SHAKESPEARE ON FILM

Shakespeare On Film was published in 2010. I had planned to follow it up with a second edition, correcting errors, improving the indexing, and bringing it up to date: but life has got in the way, and the research and writing I've been able to do have not kept pace with the production of new Shakespearean films.

I've therefore decided to post entries on films not included in the original here, so that my readers can at least catch up. This will not include not only post-2010 releases, but also updated articles on films I hadn't managed to see when compiling the first edition.

 

Watch this space! 

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Romeo and Juliet (1911, U.S.A., black and white, silent)

Directed by Barry O’Neil

Starring: George Lessey, Julia M. Taylor

Estimated runtime: 30 minutes

   Thanhouser’s Romeo and Juliet was made in two reels: but, owing to technical considerations, the reels were released separately, “so constructed that each tells a complete story”[1] according to Moving Picture World; it was widely agreed that having extra space in which to tell the story made it a considerable improvement over earlier, more confined efforts. This seems dubious: the second reel (the only one which survives) not only drops the viewer abruptly into the story shortly before the death of Mercutio, but proceeds to leap from one dramatic moment to the next with little concern for covering the ground between them. Duels and family rows last seconds only, and it is difficult to imagine a viewer unfamiliar with the play being much better able to follow the plot here than in some films half as long.

   The sets and costumes are certainly striking, only the interior of the Capulet tomb failing to convince (especially as, Tardis-like, it seems to be larger than the outside): though the thirty-something stars do not look like teenagers, and George Lessey in particular overplays the manic, staring Romeo. A curiously jovial, uncredited Tybalt wears a highly implausible moustache, while David Andrada’s Paris bears a confusing resemblance to Tybalt. The stand-out performance is probably that of Mrs George W. Walters as a fussy, hobbling Nurse: full of warmth, she displays a more convincing show of love than either of the principals.

 

[1] Ball, Shakespeare on silent film, p. 70.

Romeo e Giulietta (1912, Italy, tinted, silent)

Based on Romeo and Juliet

A.k.a. Romeo and Juliet (UK.; U.S.A.)

Directed by Ugo Falena

Starring: Gustavo Serena, Francesca Bertini, Ferruccio Garavaglia

Runtime: 37 minutes

   Film d’ Arte Italiana’s longest and most ambitious Shakespeare adaptation was also perhaps its least faithful – though, despite nods to the early Italian sources, it bears if anything less resemblance to them than to the play. This film’s Romeo and Juliet (Gustavo Serena and Francesca Bertini) are already secret lovers before the story begins; the street brawl which opens the play happens after the Capulet ball, as a result of Romeo’s infiltration; but the greatest change is wrought by cutting out Count Paris. Since Juliet still needs a rival suitor, Tybalt (Ferruccio Garavaglia) supplies this place – which means that he cannot die when his original does, and Romeo is exiled merely for wounding him.

   Mercutio, too, is absent, forcing Romeo to be a much more active, even aggressive, protagonist – sneaking into the ball is his own idea, and he accepts Tybalt’s challenge after a little goading instead of only after his friend’s death. With both these deaths excised, a lot of the impact is missing from the play; Romeo’s banishment seems like a reversible misfortune, and tragedy does not truly strike until the final minutes.

   Many smaller changes seem equally unnecessary – the Nurse, for instance, is aware that Juliet’s death is faked; Romeo kills himself with his dagger rather than poison – and it is difficult not to be annoyed at the way the film weakens the play. (It also incorporates a more venerable revision, in having Juliet awake before her husband is quite dead. This has been an occasional practice since the Restoration era and is still sometimes seen today.)

   What, however, of the production? On the design front, Film d’ Arte certainly delivered. The fifteenth century sets and costumes are, despite Romeo’s unfortunate resemblance in dress and hairstyle to Richard III, quite gorgeous, the location shooting exquisite, and the tinting expertly done. The acting is patchier: Bertini brings all her usual delicacy and feeling to Juliet, but this serves only to point up her co-star’s lack of subtlety, while Garavaglia’s oily Tybalt never feels enough of a threat. Nevertheless, this remains a well made film: one can only wish they had not committed such violence upon the source material.

Romeo und Julia im Schnee (1920, Germany, black and white, silent)

Based on Romeo and Juliet

A.k.a. Romeo and Juliet in the Snow (international English title)

Directed by Ernst Lubitsch

Starring: Lotte Neumann, Gustav von Wangenheim, Jacob Tiedtke, Julius Falkenstein

Runtime: 46 minutes

   Lubitsch’s farcical reworking of Romeo and Juliet is set in a nineteenth century Alpine village at dead of winter. The feuding families, their names Germanised as “Montekugerl” and “Capulethofer”, are established in a nine minute prologue as vexatious litigants with an unresolved case (after both have attempted to bribe the judge (Paul Biensfeldt) with sausages, which he weighs in the scales of his figurine of Justice).

   Much of the film is slapstick, replete with trips and falls and snowball fights substituting for the deadlier combats of the play;  fights are conducted with snowballs; the Paris figure (Moser: Julius Falkenstein) is a childish simpleton. This makes the sudden veer into darker territory, with Capulethofer’s (Jacob Tiedtke) violence towards his daughter and threat to “cut off her hair” (evoking, in the shadow of war, the punishment of collaborators), extremely unnerving and out-of-place. Moreover, there is no false news of death – the lovers (Lotte Neumann and Gustav von Wangenheim) enter a fully premeditated suicide pact. The apothecary (uncredited), noting the meaningful glance they exchange on his breezily remarking “Pay me some other time,” substitutes sugared water for the poison: cue much puzzlement (“Are you dead yet?”), after which they deliberately play dead when their families find them, Capulethofer actually lifting and dropping a completely limp Julia. Only after the enemies have reconciled do they leap up and shout “Surprise!”.

   Theodor Sparkuhl’s location shooting is handsomely managed, and the costumes at the Capulethofers’ masked ball (Romeo appropriately clad as a Renaissance gallant, Moser – whose costume he later steals to woo Julia under her parents’ noses – as a very effeminate angel, and the uncredited Tybalt as an absurd Wagnerian Siegfried who slices bread with a broadsword) have been justly praised.

Yi jian mei (1931, China, black and white, silent)

Based on The Two Gentlemen of Verona

A.k.a. A Spray of Plum Blossoms

Directed by Wancang Bu

Starring: Lingyu Ruan, Cho-cho Lam, Yan Jin, Cilong Wang, Guilin Wang

Runtime: 114 minutes

   A Spray of Plum Blossoms transfers the story of Two Gentlemen to Kuomintang China, turning the titular duo into cadets at the Whampoa Military Academy. Nationalist ideology is on display from the beginning: Valentine (Hu Luting: Yan Jin) is a model cadet, Proteus (Bai Lede: Cilong Wang) a lazy dandy with a waxed moustache, his kitbox full of glamour photos of American film stars. (The English title cards refer to most characters by their Shakespearean names.) Luting’s first line is to admonish his comrade:

   “This is time for us to serve the country: we should refrain from being ruined by perfumes and girls.”

   He is clearly under far fewer illusions regarding Bai Lede’s character than his Shakespearean counterpart, but does not let this stop him introducing his fellow cadet to the reluctant Zhuli (Julia: Lingyu Ruan, one of China’s biggest stars before hounding by the gutter press drove her to suicide in 1935), who in this version is his sister, when he needs a favour from Lede.

   This favour – a letter of introduction to the Governor of Guangdong (Guilin Wang filling the role of the Duke), who happens to be Bai Lede’s uncle – is the first hint of scepticism about the system. It is never allowed to be made explicit – the happy ending, indeed, will involve the pardoned bandits joining the Army and the four reconciled lovers inspecting a huge parade (the most impressive of many in the film). But along the way we have seen the Governor falsify charges in a court martial; rampant nepotism; a brutal, arrogant, and classist military police force; and no doubt at all that the bandits, even before Luting imposes his rules of conduct on them, are justified in their opposition to the Governor’s rule. However much the film may shy away from confronting it directly, something is rotten in Guangdong. Yet the Governor is never punished, or even genuinely defied by Silvia (Shi Luohua: Cho-cho Lam as a “maiden… with the spirit of masculinity”, apparently meaning that she can ride a horse). In this version, she has not planned any elopement with Valentine / Luting, instead merely asking Proteus to intervene to prevent her forced marriage to Thurio (Liao Di’ao: Zhanfei Gao). The elopement is Lede’s lie to get his rival out of the way.

   The complexities of the text are hardly addressed by Yicuo Huang’s script either. This Proteus not only threatens but actually attempts the rape of Silvia, before the confrontation in the forest, being thwarted only by the arrival of Di’ao: but he is readily forgiven, despite having shown little sign of any redeeming qualities. The threat in the forest becomes one of suicide, but it seems less a gesture of remorse than of melodramatic self-pity.

   The plum blossom of the title is a distinctly overused motif. Luohua is so obsessed with the flower that even the windows of her rooms are modelled after its cinquefoil form. That the Governor fails to recognise a plum-blossom pin as belonging to his daughter, or to connect the bandits’ adoption of the flower as their emblem with his banishment of her lover, strains credulity to breaking point.

   None of this, however, prevents Yi jian mei from being a reasonably enjoyable film. The characters may be broad-brush and simplistic, but they are competently portrayed and fun to watch; Shaofen Huang’s wide shots of Guangdong’s landscape are pretty; Luohua’s dashing horseback escape and the adventures of the hooded, dart-throwing bandits provide some swashbuckling fun once we get away from the Governor’s headquarters. And if the unearned redemption of Proteus leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, that is frequently the case with productions of the original text. It is a cartoonified version of the play, but, judged as such, not a disappointing one.

Gunasundari Katha (1949, India, black and white)

Based on King Lear

Directed by Kadri Venkata Reddy

Starring: Sriranjani, Govindrajulu Subba Rao, Kasturi Siva Rao, P. Santha Kumari, K. Malathi

Language: Telugu

Runtime: 172 minutes

   Described as “loosely based” on King Lear, this operatic offering from the king of Telugu cinema features parts for the Hindu gods (two of whom descend from the heavens on a flying throne during the opening sequence), a MacGuffin called the “Mahendramani Jewel”, secret passages, and the transformation of one character into a bear.[1] The title character (played by Sriranjani) is equivalent not to Lear (who was rendered by Govindrajulu Subba Rao, self-important and extravagantly mustachioed), but to Cordelia; and she is married off not to the King of France, but to a cheeky and whimsical beggar (comedian Kasturi Siva Rao, a light-hearted combination of the Fool and Poor Tom – with a touch of Gloucester, in an early sequence in which he pretends to be blind). By this point the play has been left some distance behind.

   While preparing the first edition of this encyclopedia I could find no evidence that the film had survived: it has, however, since surfaced, albeit unsubtitled. The differences from the play are such that it is not easy for a viewer ignorant of Telugu, as I am, to follow in detail: however, it does recognisably derive from Lear.

   Set in what looks like the Mughal era, it is richly designed and costumed by an art team led by Kudaravalli Nageshwara Rao, and very capably photographed by Marcus Bartley. The story is told in flashback, having begun with the exiled Gunasundari praying (in song, of course) in her little bamboo hut; it takes an age to reach the rejection scene, spending a good half hour depicting the royals as an apparently happy family. The pace remains as slow as this throughout.

   The mood is never that of Lear or any tragedy: instead, a positively jocular tone is maintained, especially in the many songs (by Pingali Nagendra Rao: individually diverting, but tending to bleed into one another and wearing badly long before the end of the film). The King’s misfortunes are reduced to a purely physical malady which leaves him bedridden for much of the film; the characters equivalent to Albany and Cornwall (G. Subba Rao and Relangi Venkatramaiah) are a clownish double act, and the entire middle section of the film owes more to the more fantastical reaches of Indian romance than to the play. It need hardly be said that, returning briefly to Lear for a rendition of the reconciliation in Act Four, Scene Seven, all ends happily.

 

[1] Rajadhyaksha, Ashish, and Willemen, Paul, Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema (London, 1994), p. 292.

Io, Amleto (1952, Italy, black and white)

Based on Hamlet

Directed by Giorgio Simonelli

Starring: Erminio Macario, Luigi Pavese, Rossana Podestà, Giuseppe Porelli

Language: Italian

Runtime: 103 minutes

   When the celebrated Italian comic actor Erminio Macario founded Macario Film, he presumably intended it to produce more than one picture. However, the financial and critical failure of its debut offering, Hamlet spoof Io, Amleto, sank the company. It is not hard to see why.

   The opening credits are accompanied by a cartoon image of Macario as Hamlet – a single, static figure, announcing that the treatment of the play will not be serious, but completely failing to introduce humour in the way that an animated sequence or a series of caricatures of the major characters might have done. Its initial appearance raises expectations of a zany opening which are immediately dashed by its tedious persistence, a sign of what is to come.

   Although touches such as the doggerel narration and the absurd sycophancy of Claudius’ (Luigi Pavese) courtiers add some non-Macario-centred humour, the film is entirely a vehicle for the camp clowning of the star, as Hamlet evades the King’s repeated assassination attempts and a coterie of republican revolutionaries; makes cowering excuses to the Ghost (also Pavese), indulges in his slapstick wooing of Ophelia (a radiant Rossana Podestà, at the beginning of her career and an uncomfortable casting choice given that she was 32 years younger than Macario), involving not one but two unnecessary parodies of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet; and fools about with a catapult.

   (The catapult is an interesting example of how the film fails on its own and external terms. Its presence on the castle walls is clearly not meant to be logical, but dictated by the demands of humour – but where a more engaging film would have carried the audience along too quickly to notice the machine’s pointlessness,[1] Io, Amleto simply leaves the viewer wondering what on earth it is doing there.)

   Unfortunately, I found the over-the-top Macario entirely unfunny. (The blocking and Nino Baragli’s editing contribute to the film’s slow pace, but are largely typical of the era, and can hardly be blamed for the end result when so many other 1950s comedies have worn so much better. Later in his career, given more serious material for which majestic pacing was appropriate, Baragli would collaborate with the likes of Leone and Pasolini to stunning effect.) By the end, when a conveniently placed wrecking ball – apparently hanging from the sky – knocks Claudius off the battlements to his death, his ghost kneels to his brother’s, and they ride off into the sky together, leaving Hamlet and Ophelia to assume leadership of the triumphant republicans, it was a struggle to care about his antics at all.

 

[1] It is an offensive siege weapon, useless in the defensive position it occupies, especially since the castle has plenty of cannon which would do any task a catapult could rather better; and this particular catapult would almost certainly be equally useless offensively, given that the “boulders” it hurls can be easily picked up and thrown just as far by the feeble Prince.

Hamlet (1954, India, black and white)

Directed by Kishore Sahu

Starring: Kishore Sahu, Mala Sinha, Hiralal, Pradeep Kumar, Shreenath

Language: Hindi

Runtime: 118 minutes

   Filmindia gave this production an astonishingly vitriolic review, in which “stupid” and “stinking selfishness”[1] were among the milder criticisms. Naturally this left me curious to see it, but as of 2010 it was not available in full.

   I have since managed to view the film. Despite a certain amount of outdoor shooting, there is a stage-bound feel to it, a result of never-quite-convincing sets and static blocking and shooting: the entire court spends the whole of Act One, Scene Two sat around a table. Art director V. Jadhav seems to have had some interesting design ideas, combining low-key Indian elements in the sets with the European look of the (much richer) costumes: but the cheap look of the set construction undermines the effectiveness of this. (It is possible that this contrast actually reflects a divide between Jadhav’s style and that of costume adviser John Regan.)

   The performances are similarly variable. Several feel severely under-directed, often merely staring into the middle distance while they wait for their cues – Venus Banerji as Gertrude is the worst offender on this count, but far from the only one. One gets the distinct impression that Sahu was too busy throwing himself into his own manic performance as Hamlet, and showcasing the singing talents of Mala Sinha as Ophelia, to give his other actors the attention they needed.

   Although the film is not a musical in the grand Indian style – there are no choruses or dance numbers until the appearance of the Grave Diggers (T. N. Charlie and Ramlal) – many songs are incorporated, mostly for Sinha. “Tomorrow is St Valentine’s Day” is replaced with a traditional Hindi piece from the nineteenth century, reprised many times and unfortunately helping to make Ramesh Naidu’s score inappropriately upbeat for much of the film. Sinha’s melodramatic acting style does not help matters, especially since her confrontation with Hamlet in Act Three, Scene One is multiplied into three separate scenes, one of them taking place after the murder of Polonius (S. Nazir)! Yet another full length song leads up to her suicide, in a shimmering lake with ducks paddling by.

   None of her songs, however, feels as out of place as the thoroughly modern piece to which the two Grave Diggers prance about, completely ignoring their work. Moving from this sequence straight into the quiet, sombrely lit skull scene is a mood wrench likely to induce whiplash.

   Ophelia’s extra scenes are not the only alterations to the script. Some are relatively minor: Sahu was hardly the first or last adaptor to cut out Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, let alone Fortinbras; Gertrude’s complicity in her first husband’s murder, and Hamlet’s ambition for the throne, are often read into the text, and it is a small step further to make them explicit. Making the Players young children (Rattan and Rajdeep) is unexpected but not ineffective. Moving the play-within-the-play to immediately before the duel scene, however, is a bizarre decision. Much of what should come after this pivotal scene makes little sense when placed before it.

   The duel itself is undermined by the contrast between Gertrude’s exaggerated concern (long before there is any reason for her to believe Hamlet is in danger) and the Prince’s nonchalance: and the extraordinary decision to end the film with a trumpeter playing the Last Post is liable to make the viewer laugh out loud. While Sahu’s Hamlet is not without redeeming features, one can, unfortunately, see Filmindia’s point.

 

[1] Quoted by Rothwell, Shakespeare on screen: An international filmography and videography (New York, 1990), p. 64.

Mnogo shuma iz nichego (1956, U.S.S.R., black and white)

Based on Much Ado About Nothing

Directed by Iosif Rapoport and Lev Zamkovoy

Starring: Yuri Lyubimov, Lyudmila Tselikovskaya, Nikolai Bubnov, Nadir Malishevsky, Yuliya Borisova

Language: Russian

Runtime: 89 minutes

   While Russia’s major studios were using Shakespeare as the source for elaborate spectacles, Zamkovoy’s recording of Rapoport’s production of Much Ado at the Evgeni Vachtangov Theatre in Moscow fell under the radar – so much so that it was until recently thought to have been lost.

   The opening of the film is remarkably cinematic: under the credits, Don Pedro’s messenger gallops along the Sicilian coast to Messina to deliver the news of his master’s approach. However, this is the only location shot in the entire picture: and its dynamic movement and dramatic scenery serves only to highlight the fact that what follows is a stage-bound production. That is not a fault: Rapoport could not help being confined to one set, and it is a very pretty set in a suitably Mediterranean neoclassical style, cleverly decorated to differentiate the various scenes: but it is unfortunate. Decidedly static blocking and the failure to give background performers anything to do compounds the effect.

   The acting, too, shows the picture’s theatrical origins in the worst possible way: everybody plays to the back row without a hint of subtlety, while even in the most intimate scenes actors face out towards the audience with barely a glance at each other. Nor are the character interpretations attractive. It is difficult to tell who is the most self-satisfied as Yuri Lyubimov’s smirking Benedick preens himself, Lyudmila Tselikovskaya’s archly smug Beatrice flags up her own one-liners, and Nadir Malishevsky’s pompous, callous Claudio, barely distinguishable from A. Katsynsky’s Don Juan, succeeds in erasing the Count’s redeemability: but none of them is pleasant to be around. Always the characters seem to be self-consciously playing parts, and insufferably pleased with their own performances: this undermines even lighter scenes – the conspirators in Benedick’s deception hoot with laughter amid what is supposed to appear to Benedick as a serious conversation, and pointedly ignore a dropped book which would very obviously reveal his presence – but is fatal to the rejection scene. Instead of simmering anger and pain suddenly boiling over, we get a Claudio who has apparently planned every moment of it, crossing the line between the cruelty of a wounded heart and a cold-blooded sadism that makes it impossible to view the ending as happy. This Claudio can never deserve Hero. In its aftermath, Benedick’s declaration of love looks like nothing but showing off; while Beatrice merely seems bored. The reconciliation scene is even more badly bungled – the wronged family is taking nothing seriously, Antonio (Vladimir Pokrovskiy) prancing about under a veil, while Claudio seems more petulant than penitent.

   The production is not without merits. It is nicely designed by Rapoport and Yakov Feldman, even if the hats do postdate the rest of the costumes by a few decades; and capably, unfussily shot by Nikolai Prozorovsky. Its greatest strength, however, is Tikhon Khrennikov’s gentle, romantic score. This seems to have been realised by Rapoport, who added songs to the heavily cut text, including two serenade scenes with no warrant from Shakespeare, and ending the show in true Elizabethan style with a jig.

   Lyubimov left the Vachtangov in 1964, to found the Taganka Theatre, where – despite run-ins with the Soviet authorities – he would enjoy enormous success as a director until his resignation over a pay dispute in 2011, at the age of 93. He took with him a copy of the film, which would lie in the Taganka’s archive for nearly half a century. When I published the first edition of this encyclopedia, I could find no evidence of the picture’s survival: but in 2013, the Taganka print was released on the theatre’s official YouTube channel, free for the world to see.

Yavas gel güzelim (1963, Turkey, black and white)

Based on The Taming of the Shrew

Directed by Memduh Ün

Starring: Fatma Girik, Ayhan Isik, Hulusi Kentmen

Language: Turkish

Runtime: 86 minutes

   In my previous edition, I recorded this very loose update of the Shrew to 1960s Turkey as a lost film: but I have since been able to find a copy.

   The Baptista figure, Hulusi (Hulusi Kentmen[1] on fine moustache-bristling form), is a country landowner with not two but three daughters, whom he is determined to see married in a triple wedding. Unfortunately for her already happily attached sisters (the Lucentio-Bianca plot entirely disappears), Fatos (Fatma Girik) is a prank-obsessed tomboy who is first seen setting fire to an unwanted suitor’s shirt. Then Ayhan (Ayhan Isik), son of a family friend not seen in years, arrives on the scene.

   This is very much a light-hearted take on the play, or at least intended as such. Both Fatos’ early misdeeds and her later suffering are treated as harmless jokes, no matter how dangerous they would in fact be: at one point Fatos tries to avert the wedding by knocking out a man she has mistaken for Ayhan, sticking a large rock in the path of an oncoming train, and stuffing the unconscious body into an empty carriage when the train stops – and, not content with merely risking life and limb, actually attacks Ayhan with a kitchen knife on their wedding night; yet he laughs it off and the audience is expected to do the same. Compared to this, his spraying ink on her wedding dress and making her go without food seems relatively mild.

   Ayhan affects a fussy, camp persona to woo her, assuming a high-pitched voice and blinking rapidly behind his unflattering glasses – although she does get to see early on that he can hold his own in a fight against a man twice his size. Nevertheless, this characterisation fits well with the eccentricity that Petruchio demands.

   Until the day after the wedding, the film has followed the Petruchio-Kate plot of the play fairly closely: but then, shortly after discovering that Ayhan’s behaviour is an act, Fatos is kidnapped by gangsters who demand a ransom from her husband. While he is negotiating with them, she breaks out, and they escape together after a Wild West-style shootout; after their escape, Hulusi is startled to find them kissing passionately on the floor of his barn.

   Director Memduh Ün later went on to produce Intikam Melegi – Kadin Hamlet (1977), in which Girik also stars.

 

[1] Several characters have the actors’ real names.

A Herança (1970, Brazil, black and white)

Based on Hamlet

Directed by Ozualdo Ribeiro Candeias

Starring: David Cardoso, Zuleica Maria, Bárbara Fazio, Rosalvo Caçador, Deoclides Gouveia

Language: Portuguese

Runtime: 90 minutes

   Candeias’ remarkable A Herança is not quite like anything else – part self-consciously arty tribute to silent cinema, part visual accompaniment to a musical meditation on Hamlet, part deconstruction of the Western. The story is transferred to rural Brazil, the Danish royals becoming a wealthy farming family; the era is uncertain – costumes, the ubiquitous cowboy hats notwithstanding, could belong in 1970, but there is little other sign of the twentieth century, the lack of modern methods of transport and communication emphasising the extreme isolation of their community.

   The film opens with the funeral of the luxuriantly moustached “King” (Túlio de Lemos), the little ox-cart that transports his body along the rough hillside tracks framed against a bright sky while mournful blasts on a cow’s horn interrupt almost jaunty piano music, and Gertrudes (Bárbara Fazio) stumbles behind, clutching the large and ornate crucifix that she wears throughout the film.

   The sequence is drawn out, and sets the tone for the film to come: it is visually striking, with the Brazilian countryside lovingly but unsparingly shot (the film takes place entirely outdoors); the music (by Vidal França, Mario Litwin, and Fernando Lona) constant, the choices often surprising but seldom ill made; the pace is steady, even stately, without becoming dull; and there is almost no speech. The first line of spoken dialogue is “To be or not to be” – that one line, in English, addressed to the skull of an ox while a modern Brazilian guitar tune segues into “Greensleeves” – 34 minutes in; barring occasional monosyllabic grunts, it is almost the last. Instead, soliloquies and even snatches of conversation are shown in subtitle, and the only voices we hear are the singers on the soundtrack.

   After the funeral, Omeleto (David Cardoso) returns to find the village full of reminders of life’s continuation – parents dandling children on their knees, a mare suckling her foal – only to be driven further into isolation by his inability to accept this. The symbolism of life and death played out through the realities of a harsh rural existence is a favoured theme of Candeias’, and will be returned to again and again, to the point of repetitiveness.

   One of the most striking examples comes in Ofélia’s (Zuleica Maria) “flowers” scene. She carries two bundles of gourds, wrapped in blankets to resemble babies, and hands them to Gertrudes and Claudio (Rosalvo Caçador) – but not only is the scene shot so as not to reveal until she has left their presence that they are not actual infants, it is even accompanied with the very real sound of babies crying. When the children turn out not to be exist, it is as if something tangible has been lost.

   The treatment of Ofélia is both fascinating and problematic. She and Laerte (Deoclides Gouveia) – but, oddly, not Polônio (Américo Taricano) – are black, but despite the fact that they occupy an obviously subservient position on the estate little is made of this; the “doublet all unbraced” sequence, kept offstage in the play but shown here, is interpreted as a sexual assault, the manic Omeleto stripping off his shirt before throwing Ofélia bodily over his shoulder and carrying her off. This is certainly in keeping with her later breakdown and the imputation of pregnancy, but it’s hard not to find it unnecessary.

   From the first glimpse of the male characters’ hats in the funeral scene, the film is also in dialogue with the tropes and traditions of the Western. It is Claudio who wears the white hat of the hero to Omeleto’s villainous black; horses are seldom absent; Leone-esque extreme close-ups (including one bizarre shot of an extra picking his nose) are frequent; and gunplay abounds but is far more realistically messy than the conventions of the genre would dictate. Polônio is shot while out of sight; the heavies sent to apprehend Omeleto approach him with hands hovering gunslinger-style over their holsters, only for the scene to descend into a semi-farcical fistfight; Omeleto and Laerte, in their final wouldbe epic shootout, miss each other repeatedly, Gertrudes being killed by a stray bullet, before they end up resorting to a brutal wrestling match.

   The final sequence mirrors the first, as Omeleto’s shirtless corpse, arms outstretched Christ-like, is born away on a handcart. Fortinbras (Agnaldo Rayol) is a barely noticeable presence, and there is of course no closing speech. As the music finally dies away, the rest is indeed silence.

Faustão (1971, Brazil, colour)

Based on Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, and Henry V

A.k.a. Faustão: O Cangaceiro do Rei

Directed by Eduardo Coutinho

Starring: Eliezer Gomes, Jorge Gomes, Gracinda Freire, Anecy Rocha

Language: Portuguese

Runtime: 103 minutes

   Saga Filmes’ take on Falstaff is a “Nordestern”, set in the backlands of east-central Brazil in the early twentieth century. However, despite the occasional occurrence of character names such as “Silêncio” among Faustão’s followers, it bears only the slenderest of resemblances to its source material.

   Some very basic elements of the original plays remain. Henrique Pereira (Jorge Gomes) is a son of wealth and power who falls in with criminals on the margins of society, led by the charismatic, wine-loving Faustão (Eliezer Gomes), while his father (Colonel Pereira: Roberto Ney) is beset by enemies; he gets his new friends involved in his family’s struggle, against their better judgement; but when the Colonel dies and Henrique takes over his estate, he rejects his old friends, leading ultimately to Faustão’s death.

    The characters, however, are very different. The two initially meet when Faustão, a cangaceiro or social bandit (the alternate title calls him “the King’s outlaw”), rescues Henrique from an ambush by his enemies, only to hold him to ransom. Faustão is genuinely brave and generous, more so than Henrique; where Falstaff tries to steal Hal’s glory over the death of Hotspur, Faustão really is responsible for killing the Pereiras’ rival Colonel Araújo (Antonio Albuquerque). And he is not so stricken by Henrique’s rejection as to die from it – instead (echoing the rebel Sir John Oldcastle, whose career partly inspired the character of Falstaff), he ends up at war with the ungrateful Henrique, and ultimately dies in a hail of bullets. There is never anything remotely pitiable or pathetic about him – and he’s not even particularly fat.

   The film is handsomely shot by José Medeiros and José Antonio Ventura, although Luiz Carlos Ripper’s costumes occasionally lack period sense – the extravagant quasi-military get-up of the outlaws fits in the period, but more ordinary clothes often feel incongruously modern. Eliezer Gomes gives a fiery, impassioned performance as the bandit chief, well balanced by the more restrained Jorge Gomes. Although the film was marketed chiefly on the basis of its violence (which is not actually that extreme, at least by modern standards), it is an intelligent piece which holds its own. But it can barely be called Shakespeare.

Predstava “Hamleta” u selu Mrduši Donjoj (1973, Yugoslavia, colour)

Based on Hamlet

A.k.a. Acting Hamlet in the Village of Mrdusa Donja (international English title); A Village Performance of Hamlet (international English title)

Directed by Krsto Papić

Starring: Kresimir Zidaric, Rade Serbedzija, Milena Dravic

Language: Serbo-Croat

Runtime: 96 minutes

   Acting Hamlet… began life in 1971 as a play by Ivo Brešan, which, like Kozintsev’s 1964 film, played on the ambiguous status of Hamlet in Communist Eastern Europe (although Yugoslavia, unlike the Soviet Union, had never actually banned the play). A puffed-up local commissar (Bukara: Kresimir Zidaric) in rural Croatia in the late 1940s decides to stage a severely simplified amateur Hamlet to increase the prestige of his village, ignoring the misgivings of the schoolmaster he compels to direct the piece, and casting himself as Claudius. The commissar has recently framed a local man, a decorated war hero, for a theft in fact committed by his treasurer. By a coincidence which stretches credibility, the victim’s son Joco (Rade Serbedzija) is cast as the prince, and the treasurer as Laertes. Tensions mount through the rehearsals, until at last Joco’s father commits suicide on the night of the performance, and Joco, having forced a confession from the treasurer, stabs Bukara for real. On the wounded Bukara’s insistence, the post-performance feast and dance continues as if nothing has happened: he leads the ever more frenzied dancing while slowly bleeding to death.

  The film opens with an extended backwards shot from a moving train, showing a single track stretching out behind through the dry, dusty, empty countryside. The sound of the train will recur in tense moments, and it is on this track that Joco’s father will eventually lie down to die. This is our first taste of Vjenceslav Oreskovic’s rich cinematography, and the sophisticated way it is used to contrast the openness of the country into which our characters periodically escape (in the schoolmaster’s case, to recite “To be or not to be” in voiceover) with the grim, gloomy claustrophobia of the village, where the gossip of neighbours is as oppressive as the surveillance the Communist states shared with Elsinore.

   It has to be admitted that the script’s theatrical origins do show, and the many excessively talky scenes often threaten to drag in spite of Oreskovic’s visual flair and Zeljko Senecic’s earthy, vital design work. But the strong central performances, Djelo Jusic’s atmospheric score full of traditional Balkan influences, and in particular the slow burn of the final scene – from shocked silence after the on-stage brawl, to near silent eating, to the tortuously extended dance sequence, and ultimately Bukara’s collapse, takes several minutes – add up to a powerful production which brilliantly realises its grimy, rubble-strewn post-War setting.

  When this was combined with the implicit denunciation of the regime which lies at the heart of the film, it must have made for a powerful viewing experience for Yugoslavs in 1973. However, despite a favourable reception at the Berlin Film Festival and a limited international release, the film was little noticed outside Yugoslavia.

Komediya oshibok (1978, U.S.S.R., colour)

Based on The Comedy of Errors

A.k.a. The Comedy of Errors

Directed by Vadim Gauzner

Starring: Mikhail Kozakov, Mikhail Kononov, Olga Antonova, Natalya Danilova

Language: Russian

Runtime: 127 minutes

   Lenfilm’s lavish musical adaptation of The Comedy of Errors escaped my notice in the first edition, because it has been mistaken for a TV movie. It is, in fact, profoundly cinematic, richly photographed on some stunning locations: though Shakespeare’s bustling Ephesus has become a curiously rustic setting, with flocks of sheep wandering through the streets, and the Duke hearing court cases outdoors on a windswept hillside.

   Nobody, however, with the exception of Mikhail Kononov as the inanely grinning Dromio twins, seems to have been aware that they were making a comedy. Everyone else, from the mournful Mikhail Kozakov as the Antipholi to the languid Natalya Danilova as a Luciana wandering aimlessly about her vast house (Antipholus of Ephesus has certainly done well for himself), plays this most farcical work in the canon as straight-faced melodrama.

   The effect is bizarre. The violence inflicted on the Dromios by Adriana (Olga Antonova) and the Antipholi becomes grim instead of slapstick; Adriana’s jealousy, expressed in an impassioned musical number, is deadly serious; Nell (uncredited) weeps piteously at Dromio’s apparent rejection, most unlike her original.

   The pervasive seriousness is not the only curious element of the interpretation. Luciana acts as if she knows that Antipholus of Syracuse is not his brother, looking at him as if seeing him for the first time, and never hiding her attraction; they even share a kiss before his identity is revealed – and that revelation happens not in front of the Duke (an unexpectedly youthful Valeriy Matveev), but in the street before they meet him, with never a sign of Syracusan Antipholus’ failure to recognise his father (Aleksandr Alaznispiveli). This is an extraordinary omission in a production played as high drama, losing one of the most dramatic (and few utterly serious) moments in the play.

   In the same year, an actual television version of this play also adopted the musical format – Philip Casson’s adaptation of Trevor Nunn’s modern dress Royal Shakespeare Company production for A.T.V. Though stage-bound, it is bouncy, joyous, and full of life – a total contrast to the sombre Russian version. It is greatly superior.

Lyubovyu za lyubov (1983, U.S.S.R., colour)

Based on Much Ado About Nothing

Directed by Tatyana Berezantseva

Language: Russian

Starring: Leonid Yarmolnik, Larisa Udovichenko, Algis Arlauskas, Sergey Martynov, Anna Isaikina

Runtime: 79 minutes

   Ten years after Samson Samsonov’s Mnogo shuma iz nichego, Mosfilm returned to Much Ado About Nothing, this time as a musical bouncily scored by Tikhon Khrennikov. Despite being far more sumptuously designed than the earlier adaptation, this version too shows its budgetary constraints. After a single location scene (the arrival of the Princes’ train in Messina, travelling along a clifftop road by most unprincely cart), the film is entirely studio-shot until they depart the same way at the end.

   Although the opening credits roll over a series of late medieval images, many taken from Benozzo Gozzoli’s frescoes for Florence’s Magi Chapel (1459-61), the setting is firmly Elizabethan with occasional anachronisms. (Some are probably deliberate – sunglasses and cigarettes – others most likely not: for instance, both Princes wear hats that would not come into style until the 1620s.) Costumes are richly coloured and lovingly shot.

   Some of the scripting decisions are curious. Like the 1973 version, this film packs all the deceptions into a single night; and it is the men, not Hero (a demure Anna Isaikina) and Ursula, who arrange to be overheard by Beatrice (Larisa Udovichenko) – an unnecessary excision of the little agency Hero is allowed in the play. Others, such as allowing the duel of Benedick (Leonid Yarmolnik) and Claudio (Algis Arlauskas) to begin, and bringing in the Watchmen to observe the follies of their social betters during the ball scene then giving them the last word at the end of the film, work better. But all of the heavy cutting and sometimes breathless pace fail to give the film any sense of urgency. The fundamental problem is a cast who lack passion: the extremity of the circumstances is never really conveyed, and ultimately it all feels rather trivial.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1985, U.K. / Spain, colour)

A.k.a. Sueño de noche de verano (Spain)

Directed by Celestino Coronado

Starring: Lindsay Kemp, Jack Birkett, Michael Matou, Attilio Lopez

Runtime: 92 minutes

   Originally made for Spanish television in 1984, Coronado’s bizarre Dream began life as a British stage production, by the Lindsay Kemp Company. While on tour in Japan, it was filmed, shooting in less than two weeks entirely within a theatre: and, after a successful showing at the London Film Festival, it was released theatrically in the U.K.

   Kemp and Coronado seem to have been highly compatible artistically, and indeed had a number of regular collaborators in common. Kemp’s production is essentially a ballet to the wonderfully versatile score of Carlos Miranda[1], incorporating mime sequences, musical numbers based on the play, and occasional snippets of dialogue. Notably, the love-in-idleness plot is adapted so that Lysander (David Meyer) falls for Demetrius (David Brandon)[2] and Hermia (Annie Huckle) for Helena (Cheryl Heazlewood).

   The film is entirely dominated by a very dark and sinister set of fairies, in particular by Kemp himself, playing Puck as a cruel and manipulative puppet-master – far more in control of events than in the play, he more nearly resembles a malevolent Ariel than Robin Goodfellow. Puck is almost never offstage, and, outside the play-within-the-play (when a burlesque Romeo and Juliet is substituted for Pyramus and Thisbe), nearly all the spoken and sung lines belong to fairy characters. The changeling boy (François Testory, who also plays Snout) spends much more time on screen than is usual, an androgynous figure, pitiably torn between the tyrannical and terrifying fairy rulers. While make-up reminiscent of the Joker is ubiquitous, it is most extreme on the central otherworldly trio; dusted with glitter (green for Puck, white for Oberon (Michael Matou) and Titania (Jack Birkett)), they gleam in the stage lights.

   The climax of this dark reading occurs when Titania first encounters Bottom (Attilio Lopez). Last seen hiding beneath a bush when Puck raised a storm to scatter the mechanicals, the weaver with the ass’s head actually emerges from a smoke-wreathed, red-lit trapdoor as if from the mouth of Hell, naked, dirt-spattered, and scarred. No doubt is left that, happy ending or not, these fairies are extremely dangerous.

   The film was unobtainable for many years, until its limited re-release in Japan in 2008. In 2013, Kemp uploaded it in its entirety to his YouTube channel: however, the picture and especially the sound quality have not worn well, and do few favours to a fascinating production.

 

[1] Miranda moves effortlessly between effectively pastiching Elizabethan music and a much more distinctively modern, eerie style, here and there quoting odd bars from Mozart’s Magic Flute.

[2] After actually fighting the duel which, in the play, is interrupted before it begins.

Twelfth Night (1987, Australia, colour)

Directed by Neil Armfield

Starring: Gillian Jones, John Wood, Jacquy Phillips, Peter Cummins, Geoffrey Rush

Runtime: 117 minutes

   Armfield’s Twelfth Night (frequently confused with the 1988 TV adaptation of the same play by Kenneth Branagh and Paul Kafno) was based on his 1983 stage production for the Adelaide Arts Theatre, with a contemporary setting on a tropical shore.

   From the start, we are plunged into the 1980s, as the title comes up in red neon lighting to the sound of upbeat party music. The camera moves down from the setting sun to the gloomy face of Feste (Kerry Walker), then retreats through the throng of dancers (big hair and white suits much in evidence) at Orsino’s party, where everybody is having fun except the clown and the host. The mood and the music are abruptly killed when the Count (Ivar Kants) stalks into the room, and the play begins; the already dampened gathering will shortly be broken up by the storm which wrecks the twins’ ship.

   The era continues to permeate the setting, every new character looking more Eighties than the last – floppy-haired slacker Aguecheek (Geoffrey Rush); sensible-suited secretary Maria (Tracy Harvey) in her enormous glasses; shoulder-padded Olivia (Jacquy Phillips); frilly-shirted and tiny-moustached Malvolio (Peter Cummins), looking more like a maitre d’ hotel than an estate steward as he admires his reflection in a silver tray, later donning bright yellow shorts to set off his stockings and garters, but retaining his dress shirt, cummerbund, and bow tie. As in Viola and Sebastian (1972), androgynous fashions help to make Viola’s (Gillian Jones) appearance as Cesario more convincing than it might otherwise have been – although Jones’ voice, both as Cesario and as a stubbly Sebastian, remains unmistakeably feminine.

   Armfield and his cinematographer Louis Irving make effective use of extreme close-ups and inventive, often remarkably naturalistic lighting to disguise the fact that the production is entirely stage-bound; touches in Stephen Curtis’ production design such as a fully constructed, convincing beach with real sand and back-projected waves also help. The performances are uniformly strong, particularly from the affecting Jones and multi-faceted Rush, supported by John Wood’s expansive Sir Toby; the modern setting is convincingly realised. It is unfortunate that the film is not better known.

The Fifteen Minute Hamlet (1995, U.S.A., colour)

Based on Hamlet

Directed by Todd Louiso

Starring: Austin Pendleton, Ernest Perry Jr., Xander Berkeley

Runtime: 22 minutes

   Tom Stoppard’s Fifteen Minute Hamlet (1978) is an expertly filleted dash through Hamlet, predating the work of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, whose first performance was a 25-minute Hamlet in 1981. Todd Louiso’s film, starring himself as Ophelia and the extravagantly over-the-top Austin Pendleton as the Prince, is slightly longer than the title promises, because of its viciously satirical framing device. Here, the film industry exists in the seventeenth century, and Shakespeare (Xander Berkeley) is a hapless writer-director, forced by his producer (Michael Goldberg) and the philistine King James (Tommy Swerdlow) to cut his masterpiece ever further, the finally approved version being only one minute long. By this time, Ophelia is interrupting Hamlet in the second line of “To be or not to be” without even getting to complete a sentence herself before being dismissed to a nunnery, and Claudius (Ernest Perry) is pouring wine into Gertrude’s (Angie Phillips) mouth as he exclaims “Do not drink!”

   The film makes a virtue of its own low budget by making its limitations those of the film-within-the-film – shot in a tumble-down wooden shed, with tatty costumes (Paul Ben-Victor wears a plastic Roman centurion’s helmet as the Ghost), and positively ridiculous levels of doubling: Philip Seymour Hoffman plays two of his three characters in the first scene; Ben-Victor has no fewer than five parts, and Perry has to have many conversations with himself as Claudius and Polonius, the latter in a large false beard attached by a clearly visible strap. The voyage to England is represented by a toy ship bobbing in a tin bath; when Hamlet exclaims “Would the night were come!”, a black cloth instantly drops behind him.

   “For this relief,” the King remarks sardonically at the end of the performance, “much thanks.” All the “offstage” dialogue is similarly composed of quotes from the play. At the end, a studio audience – once safely assured of royal approval – rapturously applauds the now incomprehensible production.

Gedebe (2003, Malaysia, colour)

Based on Julius Caesar

Directed by Namron

Starring: Along Ezendy, Zul Huzaimy Marzuki, Hariry Jalil

Language: Malay (Kelantan dialect)

Runtime: 62 minutes

   Gedebe, an independent film which began life as a theatrical project in the Experimental Theatre of Kuala Lumpur, sets its loose reworking of Julius Caesar in the city’s underground music scene. Caesar (Hariry Jalil) is the charismatic leader of a skinhead gang (the title could be translated as “Kingpin”), and Brutus (Zul Huzaimy Marzuki) an undercover detective who has become his target’s friend, but gets involved with internecine plots within the gang. Caesar intends to unite skinheads, punks, and “spikes”, into a single underworld which he will rule – an idea anathema both to the police and the old school skinheads led by Cassius (Along Ezendy). (All the characters also have Malay names, but have adopted their Roman nomina as gang names.)

   Ezendy’s genial, ingratiating Cassius is the real star of the picture, speaking well over half the dialogue – Caesar, by contrast, is never heard to speak at all, and appears almost entirely in flashbacks, helping to create a feeling of his mythic status. Most of the runtime is taken up by Cassius’ persuasion of Brutus to his cause in Act One, Scene Two (echoed almost line-for-line): we open with Cassius telling the story against a black backdrop under police interrogation, and cut back and forth between this scene, the original conversation in a public lavatory, and the weary, broken Brutus being debriefed.

   A brief attempt to make a mystery out of Caesar’s death – Brutus may not have fired the fatal shot; Cassius has the ability to fake a gunshot death, and turns out to be on friendly terms with the Soothsayer, who comes from the rival punk gang – fizzles out. In a final press conference, the police announce the deaths of Caesar and the still indubitably alive Brutus and the arrest of Cassius, and deny involvement in the murders; the final shot shows the words “CASE CLOSED” appear over the silhouetted Brutus gazing contemplatively out of a window.

   The rough-and-ready camera work brings an organic feel to the film, aided by a thumping, angry score from Plague of Happiness. While it cannot disguise that it was made on a tiny budget, and everything after the murder feels hurried to the point of incoherence, the film displays tremendous energy and considerable invention, and the central performances are faultless.

Kate – La bisbetica domata (2004, Italy, colour animation)

Based on The Taming of the Shrew

A.k.a. Kate – The Taming of the Shrew (international English title)

Directed by Roberto Lione

Language: Italian

Runtime: 77 minutes

Not seen by current writer

   The first stop-motion animated feature ever made in Italy was a version of The Taming of the Shrew starring paper model animals: the Minolas were ducks, Petrucchio a gambling-addicted fox, and interpolated villain Don Sarago a shark. The setting was moved from Padua to a timeless Venice: sixteenth century stylings jostle with the sharp suits of Sarago and his henchmen and the evening dress of Bianca, both of which have a distinctly 1950s air. The original plot, though present, takes a back seat to Bianca’s theatrical ambitions, Sarago’s attempt to recoup Petrucchio’s debts, and the misogynistic maunderings of a collection of hypocritical priests portrayed as crows, who will end up being taught a sharp lesson by Caterina (don’t call her Kate).

   This is a Caterina feistier even than her original, dressing in armour and wielding a sword: she and Petrucchio fence literally as well as verbally throughout their first scene together: and she has Lione’s entire sympathy, especially when she goes up against the crows. Nearly all of what little Shakespeare seems to have made it into the film is embodied in her.

   The film is certainly energetic and colourful, and its animation style is quite unique. Its connection to the play, however, is tenuous, and it might have fared better marketed as an original story. It also suffers from the inclusion of a frankly rather horrible sequence in which anthropomorphised pigs in chefs’ outfits try to chase down a more naturalistically rendered, but still talking, pig. It toured a few festivals of children’s films, winning a jury prize in Chicago, but was never released in cinemas, and remains extremely difficult to find. I have still not located a complete recording – only a series of clips adding up to less than fifteen minutes of footage.

Prince of the Himalayas (2006, China, colour)

Based on Hamlet

A.k.a. Ximalaya wangzi (China: Mandarin title)

Directed by Sherwood Hu

Starring: Purba Rgyal, Zomskyid, Dobrgyal, Sonamdolgar, Luo Sang Da Wa

Language: Tibetan

Runtime: 108 minutes

   Sherwood Hu’s transposition of the Hamlet story to the stunning mountain backdrop of medieval Tibet opens with the Claudius figure (Kulo-ngam: Dobrgyal), alone by a lake, wearing a huge and extravagantly fringed hat, releasing a small lap-dog, watched from the distance by a mysterious shaman (the Wolf Woman: Luo Sang Da Wa). In this one shot, one can see the lavishness of Mo Xiaomin’s costume design (matched later by Suyalatu’s beautiful sets), and the gorgeous quality of Yong Hou’s cinematography; the film’s tendency to offer up mysteries to be resolved later (we will not find out who the shaman is or why the dog is significant for some time); and the fact that there are many small changes made to accommodate the play to the new setting (the dog is the vehicle through which the poison was delivered to King Tsanpo (Lopsang); the shaman is an interpolated character who will be vitally important).

   These changes are not, at first, major. Not only does the film follow the play quite closely, but much of the dialogue is directly translated. Some critical interpretations of matters not explicit in Shakespeare are made so – Hamlet (Lhamoklodan: Purba Rgyal) and Ophelia (Odsaluyang: Sonamdolgar) are sexually involved, and she is pregnant when she loses her reason (indeed, a troubled birth – or botched attempt at abortion? – apparently precipitates her death, the Wolf Woman saving the child from the lonely marsh where his mother lies drowned); Kulo-ngam and the Gertrude figure, Nanm (Zomskyid), were lovers while Tsanpo was alive, and his discovery of the affair precipitated his murder in effective self defence. Others are neat conflations, logical in context: so Persia stands for both Wittenberg and England, while the warrior Princess Achessergyal (Oma) doubles as Fortinbras and the pirates.

   Even the fact that Kulo-ngam is Lhamoklodan’s real father lines up with some suggestions that have been made with regard to Claudius – but Kulo-ngam knows. This is perhaps the biggest departure from the play: he wishes no harm upon his son, and on seeing that Lhamoklodan is mortally wounded, he kills himself by decapitation. This is the second instance of suicidal remorse where there is none in the play: when Lhamoklodan realises that he has killed Po-lha-nyisse (Polonius: Lobden), his mother only barely restrains him from stabbing himself.

   The dying Lhamoklodan then finds himself on a twilit plain, on the edge of the spirit world, where Tsanpo’s ghost is still urging him to vengeance: but he ultimately declares himself “beyond love and hate”, flinging away his sword in a gesture linked to Hamlet’s textual exchange of forgiveness with Laertes. The Wolf Woman – who earlier explained more of what had happened to Lhamoklodan than the ghost ever did; who took on the role of First Player to help expose Kulo-ngam, but has argued against vengeance throughout, outright confronting Tsanpo and accusing him of offending the spirit world – is present on both plains, approving Lhamoklodan’s mercy in the twilight, and presenting his infant son to the people in the living world. (Whether Achessergyal will actually permit the boy to rule, we never discover.)

   The first Shakespearean film in the Tibetan language is epic in scope and vision, and entirely successful in transferring the story to a new and rich cultural context, unfamiliar to most Western viewers. Unfortunately, it remains hard to obtain.

Tardid (2009, Iran, colour)

A.k.a. Doubt (international English title)

Based on Hamlet

Directed by Varuzh Karim-Masihi

Starring: Bahram Radan, Taraneh Alidoosti, Hamed Komeili, Atash Garakani, Ali Reza Shoja-Nuri

Language: Persian

Runtime: 116 minutes

   The Iranian film industry, hitherto barely noticed internationally, has boomed in the twenty-first century, mostly by producing beautifully shot but low-key dramas about the lives of the struggling poor. Tardid is a rare beast – a modern Iranian film packed with incident, and set among the upper class.

   The film opens with the gentle sound of running water, as snow falls before a running stream: only at the end of the opening credits do we see the floating body of Mahtab (our Ophelia: Taraneh Alidoosti).

   Siavash[1] (Bahram Radan) is the Hamlet figure, son of a businessman (Khalife: Anoshirman Arjmand) who has apparently committed suicide. His uncle (Ali Reza Shoja-Nuri) and mother (Mah Tal’at: Atash Garakani) are not yet married or engaged, which would probably be too shocking in the cultural context, but he is beginning to be suspicious of their closeness. There are other tweaks along the way: Anvari (Mohamad Motie as Polonius) dies falling from a window in what might be an accident; a police investigation proceeds to complicate matters for both Siavash and his uncle; Mahtab survives until the last shot, the film ending with her just about to drown herself.

   The biggest change is the climactic massacre. With no fencing match and no secret poisoning plot, it becomes a sudden shooting in which half the principal cast is mown down in seconds; it is too much to take in that quickly, and undermines the build-up – which started very slowly: it is not until forty-six minutes into the film that we more than glimpse the ghost.

   If pacing is a problem, so too is the characters’ knowledge of the original play. This self-awareness can work, though it is better suited to comedic plots: but a serious drama can hardly afford to have Siavash actually discuss the similarity of his situation to Hamlet’s, and how to avert the tragic ending, only to continue through a scene-by-scene recreation of the play, pausing only to study Millais’ Ophelia.

   Unfortunately these issues undermine the film to a degree that neither the capable acting, Bahram Badakshani’s loving cinematography and eye for details of Iranian life, nor Ali Samadpoor’s well-tailored, atmospheric score can quite redeem.

 

[1] Not an uncommon name in Iran, but it may still be significantly chosen given the prominence of Siavash in Persian mythology and the Oedipal overtones his story shares with Hamlet.

Romeo & Julio (2009, Croatia, colour)

Based on Romeo and Juliet

Directed by Ivan Peric

Starring: Toni Dorotic, Toni Rinkovec, Marko Trevizan

Language: Serbo-Croat

Runtime: 75 minutes

   “This is a story of magnificent, never-ending, deep and eternal love,” announces the narrator over the image of Benvolio’s (Marko Trevizan) swaying buttocks as he saunters over to the Capuleti[1] household to discover the cause of Romeo's (Toni Rinkovec) depression. It would have been gratifying if the acting had ever risen to enough passion to justify this, or indeed any level of feeling at all.

   There’s no disputing the boldness of the piece, a tongue-in-cheek transposition of the familiar story to the overlapping area between Croatia’s gang-ridden underground break-dancing scene and its gay community. To make it at all was a worthy challenge to the homophobia only recently beginning to retreat from Balkan society, for which director Ivan Peric should be saluted. Nor is the execution entirely without merit: Dragan Kovacevic’s camera work, finding beauty in the run-down streets of Split, is undeniably impressive. So is the handling of the hardest bit of the modernisation – making the news of Julio’s (Toni Dorotic in a fluorescent green wig) survival go awry in the age of the communications revolution: a slow internet connection and a power-cut hold up Fra Lovro’s (Mario Kovac) crucial message.

   Other elements, however, are less successful. It’s often impossible for a non-speaker of Serbo-Croat to judge whether the banality of the subtitled couplets (“Julio I have something to say / you be brave and don’t go away”) results from a deliberate attempt at comedy, poor translation, or bad writing in the original. Sometimes it clearly is deliberate (“Lovro help me take away my fears, and I’ll give you tickets for Britney Spears”): but it misfires.

   The acting is still more curious. An inexperienced, non-professional cast (all young and male, including Jerko Drpic-Granic as Julio’s mother and Ivan Marusic as a female Paris) is mostly flat, but not nearly so flat as the narrator who dubs all their lines, sounding deathly bored no matter how dramatic the situation. If this is an intentional attempt at dry understatement, it conflicts badly with the much broader comedy of the inept rhymes. Even the dancing, at which they might have been expected to be more accomplished, is often clumsy.

   Romeo & Julio is brave, ambitious, creative, and intermittently quite funny, but ultimately falls flat.

 

[1] The names of the families have been reversed.

Family Bonds (2012, U.S.A., colour)

Based on Much Ado About Nothing

Directed by Tony Newen

Starring: Kurt Skarstedt, Dan Thorp, Lorrie Smith, Emma Earnest, Connor Smith

Runtime: 71 minutes

   This low-budget reimagining moves Much Ado to a foster family in present-day Washington D.C.: Don Pedro and Leonato become separated foster carers Donny and Linda (Kurt Skarstedt and Lorrie Smith), meeting up for the Thanksgiving weekend, with most of the rest of the cast turned into teenagers in their care, Claudio (Claude: Robbie Labadie) being the shy new arrival.

   It is interesting to see a film focus on a foster family without the absence of blood relatives being the core driver of the drama. Unfortunately, the play does not (at least in Stefan Gural’s script) transfer well to the new setting. The failed rebellion in the play is replaced with a car accident, in which the drunken Johnny (Dan Thorp) caused the death of his girlfriend Wendy (Destiny Kish). This has some unfortunate effects from the beginning of the film: for one, Johnny (as sulkily self-absorbed as he is) is at first presented as a sympathetic figure, and virtually no explanation is given for his eventual, sudden switch into villainy. For another, he has no reason to resent anyone in the family - and no partisans to help him.

   This leads to another problem. In the absence of Borachio, Johnny has to use an unwitting Ben (Benedick: Connor Smith) as the supposed lover of Helen (Hero: Amy Murray), with the result that all Claude actually sees between Ben and Maggie (Margaret: Tess Garraty) is a companionable hug. This makes Claude’s reaction ridiculous as well as cruel, and Helen’s forgiveness of him far too easy. Indeed, everything seems to happen too easily, from Claude and Helen falling in love, through Betty’s (in context, bizarrely out of established character) demand that Ben fight Claude, to Donny and Linda getting back together, and everybody’s ready forgiveness of Johnny himself at the end of the film.

   It doesn’t help that the “teens” are for the most part clearly older than their supposed years; that the excision of Hero’s supposed death reduces the stakes; or that Gural’s dialogue is mostly banal, with far too much clumsy “As you know” exposition. The cast do their best, but only Earnest really succeeds in the impressive feat of making Gural’s lines convincing. Thorp in particular overacts, an especial flaw considering that the film focuses more heavily on Johnny than on the couples. (Gural himself gives a creditable performance as Officer Berry (Dogberry), here a policeman assigned to make sure Johnny observes the terms of his parole – though why he and his partner have to tail Johnny constantly is a mystery. Unfortunately, though, the character’s excessive clownishness takes the film’s already tenuous realism down several notches every time he appears on screen.)

   Family Bonds is a competently filmed take on an intriguing premise, but ultimately it is undermined by its own script.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • YouTube

© 2013 by MARCUS PITCAITHLY.

This site was designed with the
.com
website builder. Create your website today.
Start Now