The Greatest Shakespeare Filmed
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How to Watch:
As of writing, Justin Kurzel’s 2015 version of Macbeth is Available for rent from Amazon (Affiliate link) in the United Kingdom; Free in the US with ads with a free vudu signup (not affiliate); streaming on Netflix in Canada; Streaming on Stan (whatever that is) in Australia; or rent from Amazon (Affiliate) in France. If your country is not on that list you can try my affiliate link and maybe luck out and get it included with a free trial of Prime… or you can do what I did to assemble this list and check Just Watch to see your options.
Why to Watch:
O For a Muse of Fire, that would ascend The brightest Heauen of Inuention: A Kingdome for a Stage, Princes to Act, And Monarchs to behold the swelling Scene. Then should the Warlike Harry, like himselfe, Assume the Port of Mars, and at his heeles (Leasht in, like Hounds) should Famine, Sword, and Fire Crouch for employment. But pardon, Gentles all: The flat vnraysed Spirits, that hath dar'd, On this vnworthy Scaffold, to bring forth So great an Obiect. Can this Cock-Pit hold The vastie fields of France? Or may we cramme Within this Woodden O, the very Caskes That did affright the Ayre at Agincourt? O pardon: since a crooked Figure may Attest in little place a Million, And let vs, Cyphers to this great Accompt, On your imaginarie Forces worke. Suppose within the Girdle of these Walls Are now confin'd two mightie Monarchies, Whose high, vp-reared, and abutting Fronts, The perillous narrow Ocean parts asunder. Peece out our imperfections with your thoughts: Into a thousand parts diuide one Man, And make imaginarie Puissance. Thinke when we talke of Horses, that you see them Printing their prowd Hoofes i'th' receiuing Earth: For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our Kings, Carry them here and there: Iumping o're Times; Turning th' accomplishment of many yeeres Into an Howre-glasse: for the which supplie, Admit me Chorus to this Historie; Who Prologue-like, your humble patience pray, Gently to heare, kindly to iudge our Play.
The Muse of Fire
When one reads the above opening of Henry V, or hears Derek Jacobi delivers it (above) in Kenneth Branagh’s film version, one is… or atleast I am, overcome with the prescience of Shakespeare:
“Cinema! he’s talking about Cinema!”
A Theatre cockpit that does hold all the fields of France, and holds the greatest of burning casks without singeing the building or audience… a medium where actors can take on not just the pantomime, but the stature of a king (and indeed for some the income). Where vast cavalry charges, and fleets at sail can be summoned nightly for an audience.
Even his metaphors: “A Muse of Fire” cannot help but call to mind, for me, the image of a projector whose dancing and ethereal light does indeed originate in a “Heaven of invention” of lightning tamed and the most ornately prepared cellulose nitrate film to act as a fuel, set to light, but not to flame. The delicate ingenious interplay of motor, film, and bulb extracting the light of battles and wars past… but not the heat.
It would seem Shakespeare was made for film. His very chorus and verse, not just in this passage, seem to cry out and demand it, though he knows not what. He chafes against the limitations of his medium and anticipates the next.
So we’d expect, now that cinema is about 150 years old, that Shakespeare should be going through a second renaissance, an age even more golden than his first, now that the founding limitations are gone and his distant half alluded dream has been fully realized. We’d expect his work to be reaching new heights, to be themselves ascending the brightest heaven of invention.
Well? Has Cinema brought about a new golden age of Shakespeare?
The Unworthy Scaffold
There is always a great question when translating Shakespeare to film: Naturalist or theatrical?
Theatre and film you see, as unbelievably similar as they are (most people call cinemas “theaters” interchangeably) have subtle differences that alienates the film going audience from staged theatre.
For most, the weakness of stage sets vs. filming on location, the inability to show certain sequences, the dependence on exposition, and much else, is overcome easily enough. Most of us can suspend our disbelief and imagine a set to be New York or England or accept some character’s description of an event to stand in for the event. But one of the things that’s really hard to get around is the acting.
Theatrical acting and modern film acting could not be more different. Theatrical acting is… well… theatrical. The expressions have to be BIG so the people in the back row can see them, the spoken words LOUD so that you can be heard. And the onus to be entertaining, when its just a flesh and blood person on a still backdrop… When each individual audience member has ONE “camera angle” for maybe 2-3 hours…well you had better be putting on a quite the performance.
Sure Theatrical naturalism has a long history and you can see very minimalist plays in very intimate settings, that try to tone everything down to a realist impression… But still there’s hard a limit. The intimacy of two people sharing a glance or holding each-other… the ability to whisper your fondest devotion, or deepest contempt… it is fundamentally limited when the audience is a half deaf old lady sitting in a crowd 10-20 meters away.
Film however THRIVES on intimacy. Even more than special effects, action, music or evocative shots, film is unbelievably powerful at capturing intimate personal moments… and I don’t just mean the euphemistic “intimate photography” ( though that is certainly an example).
Being face to face in intimate conversation with someone as they die, or lose everything, or reveal the true love they’ve kept hidden, or wish a dear friend well for possibly the last time… that’s something theater could only present at a distance, the audience spied these moments as intruders or voyeurs from a vantage hidden to players… In film you experience it. In a shot-reverse-shot you ARE the person a beautiful princess confesses her love to… you ARE the victim in conversation with a murderous villain. In a modern movie-theatre the face of an actor could be so large and clear that they command more of your field of view than if you were to turn to your date sitting next to you.
Films are a bottled intimacy. People who would never in a million years see a battlefield or experience the love of a supermodel can go, and for 10-20 dollars, have a beloved and distant sergeant look them in the eye and unveil their soul before they die thus recognizing the camera (the audience member) as a true friend and equal… they can experience the exact moment that the divine and beautiful daughter of a noble house gives it all up for love, as she looks into YOUR EYES and sees the object of her affection. (and somehow its treated as a mystery that people become obsessed with actors)
Well you can see the problem can’t you?
How the hell does one film Shakespeare then?!
Everything about the early-modern theatre is designed for an era when you didn’t even have a microphone to catch a voice or electric lighting to set a mood. Instead Globe theatre performances were done under open daylight, and the actors’ near shouted speech had to inform the audience that “So foul and Fair a day I have not seen” so as to set the mood of Scotland… indeed, Shakespeare would have written the line to be ambiguous, to imply weather but also to have an possible metaphorical meaning (perhaps he refers to the bloody business of the battle) so that on a very sunny day it would not be too incongruous.
The modern replica of the globe theatre in London.
Indeed the very Verse of the Shakespearean theatre, as opposed to prose dialogue, much like the verse and chorus of the Classical theatre before it, is an artifact of the artificiality of the stage… when believability and naturalism is already so strained WHY NOT have the players speak in the artifice of formal poetry so as to drive the entertainment? Shakespearean verse sounded just as unnatural and formal in Elizabethan and Jacobean England as it does to modern ears, it was more akin to a musical or rap battle, than anything someone might actually say in conversation.
So then how does one translate Shakespeare, this achievement of one of the most (literally… physically) distant artistic mediums, to film, a medium you consume eyeball to eyeball with the actors?
really? You don’t.
You can look over countless “100 films of all time” lists and find not a single Shakespeare play. In personal top 10s and top 20s they’re equally uncommon. Hell in 2004 Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons starred in a big budget, well directed, film production of The Merchant of Venice… and it might not even be in your top ten Al Pacino or Jeremy Iron films. Making the text of Shakespeare work on screen is just that difficult.
There are two types of Shakespeare movies that really buck the trend. First there are very loose adaptations of the story, where none of the text is retained except maybe a few references. Al Pacino’s Merchant of Venice may not make any top tens… but Scarface, his loose adaptation of Macbeth on the Miami shore certainly does. Kurosawa’s celebrated Throne of Blood and his masterpiece Ran brilliantly adapt Macbeth and King Lear respectively. Likewise Sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet is an adaptation of The Tempest but with Ray-guns and alien science instead of magic, and Freudian psychology instead of theology.
These loose adaptations can make great films, but by the time they’re done they bear less resemblance to the original plays than the the Italian operas based on Shakespeare.
Then there are the direct adaptations, enjoyers of Shakespeare have their favorites but there are very few that rise above being mere filmed plays and become films of note in and of themselves. 1996’s Romeo + Juliet is generally not considered a “Good” movie, but my god is it a memorable one, it popularized Leonardo DiCaprio, and the raw ridiculousness of Baz Luhrmann’s direction has made it a pop culture favorite and an instant nostalgia artifact of the 90s. Few can watch the opening in all its peak 90s madness and not have a big goofy grin come to their face.
The films of Kenneth Branagh by contrast are much celebrated, the raw clout Branagh wields is stupendous. His 1996 unabridged 4 hour Hamlet had so much star power that Charlton Hesston, Robin Williams, Gerard Depardieu and Sir. Richard Attenborough were playing the Extras… The film had more knights than the round table, Dame Judy Dench played a role without a line of dialogue!
Branagh (who the uninitiated may recognize as Gildoroy Lockhardt from Harry Potter) has this larger than life style of acting and filming that’s just infectious, he favours long shots that follow actors and will last minutes before a cut. A creature of the stage: Branagh, if anything, uses film to make Shakespeare more theatrical. His Henry V which we’ve already mentioned, is famous for his performance of the Crispin’s day speech, an incredibly large and earnest performance that would stand out as almost too over-the-top on the stage let alone in film. Likewise take a look his act IV Scene IV monologue from Hamlet… That’s just a stage performance! Even the blocking suggests a stage!
Like Luhrmann Branagh brings Shakespeare to film and makes it MORE theatrical in the translation. And like Lurhmann Branagh has earned himself a large audience doing so… though a somewhat higher brow audience.
And finally there’s “the only artist working in Hollywood” herself, Julie Taymor. Between making Broadway history with her revolutionary work on The Lion King and then making Broadway history in another sense of the word with SpiderMan: Turn off the Dark. In the midst of that she adapted Titus Andronicus for film.
Taymor’s Titus brings the heaviest stage influence of any film yet mentioned. In stage productions its common to include props, costumes and elements out of time… A Richard III staged and set in colonial Africa, might have a sabre fight, retain the script and plot points around Medieval inheritance law, etc. Many productions are entirely without a setting we’d recognize as part of history, instead creating an entirely new fantastical setting where motorcycle leathers, powdered wigs, flintlock muskets, and bronze Egyptian war sickles, all co-exist in some impossible place the players call England.
obviously this is very visually compelling on a stage, and it has the benefit of being cheap, It allows poorer theater companies to reuse props, costumes, and scenery from other plays while still creating something that feels unique.
Taymor’s genius, in addition to great staging and direction, is she did this on film. Where everything must be fully visually realized she created just such an impossible time and place in a medium where nothing may hint or be left to suspension of disbelief but all of it visually realized. Spearmen, swords, tanks, motorcycles, and shotguns all blend perfectly, the parties perfect blends of 20s flapper parties, and the orgies of Guccione’s Caligula and it all works in a way that doesn’t become gimmicky.
Indeed thematically it makes quite the Impressive statement about Roman and Italian history, and the nature of cycles of violence… its a film that deserves a full review, but its done something almost unheard of in Shakespeare adaptation and Cinema, in that it has outshone, at least in poplar consciousness, the underlying Shakespeare play. What was for centuries poo-pooed as one of Shakespeare’s worst plays (unfairly I’d argue) is in Taymor’s hand amongst the most celebrated adaptations. This is a Shakespeare film I’ve seen on personal top ten lists from prominent film critics, which puts it in rare company indeed.
So when adapting Shakespeare to film, it seems we have a formula:
Lean into the Theatricality, don’t try to imitate reality, but make the world within your camera a new stage, where the grandeur of larger than life performances by actors well versed in theatrical production can bring everything you might get in the wooden O of the Globe theatre…Indeed perhaps even take it so far a Taymor and abandon the filmic Idea of Setting itself, and instead recreate the fantastical and theatrical tropes a of a story without time or place…
This is the Advise I would have given you if you asked how to adapt Shakespeare to film.
Justin Kurzel did the exact opposite of this in every instance. And in doing so he has made one of my favorite movies of all time.
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A Scottish Macbeth
Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth, rather uniquely amongst production of the Scottish play… is set in eleventh century Scotland. And not some pale imitation bedecked in Italian renaissance plate armour, carrying French longswords, and spoken in upper class English accents the knowledgeable ear could identity to the individual suburb or boarding school in London.
The setting is is quite literally thick from density of Scottish fog Kurzel drowns his scenes in. The poverty of the 11th century is also in abundance, with Macbeth’s hold being little more than a few wood buildings reminiscent of what you’d see in a Viking film, indeed never have the Norwegian raids referenced in the play felt more plausibly part of the world.
Kurzel’s Macbeth is thick with Scottish accents… Indeed I’d recommend watching with subtitles since depending on your accent you will struggle to follow the dense Shakespearean dialogue filtered through the dense Scottish accents. Adapting the mind to Shakespearean word forms and diction is a mental strain enough when you aren’t also adapting to hear every O as and an A. Indeed I find I get vastly more form even American Shakespeare films with subtitles… the subtle logic or pun in a line you’d normally just get the gist of instead pops out at you. But when its in a thick Scottish accent… My god do those subtitles help.
But the real magic is in the historicity of the setting. The incredible authenticity of the characters, the text, and their motivations.
We’ve all seen movies set in ancient Rome, or the Crusades where the characters basically think and act like upper-class liberal Californians ( not to bully Ridley Scott, those are both great films)… the values they espouse are some version of modern humanism, the dialogue they speak bears no resemblance to a script someone from the period would have spoken, the sexual politics are utterly divorced form anything anyone would have felt in the period, the list goes on.
But in the past 20 years we’ve seen a real revolution in filmic naturalism and a cultural/historical sophistication that really just jumps out compared to everything that came before. HBO’s excellent Rome and John Adams did amazing things with their scripts, while the incredibly underrated Assassination of Jesse James really pushed what dialogue actors were capable of bringing to life, dialogue you might otherwise cringe at reading a historical book or primary source saying “Come on there’s no way anyone talks that way” or “Who could ever think like that” comes to life with a powerful authenticity in these works. Recently director Rodger Eggers films heavily into this cultural and linguistic alienation, and his films The Witch and The Lighthouse went so far as reproducing the historical accents of the 16th and 19th century.
Its gotten to point where talented directors can film almost anything with this intensive authenticity… Edger’s Witch recreates the goofiest parts of 16th century puritan witch folklore, and manages to make it terrifying. Denis Villeneuve’s Dune managed to recreate this effect for an entirely fictional universe: having a magic teen war prodigy of prophesy have an air of biblical terror about him, dragonfly shaped planes hover with a dangerous energy similar to helicopter rotors, feudal war cultures IN SPACE have an air of marital menace… an evil magical obese man levitates across a room instead of walking in this movie, an effect that was goofy and cliched in the 40s… and it has this intimidating air of wrongness… like he’d blasphemed the laws of nature themselves...
So what happens when you go to Shakespeare… this unfilmable artifact of the stage… and play it 100% naturalistic and straight?
First things first, all of Shakespeare’s Anachronism are gone. Shakespeare’s plays are loaded with classical allusions, Titus shouts out how his daughters rape resembles that Philomela, Hamlet meditates on Hecuba, and later Alexander… it was quite the fashion from about 1450 to 1790 to load down writing with classical allusion, to show off one’s education almost to the point of farce… The peasant who wows his fellow illiterates with butchered Latin or farcically incorrect reference is a staple of comedy of the period… and middleclass Shakespeare is no exception, either from the upper-class braggadocio or the lower-class aspiration…
Edger’s cuts all of this. His Macbeth does not compare himself and Banquo to Caesar and Antony, Hecate does not appear, even the references to foreign countries are gone… these weird sister do not use “Liver of blaspheming Jew” or “Nose of Turk, and Tartar’s lips” for their spells…
Rather Scotland appears illiterate and isolated as it might have in the real 11th century, not Shakespeare’s imaginings. a land where King of the Picts was a title still spoken, and Pagan rights and customs were only slowly being displaced by Christianity (indeed the root of Scotland’s famously unstable crown was rivalled Pagan and Christian norms of succession)… Shakespeare’s text isn’t much more edited than any film production, but one notices English with Saxon or Celtic roots predominates, the metaphors are earthy, plain, and have a primal folkloric quality… all your favourite lines are there, but the text is stripped of its 16th century trappings… As if this was the original and Shakespeare had done the adaptation.
Likewise the magic of the play takes on a menacing Phycological quality.
There is a strong case to be made that Shakespeare invented the English gothic tradition. His ghosts, suicides, madnesses, vengeances, witches, and curses inflect not only this play but Hamlet, King Lear, The Tempest, Romeo & Juliet… So many of the tropes of gothic horror and modern horror originate in Shakespeare, and Kurzel brings the visual language these stories have developed across centuries back to the Shakespearean progenitor. The ghosts and hallucinations of Macbeth are realized in a wonderfully haunting manner, women in white mourn and wail, sequences play out like seventies shock horrors… This is a Macbeth that would make an incredible drive in double feature if its cinematography didn’t immediately mark it as a prestige movie.
And speaking of the cinematography… if you haven’t already noticed. Its breathtaking.
None of the images I’ve included in this review have been touched up or edited promo shots. All of them are stills I personally took from the movie by hitting pause and screen capping.
Kurzel and Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw has made one of the most visually impressive movies of all time. Up there with Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon as a film where “Every Frame a painting” is just accurate description.
Look at the Cinematography yourself:
Likewise the score is this incredible moody production of deep strings, which sounds less like a medieval or Shakespearean soundtrack, and more of something from a deconstructionist western, such as Nick Cave’s harrowing soundtrack to The Proposition… but with a pace and royal grandiosity to it that’s entirely its own.
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Follow me on Twitter: @FromKulak