly keen, clever, bitter, and sarcastic version of the character. But he can't really do the melancholy, serious scenes convincingly, and I think he also comes off as too mature somehow -- even more so than Kline and Olivier, though he was younger than either of them in the role. His acting is always top-notch, and the character he creates is a Hamlet who's very interesting and a lot of fun to watch, but he just isn't quite it.
His directing was mostly fantastic, with a few exceptions. I didn't really like the opening scene with the guard, nor did I care much for the scene with Hamlet and the ghost. The "to be or not to be" scene was... severely overstated. Eh. But the dialogue came off very naturally, and the sets were magnificent, and I liked how Fortinbras and his army were sort of around the whole time, so that he didn't seem quite so... rex-ex-machina, as it were, when he showed up at the end. Claudius was very good -- maybe too good, as he came off more likable than I think he should. Polonius was very good. Kate Winslet's Ophelia was also very good, though not really what I picture for the role.
Wormtail playing Rosencrantz (or Guildenstern—honestly I don’t remember) was... weird. Not bad, but definitely weird. Oh, right, and Billy Crystal as the grave-digger. That was... also weird. I mean, I love Billy Crystal, but he was kind of distracting.
OH. And Robin Williams playing Osric. Uh. Even weirder.
Laertes and Horatio I honestly don't even remember. I guess they must have been okay, since I don't remember thinking they weren't. Evidently not too remarkable, though.
So, yeah. In brief: I'll never actually be able to picture Kenneth Branagh as the Hamlet, but he did make a very good Hamlet. And he looked pretty good in the part, too. ;)
King Lear - 2008: Ian McKellen
THIS. This was goddamn close to perfect, in my mind. It was actually quite a bit different from how I pictured it, reading the play -- but for all that, I can't imagine that I'll ever see a better version. McKellen completely blew me away in this role. The man is amazing.
This was another stage production, not a film, so again, that might be part of the reason it worked so well; the directing could follow the text without any fancy additions. The actors were also a big part of it, though. Gloucester and Kent were great, and all three daughters. And the fool was fantastic. Not at all how I imagined him, but fantastic nonetheless. Though I will say, I'm not so sure about the scene they inserted in order to kill him. I don't mind that they decided to have him hanged as part of the performance, but it seems to me there's something very potent about the fact that "I'll go to bed at noon" is his last line in the text, and I wasn't sure why they decided to tack a bunch more lines on for him before finishing him off.
I'll also admit, I wasn't quite so fond of either Edmund or Edgar. Edmund was a bit too theatrically evil; I think he almost cackled a couple of times. Eh. And Edgar was... I don't know, just sort of pathetic, which is maybe to be expected, but I do feel he should be likable, at least.
But I don't even care, because Ian McKellen is amazing. Amazing.
Othello - 1995: Laurence Fishburne, Kenneth Branagh
I already talked about this movie a bit when I first watched it, back in November, so I'll just repeat that it was very, very well done, and I think Iago is one of Branagh's best roles, and Fishburne is wonderful as Othello. And, I will add, looks pretty fantastic in period garb and a beard.
Everybody else is also very good—Brabantio, Cassio, Emilia... Roderigo is suitably despicable... Desdemona is good, even if it is sort of weird that she's the only person with a really thick accent. Great directing. Too much sex, but okay, even that's practically in the text. Major props to Branagh for this one. I don't much expect to see a better version on film.
Macbeth - 2010: Patrick Stewart
Uh. So. Then there's this thing. Which is like... Macbeth in the Soviet Union, with automatic rifles. In a castle. With an elevator. Or something. I don't even know.
Patrick Stewart, at 70, still looks fantastic; let's just get that out of the way. I don't know how he does it. But Patrick Stewart looking fantastic was basically the only reason this movie was worth watching.
And honestly, even Patrick Stewart wasn't really as good as I'd hoped he'd be. His acting was fine, from scene to scene, but it didn't feel as though he had a solid, consistent character developed for Macbeth. He played the crazy bits crazy and the sane bits sane, and the tragic bits tragic, and the angry bits angry, and you never really got the sense of an underlying person who was Macbeth. And he was by far the best person on the cast.
Lady Macbeth was horribly overblown. From the instant she sets foot on the screen, she's already hardcore evil, in an I-sacrifice-babies-to-the-Dark-Lord sort of way, with an evil saggy wardrobe to match; and then after Duncan's death she spends most of the film acting even crazier than her husband. She screams all the time. Like, you know, the scene where she’s supposed to be telling Macbeth that the reason he's acting crazy is because he lacks "the season of all natures, sleep"? -– I don't really picture it that she's supposed to be rolling back in her chair shrieking "SLEEEEEEEP!" like some kind of dying banshee at this moment. WTF.
(God, what even happened here? Did she climb into Duncan's bed and roll around on his corpse or something? Did she rip his heart out and squeeze it all over her boobs?)
AND THEN there was the porter, who was so bad I can't even descibe it. I mean his acting is not just conspicuously bad, but brain-breakingly, offensively bad. And for some reason, they decided to put him in like fifteen scenes that don't belong to him in the text. AGGGGGH.
There are also the Weird Sisters, who instead of being portrayed as witches are portrayed, rather, as evil nurses or something. Like, possessed Satanic nurses who rip out people's organs and make creepy effigies out of them. The idea wasn't horrible on princple; witches are sort of laughable in modern culture, and the evil nurses were at least conceptually scary, which is a plus -- in theory. In practice, though, they came off looking like something out of a Marilyn Manson music video every time they showed up, especially when they were singing and the directing went all... well, goth, for lack of a better word. And man, the idea of replacing the three apparitions that appear to Macbeth with, instead, three body bags with corpses that come to life and speak through the
The sets were a lot like the witches: extremely, excessively dark (and it's hard for me to picture how you could possibly make Macbeth, of all plays, excessively dark), and rather surreal, modern, minimalist. Some of the directing choices, I'll admit, were kind of cool. Some of them were cool but made the play really hard to follow. And then some of them were just horribly distracting and out of place, like Macbeth making peanut-butter-meat-pickle-sandwiches while arranging for the murder of Banquo. Mid-speech, he emphasizes the word "subtle" by waving a pickle slice in the air. He has to deliver some of his lines around a mouthful of sandwich. WHAT EVEN IS THIS, FOR REAL.
Banquo was fine. Macduff was fine. Duncan was fine. Duncan's sons were okay, although I really don't think Malcolm hit the right note in the scene where Duncan finds out his family's been killed. Unless they were aiming for an interpretation where Malcolm actually is a jerk. And I have no idea what they were going for with Ross, but he was—just, no.
So, this thing. It was very arty, and maybe it could have been cool, but they went overboard with the evil and just sort of blew it. And I really wanted to like this, because Patrick Stewart, <3, you know. But this movie even made Patrick Stewart weird. Alas.
A Midsummer Night's Dream - 1968: Ian Holm, Helen Mirren
Okay, and we're on to the comedies, starting with two versions of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Which is odd, because it's not even a play I like all that much.
The 1968 version is mostly pretty awful, though in a somewhat forgivable because typically 60's way. Everybody has bad hippie hair, the directing is awkward, the voice-overs are slightly off, Hippolyta is wearing some kind of leather minidress, and the fairies are wearing badly-applied green body paint that makes them look like Orion slave girls from Star Trek. The acting is dated, but mostly not bad; Helen Mirren as Hermia was pretty good, and both Lysander and Demetrius were all right, Beatles hair-mops notwithstanding. Oberon was pretty meh; Titania was sometimes better and sometimes worse than meh. Hippolyta was horrible, and I don't even know if Theseus was any good or not, because I was too busy staring at his pastede on yay beard.
The ass head was pretty well done, though, as comedic devices go. Bottom was okay. Quince was okay. The rest... eh.
I also wasn't sure what I thought about the fairies being played by children. On one hand, it was kind of cute. But on the other hand, the whole fairy world, and especially the relationships between Titania and Oberon and between Titania and Bottom, are extremely sexual (as emphasized by the fact that Titania was pretty much wearing nothing but body paint and panties the whole time) -– and having lots of little half-nude green children running about in the midst of all this donkey-fairy sex was just kind of creepy, you know? And also the kids could not act to save their lives.
Anyway, the only real reason I managed to watch this movie all the way to the end was because it had Ian Holm—you may know him as Bilbo Baggins—playing Puck. In 1968. And you know, it is truly amazing how much he already looked like a hobbit, even in green body paint, and especially wearing those pointy ears.
He played an extremely manic sort of Puck, which was interesting to watch, even if it isn't how I picture Puck normally. But mostly I stopped thinking about Shakespeare when he was onscreen, and just thought about how it's a pity we can't go back in time and retrieve tiny Ian Holm to play Bilbo in The Hobbit. He's just such a naturally hobbity sort of guy.
A Midsummer Night's Dream - 1999: Kevin Kline, Christian Bale, Stanley Tucci
Aaaand another one. (Which, incidentally, has Bernard Hill -- Théoden -- in it, as Hermia's father. Counting Ian Holm and Ian McKellen, that's three LotR actors I've stumbled across within ten films. Now I just need to find something with Hugo Weaving...)
This adaptation is set in the late 19th century, so everybody gets to ride around on bicycles in the woods, which I guess is... fine. I didn't find it all that funny, but then, I don't really find the play all that funny, except for the rude mechanicals -- which is probably why the director thought it would be a good idea to turn all the audience's sympathies to the sad, sad life of Bottom the weaver, who, according to the film, gets randomly abused by strangers, has wine poured all over him, and shuffles home to his bitchy wife who is in no way part of the play.
Sympathetic!Bottom probably was a good choice, after all, and Kevin Kline was probably also a good choice for the part, since Bottom is a total ham and Kevin Kline... also tends that way. He was good in the role, and I liked how they did the ass-head makeup, rather than trying to do cgi or something stupid. But overall, I think they tried to make A Midsummer Night's Dream rather more poignant and melancholy than it has any right to be, and I don't know that it worked.
The rude mechanicals were pretty good, especially Peter Quince -- though again, he was very, very sad. The lamentable comedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, which I find utterly hilarious in the text, was only somewhat funny in the film. And then very, very sad. I really don't know.
I did like the director's choice to play the fairies as these sort of... bacchanalian carousers, especially Oberon's people; that felt appropriate to both Oberon and Puck's characterization, and helped bring a bit more humor in. Puck, played by Stanley Tucci, was not at all how I picture him in the text, but he was really wonderful. In fact I felt like he was playing his part so much better than anyone else that he kind of wound up carrying the whole film by himself. He was the only really funny person there.
The lovers were meh. Christian Bale's acting as Demetrius was excellent, but not funny; Helena (Calista Flockhart) was only funny in a very irritating way, and I didn't like Hermia or Lysander at all, nor did I particularly care for Titania (Michelle Pfeiffer). I also felt that they cast their Oberon rather young (Rupert Everett), which isn't necessarily a bad thing, except that he and Puck kept getting disturbingly close in their mostly-undressedness, and I felt like there was this weird Oberon/Puck vibe going on the whole time. o_O
Much Ado About Nothing - 1993: Branagh, etc.
Right, so this play has, let's see... Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Robert Sean Leonard, Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves, and, uh, Michael Keaton. And it's pretty fantastic, which surprised me, because I'm not really into comedies. Branagh and Watson as Benedick and Beatrice are both wonderful; I can't think of anybody who would have been better in the roles. I particularly think Branagh did an excellent job of making the play really goddamn funny, which seems to be a major difficulty for most modern adaptations of Shakespeare plays.
Everyone else in the play was good as well, although Michael Keaton as Dogberry was... er, maybe an exception. He basically played the part as Drunken British Beetlejuice, which wasn't actually as funny as it sounds, though anyway I was pretty well entertained just by the mere fact of his being Michael Keaton in a Shakespeare play, because what. Denzel Washington was good, if not especially remarkable. Robert Sean Leonard got stuck with the difficult job of playing the ridiculous straight-man. He was mostly spot-on anyway, and at all times he was a lovely thing to look at, so you'll get no complaints from me.
And quite honestly, I thought Keanu Reeves did just as well as anyone else in this film. I know everyone is always like LOL EXCELLENT ADVENTURE, but whatever. I will confess that his first couple of scenes were way overblown with the whole look look the VILLAIN thing going on...
(LOOK THE VILLAIN)
...but after that, he did just fine. As I've said before, the man doesn't have a whole lot of range, but I think when you get him in the right role, he works very well.
Twelfth Night - 1996: Ben Kingsley and some other people
So the thing with Twelfth Night is, there's not really a main character, per se. Viola gets the most screen time, but even she's not really around that much more than everyone else. Personally, I feel like the fool is the hero of the play—and I guess the creators of this version must have felt the same way, because they cast Ben Kingsley, of all people, for the part.
To be honest, I'm not entirely sure how well this worked: Kingsley made for a very dry fool indeed. Really an extremely sad fool, which meant that the play was barely humorous at all; everything was saturated with this undertone of tragedy, which is gorgeous in Ben Kingsley's scenes, but sort of strange in everybody else's scenes, which are meanwhile trying to be comical. The whole Malvolio business winds up looking very fucked up indeed, for instance. So, I don't know. It's quite good, but it doesn't really feel like Twelfth Night to me.
This version also has Helena Bonham Carter as Olivia, and I wasn't quite sure what to do with that, either, because I'm so used to her being crazy and dirty that I'd almost forgotten just how pretty she is—the woman has seriously got a face like a porcelain doll, with those enormous dark eyes, tiny nose, rosebud lips, pointed chin, and that mass of wild dark curls. And I think I may have actually been so distracted by how pretty she was that I was not even able to tell whether her acting was good or not, which is a thing that normally never happens to me, especially not with women.
(God, look at her. Nobody in real life looks like that!)
Toby and Maria and Antonio were very good, but they're kind of minor parts. The rest of the cast I could pretty much take or leave; they were good, but not great, and not all that funny and not all that profound, and basically I felt like the whole weight of the play was pretty much resting on Ben Kingsley and his really lovely singing voice, which was definitely the best thing about the film.
(In fact, when the movie first came on, before I knew Ben Kingsley was going to be in it, they played a song over the opening credits, and I went, "Whoa, they've got some guy with a very pretty voice playing Feste! He's probably going to be way too young and pretty for the role." And then, lo, Kingsley shows up. Imagine my facepalming.)
Also, I have lately discovered that Imelda Staunton is one of my favorite female actors. (She's hanging out with Feste in the above video.) I kept seeing her in things and thinking where the hell do I know that tiny adorable plump hobbitish woman from?—and I could not even believe it when I realized I knew her as Dolores Umbridge. Clearly she is fantastic.
Here, have some more Ben Kingsley.
...I guess I should also mention that I saw about fifteen minutes of Titus, which is Julie Taymor's... er, ~interpretation~ of Titus Andronicus, starring Anthony Hopkins. You'd think Hopkins would have been reason enough to go ahead and watch the whole thing, but god. First there was some modern-day kid using his action figures to splash his breakfast all over the place, and then there was fire and Titus Andronicus broke into the kid's house and carried him back in time to Ancient Rome where there were lots of motorcycles and tanks and women in leather and black lipstick and people in business suits sitting in gigantic armchairs. All of which I gathered from fast-forwarding for a while, before I finally gave up on the whole thing. Taymor's version of The Tempest looks like it might actually be good, though, so I guess I'll wait and see...
Looking this over, I wonder if I should be ashamed that half of my reactions seem to consist of damn these guys look good in period garb. Er. So much for my intellectual pursuits...