(On Cable TV, February 2019) I’m done apologizing for the way I can’t process Shakespearian dialogue. Fortunately, there’s enough in the 1930s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to get us into a surprisingly detailed early example of a fantasy film. As my attention wandered from the dialogue and plot, I was left to admire nearly everything else: The great sets and costumes, as well as the vivid imagination on display. Remove Shakespeare’s name from the credits, and there’s still enough here to make this a modest masterpiece of early fantasy filmmaking. Clearly, the filmmakers saw in Shakespeare the license to go wild (comparatively speaking) in terms of fantastic creatures, wondrous realism and other tropes of the genre what would be developed decades later. If tracing the evolution of fantasy moviemaking isn’t your thing, then maybe you’d be interested in a very early role for Mickey Rooney, or seeing Olivia de Havilland and James Cagney once more. Still, I’m more appreciative of the fantasy filmmaking aspect: there weren’t that many big-budget fantasy movies at that time, and this one fills an early slot in the development of the subgenre.
(On Cable TV, February 2019) As regular readers of these reviews know, I do poorly with Shakespearian adaptations. I find the language nigh incomprehensible, the premises overly familiar, the staging artificial, etc. It takes a lot to get me to perk up at a Shakespearian adaptation, but Laurence Oliver’s Henry V does have quite a bit to offer only on a visual level, least of it being shot in colour. Perhaps the most distinctive thing about it is how it operates stylistically like an onion. The opening has a very detailed model shot of Shakespearian London, which gives place to an obviously staged theatrical production, then again to a less stylized production, then to surprisingly cinematographic battles, and then back again to the outer layers as the story wraps up. Considering that I usually spend my time watching Shakespearian productions for the visuals rather than the dialogue or story, this scratched just the right spot for me. Still, I can’t guarantee that I remained awake through it all … but while I was aware of Laurence Olivier’s skills as an actor, in Henry V he shows quite a bit of skill as a director as well.
(In French, On TV, January 2019) As I’ve mentioned before, I do have one significant failing as a reviewer for some movies: As a Francophone, Shakespearian English (especially when heard rather than read) breaks my brain. Short bursts of it are fine, but I usually can’t maintain my focus very long on classical English, and it eventually exhausts me. This is why you’re unlikely to find very detailed or meaningful reviews of Shakespearian adaptations unless they update the language or offer a strong visual element to go with the dialogue. Or so I thought before doing something very unusual and watching a French-dubbed version of Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Much Ado about Nothing. (When it comes to dubs, I’m an original-version purist.) Suddenly, the language is simply delicious to listen to; the lines are funnier, and I can enjoy it to the end. Of course, it helps that the play, and its filmed adaptation, ranks among the frothiest and funniest of the Bard’s plays. It takes place in a gorgeous Italian estate, where Emma Thompson is cute, a young Kate Beckinsale is cute—in fact, everyone is cute. It’s amusing to see actors such as Michael Keaton, Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves go for classical comedy, and that makes it even funnier in turn. The cinematography is good, the directing is clearly focused on the actors, and the soliloquies—even in dubbed French—are very well done. I’m not enough of a scholar to determine if the French dialogues are original to this adaptation or rely on an older canonical translation (and this is not the kind of information easily obtained), but I suspect that they are original to this dub and they sound good. If I sound unusually enthusiastic about Much Ado about Nothing, it’s largely because it challenges my presumption that Shakespeare is hermetic. I had a good time watching it, and that exceeded all of my expectations.
(On DVD, March 2017) Going into Romeo + Juliet, I only knew two things: I usually like director Baz Luhrmann’s work (I usually love the first half-hour of his movies); and I have a lot of trouble with Shakespearian dialogue. Despite my best intentions, I bounced off hard from the recent contemporary reimagining of Coriolanus and Much Ado About Nothing: my brain can’t process that language even with subtitles to help. In that context, Romeo + Juliet’s central conceit, to reimagine Shakespeare’s best-known romantic play with the same dialogue but in a mid-1990s Californian-ish context with warring crime families using fancy guns rather than swords, seemed like courting trouble. Fortunately, Luhrmann’s typical verve was enough to get me over the initial hump. The opening sequence of the movie not only indelibly imprinted IN FAIR VERONA in my mind, but was stylish and action-packed enough to get me interested in the (more sedate) rest of the film. Leonardo di Caprio is fine as Romeo, while Claire Danes makes for a fair wide-eyed Juliet. Able supporting presences by actors such as John Leguizamo, Pete Postlethwaite and Harold Perrineau (plus a very young Paul Rudd) complete the already wild portrait. Add to that Luhrmann’s usual energy and visual flair and the Shakespearian dialogue becomes far less important—knowing the basic beats of the classic story means that we’re free to appreciate the adaptation rather than the words, and so Romeo + Juliet comes alive. While much of this energy dissipates in the latter half of the film, there are enough elements of interest in the modernization of the story (complete with car chases, helicopters and news media commentary) to keep watching until the end. As pure piece of style, this is a film that is both precisely dated in mid-nineties aesthetics yet timeless because of them. It’s breathless, witty, just sappy enough to qualify as a true version of Romeo and Juliet, and an experience in itself. Maybe I’m getting ready to take another look at Coriolanus and Much Ado About Nothing…