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‘Art to enchant’: Starting Shakespearean cinema

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MARCH 15, 2023

William Shakespeare, luminous and evergreen, occupies a singular and mythologized status in the literary canon — he is, in the words of Ben Jonson, “not of an age but for all time.” 

Shakespeare runs through the veins of Western culture, and filmmakers have long flocked to his cultural prestige. Film adaptations of Shakespearean drama are increasingly heterogeneous; imagination unlatches famous plots from their given location, circumstance and language. Some iterations still prize fidelity to the text, but Shakespeare survives as a necessary poet because his works leave room for air. 

On the Ides of March, we celebrate Shakespeare by highlighting his many and motley resurrections on the silver screen. This list is not comprehensive, historical or didactic. Instead, it represents a launchpad for a budding Shakespeare stan by mapping out a few places to start.

‘Julius Caesar’ (1953)

At their best, realistic adaptations are transportative and immersive. Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s historical epic sizzles and strikes like a match. Shot in black and white and produced by MGM, “Julius Caesar” is something of a time capsule. How do you squash a tyrant? How did mid-century Hollywood studios imagine imperial Rome and tyranny? 

“Julius Caesar” draws out the space between thought and act, between possibility and protest. Viewers watch characters think and turn over their thoughts like stones on a riverbed. If slow pacing and mostly unchanged dialogue is a deterrent, it’s worth mentioning that the film also stars Marlon Brando as Antony, the loyal Caesar supporter. Between Brutus (James Mason) and Cassius’ (John Gielgud) covert political negotiations, Brando’s Antony — sweaty, sexy, quietly strategic — is a formidable and riveting foil.

‘10 Things I Hate About You’ (1999)

The ’90s and early aughts revived Shakespeare in low rise jeans and miniskirts, fusing Renaissance marriage plots with high school Americana. “10 Things I Hate About You,” loosely based on “The Taming of the Shrew,” is often talked about alongside its 2000s counterpart “She’s the Man,” based on “Twelfth Night.” Both high school comedies are entertaining and endearing, but “10 Things I Hate About You” is a rare gem of an adaptation, outstripping its source material with panache and charm. 

Julia Stiles stars as Kat Stratford, a thorny feminist and social outcast whose popular and pretty sister Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) can only date after Kat has landed a boyfriend. Heath Ledger, witty and boyish, costars, and the film coasts on their easy chemistry. Although “The Taming of the Shrew” may not be anyone’s favorite Shakespeare play, “10 Things I Hate About You” abounds in things to love and is endlessly rewatchable.

‘Throne of Blood’ (1957)

Akira Kurosawa adapted three Shakespeare plays, all tragedies, in the course of his career. “Throne of Blood” transports “Macbeth” to feudal Japan. It traces the demise of samurai Taketoki Washizu (Toshirô Mifune) after he murders local lord Tsuzuki (Takamaru Sasaki). The setting, all fog and forest, haunts in its sparsity. The environment feels highly disciplined, which charges the erosion of Washizu’s honor with tense, satisfying suspense. 

Kurosawa endures as a household name in filmmaking, and the artistry embedded in his interpretation of “Macbeth” elicits rapt intrigue. “Throne of Blood” affirms the possibility of showcasing something original within something familiar.

‘Much Ado About Nothing’ (1993)

Kenneth Branagh racks up Shakespearean titles like he’s collecting Pokémon cards. The actor-director’s commitment is inspiring, but the results are mixed. His vision of Shakespeare, especially in the tragedies, is traditional, and the bloated runtimes sometimes suck the marrow from the material. (Say what you want about Ethan Hawke delivering “To be, or not to be” in a Blockbuster, but at least “Hamlet 2000” wasn’t 4 hours).

Branagh’s most enjoyable Shakespeare film is “Much Ado About Nothing,” a comedy about wit and unexpected romance. In a comedic setting, Branagh’s approach makes the story so strange it’s wonderful — a quasi-“so bad it’s good” feeling. The starry cast of “Much Ado” — including Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton and Keanu Reeves in the worst performance of his career — just accentuates the fun.

‘King Lear’ (1971)

Grigori Kozintsev’s Soviet adaptation of “King Lear” starts with a staggering sequence: A fleet of peasants, wearing rags and walking in mud, slowly trudge on the same path across an unsettlingly bleak landscape. The next shot shows a spacious, luxurious hall with expansive stone floors where the king and his company dwell. Before even meeting the childlike Lear (Jüri Järvet) who will steer the story to its doom, viewers already understand that this is a world walking toward its demise.

The ambivalence of Kozintsev’s “King Lear” immunizes it from common pitfalls in other adaptations of the play. The film presents Lear’s dual nature — his volatility and his humility — with clear-eyed open-endedness to the point that it becomes the audience’s task to pass judgment on the fallen king.

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MARCH 15, 2023