Friday, May 24, 2013

The Merchant of Venice (2004)

There's an old joke: Shakespeare's comedies aren't as much fun as his tragedies. His tragedies are filled with all the juicy stuff: murder, revenge, witches, assassinations, crazy people, etc. What was tragic and dramatic centuries ago often still has resonance we can relate to. Comedy, meanwhile, is more subjective; what was funny in Elizabethan England is not necessarily funny in 21st Century America.

Case in point, The Merchant of Venice. It's labeled a comedy among the Bard's work, and things work out happily for our main characters, but there's a very good reason why today's audiences might not be so inclined to laugh at it: it's horribly anti-Semitic and racist. Take the character of Shylock the money lender, the villain of the piece. He's a stereotypical Jewish caricature, a greedy, money-obsessed stock figure who literally wants a pound of flesh for a defaulted loan. When his daughter, who hates him, abandons him and steals his money, he laments the loss of both equally. He even dreams of money bags.  As the villain, he's meant to be humiliated and humbled, and we're to cheer his comeuppance.

But on the other hand, Shakespeare gives Shylock a number of dignified speeches where he lashes out at his mistreatment. In Act III Scene I, Shylock gets one of Shakespeare's greatest speeches in which he cries out against the prejudice toward Jews, the famous "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" monologue. I don't know whether Shakespeare himself was anti-Semitic or not, but it's safe to say he wrote at a time when that sentiment was strong, and he had his audience to consider. It might be more accurate to say his characters are anti-Semitic.

Michael Radford, who wrote and directed this 2004 adaptation, seems to realize the inherent problem with any modern version of the play, given how culturally sensitive and politically correct we as a society have become. Radford has re-envisioned the character of Shylock. Instead of a comic buffoon, Shylock is now a persecuted, tragic figure, undone by the prejudice and injustice around him as much as his own flaws.

On with the plot. In 16th century Venice, Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) needs money to woo the fair Portia (Lynn Collins). He turns to his friend Antonio (Jeremy Irons), a merchant of some means but whose ships are all out to sea. To raise the money, the pair go to Shylock (Al Pacino). Shylock agrees to the loan at no interest, but should the loan default, he demands a vicious collateral: a pound of Antonio's flesh.

The film opens with text explaining the social position of Jews in Venice as well as footage demonstrating their persecuted status, including Jews being thrown into the canals by an angry crowd and Antonio spitting on Shylock (something referred to in the text but not shown). It's not pretty, and it goes a long way toward generating, if not sympathy, then definitely understanding of Shylock and why he behaves the way he does.

The strongest element Radford brings to the film is its period look. Simply put, it's astoundingly authentic, more so than any other Shakespeare adaptation (or almost any other period piece) I can think of, and the scope is amazing. From the costumes to settings, nothing looks out of place for the time period whether it's the big details or the small ones.

But by far, the best piece of the movie is Pacino's performance. It is something to behold; he's all over the place from coldly calculating to despair to fiery anger to humbled shame to sorrow. Even the stuff that was silly in the text (lamenting losing his daughter and money), Pacino makes it believable and palpable. His delivery of the aforementioned monologue stands as one of the best Shakespeare speeches I've ever seen on film. When he comes to collect Antonio's pound of flesh, you know he means it.

On the downside, by accentuating the tragedy of the villain, Radford defuses much of the play's  humor. Compared to Shylock's story, the rest of the play - pompous princes, a betrothal based on choosing the correct the chest, women disguised as boys, a missing ring, a masquerade - feels diminished and unimportant, especially when Shylock has Antonio strapped in a courtroom chair, shirtless, chest exposed for the knife.

That said, these portions of the film are helped by some good performances, especially those of Collins as Portia and Irons as Antonio. Collins, in a role originally intended for Cate Blanchett, proves to be just a cunning as Shylock at a key moment while Irons brings to the forefront a subtext often hinted at: Antonio is in love Bassanio, and he is in effect financing his own heartbreak.

Today's audience might find The Merchant of Venice one of the Bard's more difficult plays to swallow, if only because of its potentially more unsavory aspects, but this version does a fine job addressing those concerns and turning a farce into a compelling drama. Between Pacino's performance and the production design, it's worth a watch.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Julius Caesar (1953)

Julius Caesar is a curious title among William Shakespeare's tragedies.  Many tragedies conclude with the death of their tragic figure, but with Julius Caesar, Shakespeare spends the second half of the play showing the fallout of Caesar's death and how it reverberates through the kingdom and how both his supporters and enemies try to use his death for their gain. As Mark Antony says, "The evil that men do lives after them."

From a narrative standpoint, Caesar appears very little. Yes, the famed Roman general and politician plays a central part in the drama that unfolds, and like other tragedies, his eventual downfall drives the plot, but he is not the protagonist of the piece. His death occurs in the third act and his presence limited to a few scenes. The main character of the piece is Brutus, the praetor torn between his love of Caesar and his fear that Caesar's ambition will make him a tyrant who destroys the Roman Republic. The tragedy of the play is how Brutus's noble intentions ultimately plunge the kingdom into chaos and destruction, everything he hoped to avoid by eliminating Caesar.

In this adaptation, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Brutus is played by James Mason. He is convinced by Cassius (John Gielgud) that Caesar (Louis Calhern) means to become king and must die if the republic is to survive. After much soul-searching, Brutus joins with the conspirators, and the assassination occurs. However, Mark Antony (Marlon Brando), over Caesar's corpse, turns public opinion against the conspirators, driving the kingdom into civil war.

The film is in the tradition of both Shakespeare's work and the Hollywood sword-and-sandal epic. Monologues and soliloquys are performed uninterrupted by voiceover or cuts, and the emphasis is on the performance. At the same, Mankiewicz employs the freedom of film to suggest a larger scope than possible if this were a theater production. Vast crowds of people gather in the city square for Caesar's funeral, soldiers line the street, and the big battle at the end involves hundreds of men falling upon each other in a vast, outdoor valley.

That said, Mankiewicz, unlike Orson Welles or Roman Polanski in other adaptations, doesn't do much create a memorable look or atmosphere for the film. Thinking back on the movie, I'm hard pressed to think of any images or visual sequences that stood out. There are entrances and exits and staging, but it just feels as if Mankiewicz is directing traffic: efficient and workman-like but nothing stellar.

While the visual component might be mediocre, the performances are top of the line. Mason excels as the tortured Brutus who wants to do the right thing for his country, even at the cost of his love for Caesar. Also very good is Gielgud as Cassius who has you believing every word when he says Caesar must die.

And I can't neglect to mention Brando. I'm so used to seeing him in his fat, old, indifferent persona of later roles that's it's easy to forget he was once a dynamic, young actor. He has a commanding presence here, and you always notice him when he walks into a room. When he intones, "Friends, Romans, and Countrymen, lend me your ears," you listen.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Coriolanus (2011)

Coriolanus (2011), the directorial debut of its star Ralph Fiennes, is an oddity for me in that it's the first time I've seen a movie based on a play by William Shakespeare that I have not read the text of nor been familiar with the plot. Because it's a tragedy, I knew it would not end happily for our hero, but unlike other plays, I can't really speak to what's been cut out or re-arranged.

Roman general Caius Martius (Fiennes) is blamed by the general population for hardship in the city resulting from war between Rome and Volsci. The Volscian Army is led by Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), who Martius has fought many times, and in their latest battle, Martius captures the city of Corioles. Dubbed Coriolanus for his victory and courage, Martius is encouraged to run for consul within the senate, much to the dismay of two tribunes, Brutus (Paul Jesson) and Sicinius (James Nesbitt). Manipulated into publically displaying his contempt for the common people and the idea of popular rule, Martius is exiled and deemed a traitor. With nowhere else to turn, he goes to his hated enemy Aufidius, and the two plan to attack Rome. When the pleas of a senator, Menenius (Brian Cox), fail to dissuade Martius, his wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain) and mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) go to reason with him.

Even without having previously read the play or seen any other adaptation, I found the plot of Coriolanus familiar. The political backstabbing  and manipulation of public opinion is reminiscent of Julius Caesar; the warfare, violence, and revenge bare a resemblance to Titus Andronicus; and the Roman setting  was previously used in both.

The stylistic approach Fiennes brings as director is similar to what Ian MacKellan and Richard Loncraine brought to their version of Richard III. In that film, the classic usurper was envisioned as a Nazi-like fascist dictator, and the setting changed to a pre-World War II environment. In Coriolanus, the story is modernized to a decidedly post-9/11, post-Iraq War world. Important speeches and exposition are transmitted via the 24-hour broadcast media, the plebeians have their iPhones out to capture video of footage of riots, the soldiers carry M-16s and AK-47s like they're going door-to-door in Baghdad, and civil uprisings are quelled by police officers with tear gas, shields, and batons. One TV image reveals that Martius has suspended civil liberties. This is a tragedy for the age of no privacy.

That lack of privacy might be why Martius is perhaps the least introspective of Shakespeare's protagonist. Hamlet, MacBeth, King Lear, and so many others got these beautiful soliloquies and monologues that really delved inside their minds and souls and showed how they saw themselves and how they saw the world. With Coriolanus, what you see is what you get: a good soldier with an elitist attitude and disdain for mincing his words. He says what he feels, and that lack of tact gets him into trouble. Anything he says is available for broadcast and dissemination and can be used against him. One minute, you're a hero, and the next, you're a villain.

Thematically, this keeps the movie more relevant with modern times, but at the same time, it makes Coriolanus the character rather flat. He's a flawed individual whose consistency and sense of honor are admirable, but there's little emotional resonance to his downfall (though he is granted one moment of humanity near the end). It's hard to feel for a guy whose joy in life is fighting and who dislikes common people, and he doesn't really change.

Performances cannot be faulted. Fiennes does very well in the self-directed role: stoic, a competent military man, a man always at home on the battlefield but at a loss in the halls of government. His rage is at times frightening and always intense, especially when he lashes out at those who have banished him. Butler is also good; his Aufidius is more of a populist guerilla leader, more in control of his emotions than his long-time rival and savvier. Of the rest of the cast, Redgrave fairs best as the one person who can reason with her son while Cox does well in a rare non-villain role.

Coriolanus plays like a modern action thriller. It's fast paced and exciting and has some stellar performances. Fiennes demonstrates a fair degree of talent behind the camera that matches his skills in front of it, but he also illustrates how the Bard can also play well with modern audiences and resonate, even if the tragedy isn't felt.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Henry V (1989)

Perhaps a good reason the work of William Shakespeare remains celebrated today is its versatility, or at least it possesses enough ambiguity to allow different adapters to put their own spins on the material. Take Henry V for example. One reading of the text offers a celebration of war and nationalism, placing a glorious and patriotic spin on the King of England's conquest of France; this was certainly the case with Laurence Olivier's version, filmed during World War II when British morale needed a boost that would bring the country together during a dark, uncertain time .

Then there's this 1989 adaptation, the directorial debut of star Kenneth Branagh. While his King Henry is no less rousing, the contradictions of the play remain at the forefront. War here is not a noble adventure and duty but an exhausting, bloody, and filthy enterprise fought for murky reasons and uncertain reward. Branagh buries his camera in a sea of men and horse, and the effect is appropriately overwhelming, chaotic, and intense as blood and rain wash over the combatants.

Henry V follows Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II. The irresponsible, roguish Prince Hal of England has become the mature, thoughtful King Henry V (Branagh). After being advised that he is the rightful ruler of France, Henry presses his claim against the French court, only for his demand to be scoffed at. In response, Henry leads his army overseas in a declaration of war to claim his right by force. His army captures the city of Harfleur, and Henry and his men advance toward Calais. All this builds to a titanic battle between a massive French army and Henry's starved, sickly band on the fields of Agincourt.

That's the bare-bones plot. Keep your eyes peeled for a number of familiar of faces in a number of subplots and side stories. Derek Jacobi plays a decidedly modern chorus who introduces the film and transitions us from one act to the next, Ian Holm is the grizzled Welsh captain Fluellen, Brian Blessed is Henry's uncle the Duke of Exeter, Robbie Coltrane (in the role he was born to play) is the boisterous John Falstaff (sadly limited to flashbacks from the previous plays), Judi Dench is Mistress Quickly, Paul Scofield is King Charles of France, Emma Thompson plays Princess Katherine, Christian Bale is a boy in the English army, and more. Most of the performances are quite good. Really good is Scofield as the king who suffers as his country bleeds, and so is Holm as the tough man-at-arms who gets one of the saddest moments of the play post-battle. Dench and Coltrane are really good in their brief parts, but their characters had more to do in the previous plays; their presence feels like extended cameos.

Of course, discussion of performances can't exclude Branagh himself (nominated for an Oscar as both actor and director). This is nobleman who can lead men into battle. His "Once more unto the breach" speech to his troops at Harfleur is delivered in front of a castle gate as explosions go off behind him and his horse rears; it's an unforgettable image that's matched by Branagh's fiery delivery that the audience is ready to charge off with him. Later, before the climactic battle at Agincourt, his "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers" monologue is enough to swell the heart with patriotic fervor. Greatly helping is a bombastic, stirring score by Patrick Doyle, performed by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

Branagh's Henry gets the audience to believe in the justness of his cause even when events around him seem to undermine the nobility. The claim that Henry is owed France is pressed onto him by church officials who know a good war will distract the king from passing a law that financially impacts the church; Henry might believe his own cause, but those that goaded him have ulterior motives. Meanwhile, Henry's old drinking buddies - Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol - engage in thievery. Bardolph robs a church, and the others loot corpses. At Harfleur, Henry forces the town to surrender when he threatens to have his soldiers rape the women and massacre the children.

Unlike the previous posts in Shakespeare month, Henry V strikes a much better balance between being a cinematic experience that can be enjoyed by those unfamiliar with Shakespeare and a traditional theater showcase for strong performances. It's not perfect. A few conversations will be hard to decipher for those not familiar with the text, and after the epic battle and a sweeping unbroken shot of Henry carrying a dead child across the war-torn field (which would have been a perfect place to end the film), the film continues for another twenty minutes after we've been exhausted by the fight and drags on with Henry's courtship of Princess Katherine (straight from the play but still pretty lame). But all in all, those looking to explore the Bard's work for the first time, this would be a great place to start.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Othello (1952)

Orson Welles' 1952 film adaptation of William Shakespeare's Othello was less of a production than a miracle. Filmed in bits and pieces over three years, the movie began shooting in 1948 and was plagued by financial woes, a common hazard for Welles' directorial efforts post-Citizen Kane. Filming ground to a halt a number of times as money ran out, forcing Welles to leave his actors stranded on location while he traveled elsewhere to raise funds by appearing in other people's movies. Actors dropped out and were replaced, a scene would begin in Morocco and end in Rome, and there were a multitude of technical and logistical problems along the way. All that aside, the question remains: was the result worth the effort?

Othello is the tragedy of Othello (here played by Welles), an accomplished general in Venice and a Moor who elopes with the beautiful Desdemona (Suzanne Cloutier), much to the dismay of her father, Brabantio (Hilton Edwards). Othello's most trusted officer is Iago (Micheal MacLiammoir), but Othello does not realize that the seemingly honest Iago secretly despises him. Through cunning and manipulation, he convinces Othello that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him with another officer, Cassio (Michael Laurence).

By definition, tragic heroes are brought down by their own flaws. If MacBeth's fatal flaw was his ambition, then Othello's is his jealousy. Early on, he says of Desdemona, "My life upon her faith," but sadly, it doesn't take much to convince him he's been cuckolded: some innuendo, a misplaced handkerchief, the lies of Iago, and some circumstantial evidence. Yes, Iago is undeniably the villain of the piece, a shrewd calculating piece of work, but Othello provides him a willing weapon for his evil. Iago doesn't walk up and stab Othello in the heart; he gets him to do the deed himself willingly.

For those looking for a faithful and complete adaptation of the Bard's work, look elsewhere. Whether by the haphazard nature of the filming or by Welles' artistic decisions, the movie, clocking in at little over 90 minutes in running time, omits much of the original text and condenses and/or rearranges a number of passages (most notably, Iago's "I hate the Moor" soliloquy is reduced to a one-sentence voiceover). Even less so than Roman Polanski's MacBeth, the focus is not on the acting and the language. Because the dialogue was dubbed in later, Welles stages many of the scenes where the lips of the actors are obscured and sometimes even their faces, so as to hide the effect, although the mismatch between lips and words is quite obvious a number of times.

Poor dubbing is not the only technical flaw in the film. The editing is all over the place at times, jarring and confusing. This is the restored version of the film from 1992, and some of the music and sound effects feel out of place. Plus, Welles, despite achieving a better makeup effect than any other actor in the role, is still quite clearly a white man in blackface.

All that said, I'd still highly recommend this version of Othello. Bringing to mind Citizen Kane and any number of film noirs influenced by German Expressionism, the movie is told through shadows and camera angles. Characters appear and speak through bars, looking like they're trapped in prisons. Figures are dwarfed by massive stone sets that look ready to crush them. The sea batters the coastline with a fury that matches Othello's, and when Othello collapses, convinced of Desdemona's unfaithfulness, the squawking of seagulls transforms in the mocking laughs of onlookers. The most haunting and memorable moment occurs when Othello, shrouded in darkness so only his seemingly disembodied head remains visible (not unlike Col. Kurtz), speaks  as he prepares to murder his wife.

Strictly speaking as a story told through visuals, Othello ranks among Welles's best work as a director, even if the movie itself isn't necessarily one of the better Shakespeare adaptations.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

MacBeth (1971)

This will be the first entry of Shakespeare Month, in which every entry on this blog throughout May will be Shakespeare-related. Why May? I recently returned from a trip to England where I went to Stratford-upon-Avon, visited Shakespeare's childhood home, and saw the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of As You Like It, and I'm feeling inspired after it all.

MacBeth is considered to be one of William Shakespeare's four great tragedies (the other three being Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear). It is the tale of ambitious Scottish lord MacBeth who after being told by three witches that he will become king, is goaded by Lady MacBeth into murdering King Duncan. When the deed is done and MacBeth becomes king, he resorts to increasingly tyrannical and mad behavior to retain his uneasy grip on the crown, inciting hatred and retribution from his subjects.

This 1971 adaptation of the play arrives directed by Roman Polanski, his first film production since the murder of his wife Sharon Tate and their unborn child by Charles Manson's followers in1969. I bring that up because it's kind of the elephant in the room; it's practically impossible to watch this version of MacBeth and not at least suspect that Polanski was working out some personal issues by making it. The violence is ramped up, the atmosphere is one of doom and gloom, and the catharsis inherent in the Bard's tragedies has been replaced by nihilism, despair, and corruption. This is not the story about a nobleman's downfall but of a nasty, paranoid lunatic who gets what he deserved.

Plays by their nature are bound by the limitations of the stage. One set has to serve as multiple locations, entrances and exits have to be accounted for, and dialogue has to explain offstage events. Polanski, as he has proven on numerous occasions, is a master filmmaker, and he uses the freedom and technique of the cinema to tell his story. Theatre is often built on language and performance, but this MacBeth is dependent on direction, production design, and cinematography. Imagery, not words, rules.

Unlike a play, the film is shot on location in the rain-swept landscape. The sky is filled with storm clouds, rain pounds the terrain, and the sun, when it appears, which is not often, is blood red. This is not the beautiful, majestic Scotland of Braveheart or Rob Roy with its rolling, sweeping green fields and rivers; it's a dank, depressing, barren, empty wasteland full images of death and hardship. After the witches open the movie with an ominous spell, we see the results of a battle. Corpses are strewn about, one survivor is flogged to death when he moves, and we first see MacBeth in the foreground as a line of traitors are hung in the background.

Polanski also makes extensive use of special effects to depict the more fantastical elements of the play. Banquo's (Martin Shaw) ghost becomes a bloodied corpse that shambles through the frame and quickly vanishes into thin air. MacBeth's visions when he visits the witches are a hallucinogenic nightmare of frightening imagery that drown the screen: a baby removed bloodily from the womb, a knight in a suit of armor crumbling into nothingness, and a series of mirrors reflecting an unending line of kings that will usurp MacBeth.

Little in the film offers solace or comfort. MacBeth (Jon Finch)  is not merely a dishonest man who cheats his way into the monarchy; the film suggests most of the figures are corrupt swine, backstabbers, and scheming opportunists. The coronation scene wordlessly plays out like some Pagan ritual, the white-clothed MacBeth lifted on a wooden shield in a circle of hooded followers (with his beard, Finch looks a bit like Manson). Malcolm (Stephan Chase), the rightful heir to Duncan, is less of an avenger looking to take back what's his and is more of a weakling who hides from turmoil. Even a minor character, Ross, who in the play only had a few lines to convey information to the other characters, becomes an opportunistic villain, who is privy to MacBeth's scheme, carries out his orders, and betrays him when denied a promotion.

While the text is Shakespeare, Polanski and his co-writer Kenneth Tynan made some additions. Consider the murder of Duncan. In the play, this occurs off-stage, suggested by MacBeth's dialogue and the blood on his hands and daggers. In the film, we see MacBeth enter the king's chamber and stand over the sleeping monarch (Nicolas Selby), hesitant until Duncan awakens and sees the blade. The scene is built on tight closeups of both MacBeth and the sleeping Duncan and then becomes frantic when MacBeth strikes. There's a callback to this scene later when MacBeth, now king, has a nightmare in which Banquo holds him down for his son Fleance (Keith Chegwin) to murder him in a similar fashion.

Perhaps the most significant addition is the coda that occurs after MacBeth is killed. Donalbain (Paul Shelley), Malcolm's brother and Duncan's other son, visits the hearth of the same witches, and we remember seeing Donalbain look upset earlier when his father declared Malcolm the Prince of Cumberland, suggesting the cycle of violence and deceit will continue.

MacBeth has always been one of Shakespeare's more violent plays (perhaps topped only by Titus Andronicus), and Polanski piles on the bloodshed, pushing the film into the realm of a graphic horror film. There's no glamor or excitement in the swordplay or murders, just people being hurt and mutilated, including children. The murder of MacDuff's family in particular is a sad, gruesome affair, the mocking tone of the killers contrasting against the fright of Lady MacDuff as she watches her son die and finds the bodies of her other children (reportedly Polanski staged this sequence after his memories of the Nazis storming his home in Poland when he was a child).

This all-oppressive atmosphere of despair, bloodshed, and nihilism makes for fascinating, if depressing, filmmaking, but it tends to bury the power of Shakespeare's words. While most of the acting by Finch, Francesa Annis as Lady MacBeth, and the others is competent enough, Polanski miscalculates by having a number of the soliloquies portrayed in part or entirely as voiceovers, which deflates their power. Instead of showing how the tragic flaw of a man led to his demise, the film concentrates on the gore. From a technical standpoint, the film is a standout, but from an emotional standpoint, there's little to be moved by.