Saturday, September 26, 2015

Stubs – Hamlet

Hamlet (1948) Starring: Laurence Olivier, Basil Sydney, Eileen Herlie, Jean Simmons, Stanley Holloway. Screenplay by Laurence Olivier. Based on the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare (London, 1601, published 1603). Directed by Laurence Olivier. Produced by Laurence Olivier.  Run Time: 155 minutes. U.K.  Black and White. Drama, Tragedy

There are several well-known film adaptations of William Shakespeare’s plays, but perhaps none won bigger acclaim than Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948). Perhaps no actor in film history is closer associated with Shakespeare than Olivier. He appeared in a little over fifty films during his career, six of which were films based on the works of the Bard. Prior to Hamlet, Olivier had starred in As You Like It (1936) and Henry V (1944), the latter which he also produced and directed. For that film, he would receive Academy nominations for Best Actor and Best Picture, neither of which he would win, but he did receive a Special Award "for his outstanding achievement as actor, producer and director in bringing Henry V to the screen."

Following that triumph, Olivier returned to the stage and did not make another movie until he made Hamlet. Olivier adapted Shakespeare’s play, eliminating nearly half of the dialogue, three main characters from the play: Fortinbras, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and removing most of its political elements. Instead Olivier concentrated on the psychological and Oedipal aspects of the work.

The film opens on the battlements of Elsinore, where sentry Bernardo (Esmond Knight) relieves Francisco (John Laurie) of his watch. Bernardo asks him if he has seen anything. Another sentry, Marcellus (Anthony Quayle), arrives with Horatio (Norman Wooland), Prince Hamlet's friend. Twice previously, Marcellus has seen an apparition, but Horatio is skeptical. Suddenly, the three see the Ghost, and even though Horatio demands that it speak, the ghost vanishes then, without a word.

Inside the castle, there is a celebration in progress for the marriage of Gertrude (Eileen Herlie) and King Claudius (Basil Sydney). Everyone seems to be having a good time, with the exception of Prince Hamlet (Laurence Olivier). Something seems rotten to Hamlet about the circumstances; his father,the old King Hamlet has only been dead for a month, apparently killed by a snakebite, and his mother is already married to his Uncle.  

Hamlet (Laurence Olivier) with his mother, Gertrude (Eileen Herlie) and King
Claudius (Basil Sydney) at a celebration in honor of their marriage.

Even after the court has left the Great Hall, Hamlet continues to fume over the hasty marriage, muttering to himself the words "and yet, within a month!" Soon, Horatio and the sentries arrive and tell Hamlet about seeing his father’s ghost. Hamlet accompanies them to the battlements and sees the ghost for himself.

After the celebration, Hamlet fumes over his mother's hasty marriage.

Hamlet follows the ghost, which beckons him forward, after which it reveals itself to be the Ghost of Hamlet's father (Laurence Olivier). He tells Hamlet that he was murdered, who did it and how it was done as the audience sees the murder re-enacted in a flashback as the ghost describes – Claudius is seen pouring poison into a sleeping King Hamlet's ear, thereby killing him.

Hamlet does not at first accept what his father’s ghost tells him to be the truth, but prepares to act mad to test Claudius' conscience. Hamlet’s feigned insanity attracts the attention of Polonius (Felix Aylmer), the Lord Chamberlain. Convinced Hamlet has gone mad, Polonius pushes the point with the King. He tells him that Hamlet’s madness is derived from his love for Ophelia (Jean Simmons), Polonius's daughter. In order to convince the king, Polonius sets up a meeting between Hamlet and Ophelia. After overhearing their exchange, Claudius is convinced.

A wandering company of stage performers arrives at Elsinore and Hamlet invites them to stay, requesting them to enact the play The Murder of Gonzago for the king. Hamlet makes a few alterations to the play, so as to make it mirror the circumstances of his late father's murder. Claudius, obviously uncomfortable with the message being sent, calls out for light and retires to his room. Hamlet is now convinced of Claudius' treachery and seeks to kill him. He finds Claudius alone, praying. Not wishing to send his father’s killer to heaven, he decides to wait and bide his time.

Hamlet stops himself from killing the King.

He instead goes to his mother and confronts her about the matter of his father's death and Claudius' role. During this confrontation, he hears a voice from behind the curtain, and, believing it’s Claudius eavesdropping, plunges his dagger into the body. Hamlet discovers that he has killed Polonius instead. Hamlet is not very upset and continues to confront his mother. He then sees his father’s ghostly apparition and proceeds to converse with it. Gertrude, who cannot see the ghost, is now also convinced that her son has gone mad.

Hamlet confronts his mother.

Claudius finding out that he’s killed Polonius deports Hamlet to England, giving orders to have Hamlet killed once he arrives. Fortunately, Hamlet's ship is attacked by pirates, whom he befriends and who return him to Denmark.

Meanwhile, Ophelia goes mad over Hamlet's rejection and the idea that he had killed her father. She drowns herself, committing suicide. Laertes (Terence Morgan), Ophelia's brother, is driven to avenge her death, as well as his father's.

Ophelia (Jean Simmons) commits suicide when Hamlet rejects her.

Claudius and Laertes, after learning of Hamlet's return, prepare to have him killed. They want to make it look like an accident. Laertes is to challenge Hamlet to a duel, wherein Laertes will use a poisoned blade that will kill with a bare touch. In case that fails, Claudius also prepares a poisoned drink.

Hamlet is informed about Laertes’ challenge by Osric (Peter Cushing), a courtier, and accepts. Initially, the scheme Claudius and Laertes planned looks to be failing. Hamlet wins the first two rounds of the duel. Gertrude, suspecting poison, drinks from the cup intended for Hamlet.

In-between bouts, Laertes rushes Hamlet and strikes him on the arm, fatally poisoning him. Not knowing this, Hamlet continues the duel, eventually disarming Laertes and switching blades with him. Hamlet then strikes Laertes in the wrist, fatally wounding him.

Already mortally wounded, Hamlet wins the duel with Laertes.

Gertrude then dies from the poison, but not before warning Hamlet not to drink from the cup. While he lays dying, Laertes confesses the whole plot to Hamlet, who then, in a fit of rage, flies down at Claudius from the top of the stairs, killing him. Only then does Hamlet die.

Horatio, horrified by all this, orders that Hamlet be given a decent funeral, and the young prince's body is taken away to the embattlements where the story began.

The young prince's body is taken away to the embattlements where the film began.

This film set a number of firsts when it came to Awards. Hamlet was the first film in which the leading actor had directed himself to an Oscar-winning performance. Olivier was the first actor to win an Academy Award for a Shakespearean role. The film was the first non-American film to win Best Picture and it is the only one to have won both Best Picture and the Venice Film Festival – Great International Prize of Venice (The Golden Lion). While the Venice Film Festival has been overshadowed by the Cannes Film Festival, Venice is the oldest (founded in 1932) and some say most prestigious international film festival. The film also won the BAFTA for Best Film From Any Source, but did not win Best British Film. That distinction went to Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol.

Hamlet was not without its critics. They pointed out the truncation of the play and the slant from politics to Oedipal fixation. The exclusion of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern robbed the film of any possible comedic moments which Shakespeare had included in the play.

Over the years, some of the luster has gone from Hamlet. Once considered to be the definitive cinematic Hamlet, that hasn’t stopped others from making their own adaptations of Hamlet, including Bill Colleran in 1964 directing Richard Burton in the lead; Tony Richardson in 1969 with Nicol Williamson in the lead; Franco Zeffirelli, in 1990 with Mel Gibson in the lead; Kenneth Branagh directing himself in 1996; Michael Almereyda in 2000 with Ethan Hawke in the lead; and Gregory Doran directing David Tennant in a BBC version in 2009.

Everything about this Hamlet screams seriousness, starting with the score written by William Walton. You know right away that you should leave any joy you had coming in at the auditorium door. This is a dark movie in almost every regard. The black and white cinematography by Desmond Dickinson is both reminiscent of German Expressionism as well as film noir. The sets are both improbably large but the passageways somewhat claustrophobic, as if playing against the public spectacle of the royal court and the dark, death-obsessed mind of Hamlet.

Olivier may be the great Shakespearean actor of his generation, but his performance here, especially nearly 70 years hence, seems stodgy and unrealistic. Perhaps it works better on stage, but his Hamlet on film comes off as a dated interpretation. It’s the kind of acting that you think of when you think of Shakespeare, which is unfair to the source material.

Despite their direction, a couple of the actors seemed to break through. Peter Cushing, best known as for his appearances in horror films and as Grand Moff Tarkin in the first Star Wars, practically disappears as Osric, the foppish courtier, which I think is a sign of how well he played the role. His Osric provides the only smiles and near laughs in an otherwise dour film. It should be noted that a frequent co-star of Cushing’s is also in the film; somewhere in the background, is a spear carrying Christopher Lee.

Peter Cushing plays Osric, a courtier in Hamlet.

Jean Simmons, who would have a long and distinguished career, was nominated for her role as Ophelia. The Academy has a history of rewarding actresses who play crazy or disabled, so the nomination as Best Supporting Actress isn’t really a surprise. Her madness just seems to come on her all at once. Perhaps there is more in the original play that explains it, but here she seems to snap like a twig.

Jean Simmons plays Ophelia and was nominated for Best Supporting Actress by the Academy.

I also found myself liking Norman Wooland as Horatio. I think he had a very good presence in the movie.

While Olivier did edit out great portions of the play, I have no doubts that he respected the author of the play more than I can imagine. He excised portions and characters that took screen time away from the themes he wanted to concentrate on with his adaptation. Still, there are the usual quotable lines and soliloquies, though Olivier isn’t above truncating them as well. Despite that and even if you are a relative novice, this is one of those Shakespeare plays that you are no doubt more familiar with then you may realize as time after time something you’ve heard before will be spoken. 

"To be or not to be" is one of the famous soliloquies in Hamlet.

Olivier’s Hamlet is very much a filmed stage play, though there are a few shots outside the confines of a sound stage. This is not a film that plays well to a modern audience, who may be used to more natural acting. Practically everything Hamlet says is spoken with the same intensity and speed of delivery. This has been my complaint before about films based on Shakespeare’s works; if the dialogue is spoken too fast, the uninformed audience can get lost trying to keep up.

Some of the sets are impressive, but still somewhat bare.

There is a bit of flourish near the end of the film, when Hamlet and Laertes are involved in their swordplay. It must be criteria for a Shakespearean trained actor to be good with a sword, since both actors show a real flair, fighting with two swords each. But this little bit of action is not enough to save the film for me. I’ve seen old posters advertise this Hamlet as “One of the screens most exciting experiences,” but the film critic for Look magazine, to whom the blurb is credited, and I must have had very different experiences while watching it.

The swordfight at the end of the film offered some flourish.

Of the Shakespeare films we’ve seen and reviewed as part of Shakespeare September, Olivier’s Hamlet is perhaps my least favorite. I had trepidations about the film going in, remembering what bits I’d seen reminding me too much of school. Good films can introduce their audiences to new texts and give them an appreciation of that text. Great films accomplish this much more subtly and also draw the audience in. Olivier’s Hamlet never forgets its own importance and you get the feeling you are always on the outside looking in.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Stubs – Othello

Othello (1995) Starring: Laurence Fishburne, Kenneth Branagh, Irène Jacob, Nathaniel Parker, Michael Maloney. Directed by Oliver Parker. Screenplay by Oliver Parker Based on the play Othello by William Shakespeare (London, ca. 1604, published 1622). Produced by David Barron, Luc Roeg.  Run Time: 125 minutes. U.K. U.S. Color Drama, Tragedy

In our continuing study of movies based on the plays of William Shakespeare, next up is the 1995 version of Othello, based on the play of the same name, also known as The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. The play was written around 1603-04 and based on the short story Un Capitano Moro ("A Moorish Captain") by Cinthio, first published in 1565. The first known performance of Othello was November 1, 1604 at Whitehall Palace in London.

The play is somewhat unique in the canon of Shakespeare’s plays in that the eponymous character is a non-white, Moor. Moors were medieval Muslim inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal), Sicily and Malta. The Moors arrived on the Iberian Peninsula in 711 from North African Morrocco and remained until they were expelled in 1492, the same year Christopher Columbus sailed for the New World under the Spanish kingdom’s flag.

The term Moors was a derogatory term for Muslims and was applied in Europe to Arabs and Sub-Saharan Africans. While Shakespeare left Othello’s race ambiguous, he is often portrayed as a black African.

Othello has inspired two operas, both called Otello and both in Italian. The first has a libretto by Francesco Maria Berio di Salsi and music by Gioachino Rossini. This Otello was first performed on December 4, 1816. Seventy-one years later, Giuseppe Verdi and librettist Arrigo Boito wrote a second adaptation. This one was first performed in Milan on February 5, 1887.

Films have been made using both the plays and the operas as a basis since 1909, though oftentimes Othello was played by a white actor. Emil Jannings, the great German silent actor, played the role in 1922; Orson Welles in his own version in 1952; and Laurence Olivier played Othello on film in 1965. Our Othello marked the first major film production to cast a black actor, Laurence Fishburne, as Othello.

The film marks Oliver Parker’s directorial debut. While the film follows the play’s plot very closely, lines are cut and some scenes are added. This is to be expected as every screenwriter/director wants to put his own mark on the project and not merely film the play. Live-theater and film are similar, but very different ways of telling a story and Parker cannot be faulted for using the aspects of the media that were not available to Shakespeare when he wrote this play.

The film, like the play, opens in Venice. Desdemona (Irène Jacob) is hurrying to her secret marriage ceremony to Othello (Laurence Fishbourne), a Moorish general in the Army. Roderigo (Michael Maloney), who is in love with Desdemona, complains about this to his friend, Iago (Kenneth Branagh), an ensign under Othello, who hates him because he believes Othello slept with his wife, Emilia (Anna Patrick). For money, he promises Roderigo that he’ll split up the marriage, so he can have his chance with Desdemona.

The two go to wake Brabantio (Pierre Vaneck), Desdemona’s father, to tell him of his daughter’s elopement. Brabantio is enraged at the news and gathers the family to go after Othello. Afterwards, Iago finds Othello and warns him that Brabatino is coming after him.

Brabantio and his family confront Othello and his men, but while there is some sword-play, they are called to the Duke of Venice’s (Gabriele Ferzetti) residence. News has arrived in Venice that the Turks are going to attack Cyprus and Othello has been summoned.

Othello (Laurence Fishbourne) confronts his father-in-law. Iago (Kenneth Branagh) is to the left.

In front of the Duke, Brabantio accuses Othello of seducing Desdemona by witchcraft. To clear the air, Dedemona is summoned to the residence. Desdemona confirms that she loves Othello, which satisifies the senate and the Duke, but Brabantio is still not overjoyed.

Brabantio (Pierre Vaneck) is not happy about Desdemona's (Irene Jacobs) marriage to Othello.

The real business before the Duke is gotten to and Othello is sent to Cyprus to command the Venetian Army against the Turks. Othello leaves, accompanied by his new wife, Cassio (Nathaniel Parker), a new lieutenant, Iago, and Emilia, who is also Desdemona’s attendant.

The Turks flee Cyrus and Othello orders a general celebration. While Othello is spending private time with Desdemona, Iago schemes to ruin Cassio. After admitting to Iago that he can’t hold his liquor, Iago gets him drunk and then persuades Rodrigo to draw him out into a fight. When Othello learns of the fight, he blames Cassio and strips him of his rank.

Desdemona joins Othello on Cyprus after the Turks flee.

Iago, always the mixer, convinces Cassio to use Desdemona as a go-between to help rehabilitate his reputation with Othello. Iago then persuades Othello to be suspicious of Cassio and Desdemona.

When Desdemona uses a handkerchief with strawberries on it, a family heirloom of sorts for Othello and his first gift to her, to help bind Othello’s headache, she accidentally drops it on the bed. Emilia, who has watched this, scoops it up and delivers it to Iago, but has no idea why he wants it. Iago then plants the handkerchief in Cassio’s residence.

Still trying to convince Othello of Desdemona’s affair, Iago has Othello watch as he speaks with Cassio about the handkerchief. Instead of the handkerchief, Iago speaks to Cassio about his affair with Bianca (Indra Ové), a local woman with whom Cassio has been spending a lot of time with lately. While they are speaking, Bianca confronts Cassio about the handkerchief and chastises him for giving her a gift he received from a prior lover. Cassio pleads with her that that is not the case and follows after her.

Iago talks with Cassio (Nathaniel Parker) under false pretenses to prove a point to Othello.

Othello, having seen this exchange, is convinced by Iago that Cassio had received the handkerchief from Desdemona, despite the great significance Othello placed on it in the context of their relationship. Othello is enraged at his wife’s betrayal and resolves to kill her. He then asks Iago to kill Cassio.

From then on, Othello is rather cruel to Desdemona, even striking her in front of visiting Venetian nobles, including Lodovico (Michael Sheen).

 Lodovico (Michael Sheen) is one of the visiting Venetian nobles.

Meanwhile, Roderigo is not happy with the lack of progress Iago has made and wants his money back. Iago convinces him to kill Cassio; Iago hides while Roderigo attacks Cassio on the street, but in the swordfight, Roderigo is wounded by Cassio, even though Iago creeps up from behind Cassio and badly cuts his leg during the skirmish.

Cassio cries for help and Iago, along with the Venetian nobles, comes to help. While the others attend to Cassio, Iago pretends to help Roderigo, whom he quietly stabs to prevent him from revealing the plot. Later we see Cassio and Roderigo being attended to in an infirmary. Roderigo is not quite dead when he arrives, but dies while Iago watches.

Later that night, Othello confronts Desdemona and refuses to believe her pleas that she has been faithful to him. He then smothers her with a pillow. She is not quite dead when Emilia arrives to tell Othello about Roderigo’s death. When Desdemona dies, Emilia screams for help. Lodovico, Iago and others arrive.

Othello can't be convinced of Desdemona's fidelity.

Still in the bedroom, Desdemona’s body still where she was killed, Othello admits to the murder. Emilia begins to explain the situation, implicating her husband when Othello mentions the handkerchief as proof of Desdemona’s betrayal. Iago then stabs Emilia in front of everyone. She asks to be laid down next to her mistress to die.

Realizing Desdemona’s innocence, Othello stabs Iago, but not fatally, saying that he would rather have Iago live the rest of his life in pain. For his part, Iago refuses to explain his motives, vowing to remain silent from that moment on. Othello commits suicide with a dagger he has hidden and dies on the bed next to Desdemona. Cassio is made Governor of the island by Lodovico and Iago is sent away to be punished.

Iago gets what's coming to him when Othello stabs him.

Unlike the play, the movie ends with a burial at sea for the bodies, presumably of Othello and Desdemona. Othello, like The Merchant of Venice (2004) and Romeo and Juliet (1968), was shot on location, with some scenes shot in Venice. Like Merchant, the authentic backdrops add to the realism of the story.

The acting for the most part is very good. Laurence Fishbourne was an established actor by this point in his career, having starred in such films as Boyz In the Hood (1991) and having appeared on stage. Up until then, he was not an actor one associated with Shakespeare. However, he is very good in the role and brings out all sides of Othello’s character.

Laurence Fishbourne as Othello.
He is teamed with Kenneth Branagh, an actor who is very much associated with the works of Shakespeare, having appeared in several stage productions and writing, directing and starring in the films Henry V (1989) and Much Ado About Nothing (1993). Branagh is excellent at the conniving, scheming and generally evil Iago. The character has so much screentime and carries the plot that he could be considered to be the lead, though not the hero of the piece.

Kenneth Branagh plays Iago.

Other fine performances are turned in by Indra Ové as the beautiful Desdemona, Nathaniel Parker as Cassio and Anna Patrick as Emilia. Of these, I think Parker’s Cassio is the best and certainly the meatiest of the roles. Just for reference sake, the Parkers, director and actor, are brothers and Anna Patrick is also Nathaniel’s wife. Sometimes nepotism pays off, as they are both very fine actors.

For a first time director, I think Oliver Patrick did a good job of keeping the story moving forward. I’ve seen that some adaptations can take up to three plus hours to tell the story. The shorter running time means that a lot of the play was excised In order to keep things moving. While that might be seen as a disservice to the Bard, it is not out of line with the writer’s own work. Even though we may see Shakespeare as a lofty writer of tragedies and comedies, he was in reality writing for the enjoyment of the common man, which made up the audience at the Globe Theatre where much of his work premiered. This Othello, with its shorter run time, is perhaps better suited for today’s audience, with shorter attention spans, than a full out and out adaptation of the entire play.

The film received over all positive reviews, with Branagh called out for his Iago. He was even nominated for the Screen Actors Guild’s Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role. Fishburne would receive an Image Award nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Motion Picture and the film would be nominated for Outstanding Motion Picture. However, despite the good reviews, this production was far from a success. Budgeted at $11 million, this Othello brought in less than $3 million in the U.S.

For me, this was my first exposure to Othello. This recent immersion in Shakespearean films has exposed me to a lot of stories that I had either avoided or neglected, depending on your point of view. For some reason Othello always seemed sort of intimidating to me. This production made this story much more accessible for me.

However, even though the acting was good, I still found myself getting lost sometimes in the meter of Shakespeare’s dialogue. Despite that, the film was not really hard to follow on a high level, but some subtleties with story and dialogue sort of washed over me and I’m sure I’ve missed out on some based on my own lack of knowledge of Shakespeare.

If you’re new to Shakespearean films like I am, then I would certainly recommend this film to you. Again, the acting and directing are very good and the pace of the film keeps things moving. However, I’m not sure if the more knowledgeable of the Bard you are the less you may forgive the cuts or the additions that were made. If for no other reason, the film should be seen for Fishburne’s and Branagh’s performances.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Stubs - The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice (2004) Starring: Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes, Lynn Collins, Zuleikha Robinson. Directed by Michael Radford.  Screenplay by Michael Radford. Based on the play The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare (London, ca. 1596-97, published 1600). Produced by Cary Brokaw, Barry Navidi, Jason Piette, Michael Lionello Cowan. Run Time: 127 minutes. Great Britain, Italy, Luxembourg, and United States. Color. Comedy, Drama

William Shakespeare has been the source, either directly or indirectly, for many films. It seems that whenever Hollywood can’t think of something new or doesn’t have a sure-fire sequel in its back pocket, they will turn to Shakespeare’s work. Since the French made a version of Hamlet in 1900 starring Sarah Bernhardt, Shakespeare’s plays have been made into 410 feature-length films and television productions, making him far and away the most filmed author in any language.

As an example, The Merchant of Venice has been made several times, including versions British film versions in 1916 and 1922; British television versions in 1947, 1955, 1972, 1973, 1980, 1996, 2001; a Canadian TV adaptation in 1976, a New Zealand film in 2002 and the version we’ll be reviewing made in 2004 and starring Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons. This is not only the first time Hollywood has attempted to make a movie from this particular play, it is the first film version made in the sound era.

Why has this play lagged behind others of Shakespeare’s works to make it to the big screen? No doubt it is the perceived anti-Semitic message of the play. It will come as no surprise that Jews have not been treated well in Europe and the same was very true back in Elizabethan England, when this play was written. At the time, Jews were often depicted on screen as caricatures with hooked noses and red wigs and usually depicted as usuries, people that loan money with interest.

In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock (Al Pacino) is not only portrayed as an avaricious money-lender, but also as sadistic and vengeful; not that he didn’t have reasons for disliking his treatment by Venetian society and at the hands of Antonio (Jeremy Irons), the Merchant, in particular. In Venice, Jews were forced to live in a Ghetto at night, could not marry out of their faith, had to wear red hats when milling with the Christians and were generally treated little better than rats. Adding insult to injury, the first interaction we’re shown between Shylock and Antonio is Antonio spitting in Shylock’s face.

Antonio (Jeremy Irons) is the Merchant of Venice.

Antonio is an ambitious merchant with four trade ships in route to four different destinations. With his money tied up, he has to use his credit to subsidize his good friend Bassanio’s (Joseph Fiennes) pursuit of Portia of Belmont (Lynn Collins). It is Bassanio who finds Shylock and names Antonio as the loan’s guarantor.

While Shylock is reluctant at first to make the loan, he does agree to give Bassanio the 3,000 ducats he requires, but will do so at no interest. However, there is one catch. If Antonio is unable to repay the loan amount by a specified date, Shylock can take from Antonio one pound of his flesh. Feeling assured that his fortunes and cash flow will improve upon his ships return to Venice, Antonio agrees to Shylock’s terms. With the money he needs, Bassanio and his friend, Gratiano (Kris Marshall), set out for Belmont.

Shylock (Al Pacino) makes the loan, but there is one catch.

Portia, whose now deceased father has left her a fortune, must also deal with one other of her father’s stipulations from his will, how suitor will win her hand. Based on his interpretation of a slogan about each of three caskets, one gold, one silver and one lead, each suitor will have the opportunity to choose the casket containing a portraiture of Portia. If the suitor chooses correctly, he will win Portia’s hand in marriage and the wealth that comes with her.

One of Portia's (Lynn Collins) suitors is the Prince of Morocco (David Harewood).

A fair maiden, Portia has several suitors. The first is the Prince of Morocco (David Harewood) who chooses the gold casket. The second suitor, the frumpy and older Prince of Aragon (Antonio Gil), chooses the silver one. Both are wrong. When Bassanio arrives he correctly chooses the lead casket and wins Portia’s hand. Gratiano falls in love with Portia’s handmaid, Nerissa (Heather Goldenhersh), and they plan to marry as well.

Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) chooses the right casket.

Meanwhile, back in Venice, all of Antonio’s ships are stranded and when it comes time to pay back Shylock, he doesn’t have the money. Some of Shylock’s anger towards Antonio is really towards Christians in general after his daughter, Jessica (Zuleikha Robinson), has eloped with Lorenzo (Charlie Cox) and taken with her a substantial amount of his fortune.

Shylock's daughter, Jessica (Zuleikha Robinson), elopes and takes some of his money with her.

When a letter reaches Bassanio notifying him of Antonio’s troubles, he and Gratiano plan to return to Venice, but not before each is married. As a sign of their union, Portia gives Bassanio a ring as a symbol of their love and swore him not to remove it, sell it or give it away. Nerissa does the same with Gratiano. Portia also gives Bassanio 6,000 Ducats to repay Antonio’s debt to Shylock. Portia and Nerissa then leave to seek advice from her cousin, Bellario, a lawyer.

In the court of the Duke of Venice (Anton Rodgers), final resolution of Antonio’s debt is being discussed. Shylock is there, waiting to take his literal pound of flesh. While the Duke wants to save Antonio, he doesn’t think he can interfere with a contract. Shylock refuses Bassanio’s offer of 6,000 ducats to settle the debt, but Shylock is adamant that he is due the pound of flesh stipulated in the loan contract.

Shylock wants his pound of flesh from Antonio.

Helpless to do anything, the Duke allows the issue to be settled by a new arrival, a man (actually Portia in disguise) who claims to be Balthazar, a doctor of the law. With him is his court clerk, who is Nerissa in disguise. As reference, Balthazar has a letter from Bellario.

Balthazar (Lynn Collins), a doctor of law, comes to Antonio's legal aid.

Balthazar asks for Shylock to show mercy, but Shylock will have none of it. Shylock is allowed to take his pound of flesh, but is warned that if any blood should spill then Shylock will be charged and lose his lands and goods under Venetian law. She further tells him the same will be true if he takes anything other than an exact pound, which Shylock has brought his own scale to measure. Anything above or below that amount will result in similar punishment for Shylock.

Feeling defeated, Shylock decides to take the offer of payment, but now Portia tells him that he has already forfeited that in open court and cannot change his mind now. She then cites a Venetian law in which Shylock as a Jew, and therefore considered an alien, has attempted to take the life of a Venetian citizen. As such he has forfeited his fortune, half to the government and half to Antonio and that his life now lies in the balance up to the discretion of the Duke.

The Duke immediately pardons Shylock and Antonio offers his half for Shylock to use for the rest of his life, provided that it be left on his death to Jessica and Lorenzo. The Duke will forgive the government’s share as well, as long as Shylock converts to Christianity and leaves his entire estate to Jessica and Lorenzo. Shylock accepts his status, but it is obvious that it causes him real distress.

Neither Bassanio nor Gratiano recognize their wives, even when they speak with them. Bassanio offers to pay Balthazar (Portia) for his help. While she originally rebuffs the offer, she does ask for Bassanio’s gloves and for the ring. He gives her his gloves, but doesn’t want to part with ring until Antonio talks him into it. Gratiano likewise parts with his ring, which he also promised Nerissa never to remove, giving it to the court clerk for their part in resolving the debt.

The two couples, Portia and Bassanio; Gratiano (Kris Marshall) and Nerissa (Heather Goldenhersh).

Back at Belmont, Portia and Nerissa make a show of asking their husbands about their missing rings and have they’ve broken their vows before revealing that they were the lawyer and clerk in disguise. In the end, Antonio is informed that three of his ships were not stranded after all and have returned.

Despite the dramatic moments, the humiliation of Shylock and threats of mutilation, the play is considered a Comedy. And while it has moments of whimsy and romance, it is obvious that the definition of comedy has been changed since this play was first performed in and about 1598.

This film was not a success either at the boxoffice or with critics. On a budget of about $30 million, it only made a little over $21 million worldwide. Critics gave generally positive but not overwhelming reviews.

The acting is for the most part very good throughout and the three male leads: Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons and Joseph Fiennes are all to be applauded for their work. Nothing against Fiennes, but it’s hard to imagine better actors than Pacino and Irons. But of those two, Pacino is dominant. Pacino, who came to prominence playing Michael in The Godfather (1972), brings a lot of humanity to the villain character. He is a very three-dimensional character and while Pacino is capable of chewing the scenery, he is somewhat restrained here.

Al Pacino's Shylock is the most commanding performance in the film.

While Shylock is not The Merchant of Venice, Antonio is, the film’s most dramatic moments are when he’s in front of the camera and he frankly outshines Irons. While he’s good, Irons’ Antonio seems to take a backseat to Pacino’s Shylock, especially in the scenes they have together. Irons is a good actor in his own right, but doesn’t have the same presence Pacino commands.

As good as Pacino and Irons are, to me the break out performance comes from Lynn Collins, who played Portia. I am far from being the first reviewer to be impressed by her in this role. Collins, who had performed Shakespeare on stage prior, is excellent in the role. While it is obvious that she’s a woman playing a man in the scene in the court of the Duke of Venice, she is still fascinating to watch, both in and out of drag.

Lynn Collins was a stand out in the film playing Portia and Balthazar.

Speaking of being out of clothes, there is nudity in this film, something I doubt there was in the original staged versions of the film. The nudity, which is mostly confined to unconfined breasts, has a place and is perhaps historically accurate, as most of it occurs in scenes taking place in brothels. While it’s not just nudity for the sake of nudity, there are still 15 shots (someone else’s count) of bare breasts, which might not be what you’d expect with your Shakespeare. (Insert your own pound of flesh joke here.)

This was my first exposure to The Merchant of Venice in any form, having never seen this on stage or having read the play. I understand from reading that there are some changes between play and film, but that’s to be expected whenever a play is adapted, even one of Shakespeare’s. They are different media after all. I particularly liked using the actual canals of Venice for some of the backdrops. Seeing it performed where the play takes place adds to the story-telling in ways the playwright could have only imagined.

While this is not my favorite Shakespeare play, this adaptation of The Merchant of Venice is a good addition to the catalog of his plays put to film. There are other versions of the play out there to watch, most notably a 1973 television version starring Laurence Olivier, but it’s hard to imagine one as vital and alive as this one.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Stubs – Romeo & Juliet (1968)

Romeo & Juliet (1968) Starring: Leonard Whiting, Olivia Hussey, Milo O'Shea. Directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Screenplay by Franco Brusati, Masolino D'Amico, Franco Zeffirelli. Based on the play Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (London, ca. 1596, published 1597). Produced by John Brabourne, Anthony Havelock-Allan. Run Time: 138 minutes. U.K. and Italy. Color. Drama, Romance

Romeo and Juliet is perhaps the best known of all of William Shakespeare’s plays. The story of tragic love has its origins dating back to the beginnings of literature. The earliest type of story is Pyramus and Thisbe dating back to Ovid’s (aka Publius Ovidius Naso) poem Metamorphoses first published in 8 AD. (Pyramus and Thisbe would also make an appearance in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.)

The earliest version of Romeo and Juliet dates back to the story of Mariotto and Gianozza by Masuccio Salernitano, published in 1476. In 1530, Luigi da Porto adapted the story as Giulietta e Romeo and added many of the “modern” items we associate with the story, including the names of the lovers, the rivalry between the Montecchi and Capuleti families, characters corresponding to Shakespeare’s Mercutio, Tybalt, and Paris as well as using Verona, Italy as the location.

Matteo Bandello wrote his own version of the story in 1554. His version adds some characters, including the Nurse character, as well as the feud between the families. Bandello’s story was then translated into French by Pierre Boaistuau in 1559. And in 1562, Arthur Brooke faithfully translated Boaustuau in his narrative poem The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet. In 1567, William Painter retold the story again in prose. Shakespeare’s take on the story borrowed from both Brooke’s and Painter’s work, but he added his own dramatic structure and verse.

Written between 1591 and 1596, the play would be his most popular during his lifetime, along with Hamlet and the tragic love story has also been one of his most popular to be adapted to film. There have been over 20 versions of the play made for film and television dating back to Clément Maurice’s French version in 1900. But perhaps the best known version is Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet released in 1968.

Zeffirelli had started as a production designer and had made his directorial debut with another Shakespeare play, The Taming of the Shrew (1967), the best known film adaptation of that play as well. Originally slated to star Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, the film ended up starring Elizabeth Taylor and her then husband Richard Burton, who had put more than a million dollars towards the film’s budget.

After the success of The Taming of the Shrew, Zeffirelli took on another Shakespeare play, Romeo & Juliet. For his second film, Zeffirelli supposedly approached Paul McCartney of The Beatles to play the lead male role. When that didn’t work out, there was a casting call which had 300 actors auditioning over a span of more than three months. From that Leonard Whiting was chosen. For Juliet, Zeffirelli chose Olivia Hussey, whom he had seen on stage in a production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie opposite Vanessa Redgrave. Again, she was chosen over 500 other actresses.

With a production of $850,000, the film was shot on several locations in Italy. The story starts with narration read by perhaps the best known Shakespearean actor of modern times, Laurence Olivier. This prologue pretty much is a spoiler for the play, but that’s how it was written.

In Verona, Italy, there is a long-standing feud between two prominent families, one lead by Lord (Antonio Pierfederici) and Lady (Esmeralda Ruspoli) Montague and the other by Lord (Paul Hardwick) and Lady (Natasha Parry) Capulet. When members of these families meet on the streets it takes very little provocation to turn into an out and out street brawl. It takes the intervention of the Prince of Verona (Robert Stephens) and the threat to execute the leaders of both families to stop things.

Against this background of bad blood, two teenagers, Romeo Montague (Leonard Whiting) and Juliet Capulet (Olivia Hussey), meet and fall madly in love. Later, Romeo stumbles into the garden below Juliet’s bedroom balcony and the two exchange pledges of love.

Romeo Montague (Leonard Whiting) and Juliet Capulet (Olivia Hussey) meet and fall in love.

With the help of Friar Laurence (Milo O’Shea), who has been like a father to Romeo, and Juliet’s Nurse (Pat Heywood), who has been the girl’s stand-in mother, the two wed secretly.

Milo O'Shea plays Friar Laurence who secretly weds the young lovers.

Unfortunately, not a day goes by before there is trouble. Juliet’s first cousin Tybalt (Michael York), who doesn’t know about the wedding, throws insults at Romeo, who now thinks of Tybalt as family and doesn’t want to fight with him. But Romeo’s best friend, Mercutio (John McEnery), who doesn’t know about the wedding either, takes up arms to defend his friend.

Tybalt (Michael York) kills Romeo's friend, Mercutio (John McEnery).

While the duel that ensues starts out as two young men enjoying themselves as they try to best one another, it grows more violent and Mercutio is killed. So lighthearted is the duel that even though Mercutio is mortally wounded his friends think he is acting and do not get help that might have saved his life. Tybalt flees the scene, but Romeo follows and the two get into their own swordfight. Even though Romeo seems overmatched by Tybalt, he does manage to kill him. After one night of passion together, Romeo leaves Juliet and Verona, having been banished by the Prince for the murder.

And as revenge, Romeo duels and kills Tybalt.

Meanwhile, unaware that Juliet is already married, her father arranges her to marry the wealthy Count Paris (Roberto Bisacco). To help her avoid the marriage, Friar Laurence prepares a concoction for her that will make her appear to be temporarily dead for forty-two hours. He plans to inform Romeo of the hoax, so the two can meet after Juliet’s burial. Friar John (Aldo Miranda) is dispatched with a letter telling Romeo as much.

Romeo and Juliet spend one night of passion together.

However, Romeo’s servant Balthasar (Keith Skinner) witnesses Juliet’s funeral and, not knowing the hoax, goes to inform his master. Unfortunately, he arrives before Friar John and Romeo, reacting to the news, hurries to Juliet’s tomb. Distraught by seeing her dead body, he kills himself by drinking poison. After one last kiss, he dies.

Romeo doesn't know Juliet's death is a hoax, so he kills himself after one last kiss.

Friar Laurence arrives after Romeo’s death and just before Juliet reawakens from his potion. Seeing that Romeo is dead, she takes her husband’s dagger and stabs herself in the heart to join him in the afterlife.

Seeing her husband is dead, Juliet takes her own life with Romeo's dagger.

The young lovers’ death brings the two families together at a joint funeral and they agree to end their feud.

The death of Romeo and Juliet bring the two fueding families together.

When the film was released on October 8, 1968, it was a big success by the standards of the day, earning nearly $39 million at the box office. Reviews were generally positive and the film was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director, though it would win for Best Cinematography (Pasqualino De Santis) and Best Costume Design (Danilo Donati). Even the soundtrack album would peak at #2 in the Billboard charts in 1969.

No doubt at the time of the film’s release, showing young people close to the ages of the protagonists, rather than already established actors, was applauded and it should have been. While there is nudity, and it is perhaps a little gratuitous, you have to remember the time that it was made. These were not sights seen on American mainstream cinemas at the time. During the 1960’s, with its shift in mores, this film was the right one for the time; pushing the envelope without going too far for the movie-going public.

The film would make stars out of its young leads and they will forever be associated with the roles of Romeo and Juliet. They both have a certain star power that comes with young actors being able to carry a major motion picture. Whiting and Hussey were the reason people came to see the film and their performances are why the movie is still watchable to this day.

For a time, Leonard Whiting would get the pop idol treatment and would be considered a heartthrob to some.  Whiting would win the Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year, but he would end up only making a handful of films, instead concentrating on his theatrical career. Olivia Hussey would have a longer career, though nothing would approach her initial success as Juliet. They are both reuniting in Social Suicide (2015).

There are other actors of note in the cast, including Michael York as Tybalt and Milo O’Shea as Friar Laurence. York was just starting an acting career that would include film, television, live acting and voice over work. York would appear in Cabaret (1972) with Liza Minnelli, co-star in The Three Musketeers (1973) and its sequel, The Four Musketeers (1974) and star in the sci-fi film Logan’s Run (1976).

Milo O’Shea was best known as a character actor in a career that started as Air Raid Warden in Blackout (1940) and ended with an appearance on The West Wing (2004).

For the most part the movie’s screenplay stays fairly faithful to the source material, though there are some edits made in dialogue, etc., which one would expect with any adaptation, even one of Shakespeare. And it is how much this is like a play that keeps me from really endorsing the movie. Like The Merchant of Venice (2004), this film was made on locations that, at least, resemble the locations where the story would have taken place. But while Venice was shown as a vibrant city, Verona comes off like an empty stage on which the play is performed. I don’t really get the sense of place here that a location shoot should have brought.

Added to that, the voices sound like they were re-dubbed after filming. I haven’t been able to find any information about this production in particular, but it was a common practice to redub voices shot on location. In this case, it’s sort of like watching a Hong Kong kung fu film dubbed in English, but in this case it’s English that they’re overdubbing. All the lip movements synch up, but some of the power of the speeches seems to get lost in the process. As a result some of the acting comes off as a little flat. Again, I don’t have evidence that this is what happened, only that after having seen this film three times now, that is the impression I’m left with.

While I know the intent was to bring the play to life on the cinema screen, there is more to a production than costumes and beautiful cinematography. Having watched several other Shakespeare films recently, including A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), Hamlet (1948), Othello (1995), and The Merchant of Venice (2004), this one seems to be the slowest paced and the least involving. Beautiful to watch, the film has not held up well over time.

But to say not to watch this is to like denying you a rite of passage. Ever since this film was released, it has been the go-to movie for new readers of Shakespeare wanting to see the play, but not wanting to wait for a production to be mounted nearby. And the film has been used as a vehicle to introduce the Bard to the masses. The story has been modernized, as in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), but seeing the play in the setting Shakespeare envisioned is probably best for new viewers.

No doubt the play will continue to be adapted and retold as each new generation does its take on the classic tragic love story, but Zeffirelli’s adaptation is, at least for now, the standard bearer by which all future films will be compared.