Top 5 Shakespeare Films (or Best of The Bard Onscreen)

1) Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

If there was just one word to describe this film, it would be “luminous.” Filmed during a Summer in Italy, the FAB cast includes Kenneth Branagh (who directed), Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, and Keanu Reeves (whose presence is odd, yet doesn’t spoil the movie). You have the innocent/fresh-faced lovers: Hero (Kate Beckinsale- SO adorable and young) and Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard- who ages quite slowly), In contrast to this hopeful pair, there is the sharp-tongued/witty older couple: Beatrice (Thompson) and Benedick (Branagh). Her father fears that her sharp tongue will render her single for life. Benedick declares that he’ll die a bachelor, BUT his jovial friend/lord Don Perdo (Denzel- looking esp. FAB in leather pants) has other plans. Who doesn’t LOVE Denzel doing light-hearted roles!? Almost everyone (aside from Keanu- DUH!) does well w/ the (complicated) words, incl. the newbie Beckinsale. The veterans (all Brits) in the cast add authenticity and Keaton brings in eccentric humor. Aside from the gorgeous scenery, the music (composed by Patrick Doyle) is amazing (I had the CD back in the day).

2) A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)

This is another visually gorgeous film (w/ a talented cast from BOTH sides of the pond), though NOT as seamless as Much Ado (also a popular comedy). There are several pairs of lovers, incl. fairies: Oberon (Rupert Everett) and Titania (Michelle Pfeiffer) and humans: Lysander (Dominic West- famed for The Wire) and Hermia (Anna Friel- Brit stage actress); Demetrius (the FAB Christian Bale) and Helena (American TV darling Calista Flockhart); Theseus (character actor David Strathairn) and Hippolyta (Frenchwoman Sophie Marceau). The naughty fairy, Puck, is played by the always great Stanley Tucci (FYI: he even published an Italian-American cookbook a few yrs back- WOW!) I really liked Kevin Kline’s portrayal of Bottom (the weaver who wants to play every part in the play- LOL). Kline is a theater pro, just like Denzel (and it shows). Pfeiffer admitted that she never understood Shakespeare, BUT hey, she does a good job (w/ the best costumes/hair).   

3) Titus (1999)

This movie is NOT for the faint of heart- it’s one of The Bard’s bloodiest tales come alive (thanks to Broadway’s Julie Taymor). Come for the spectacle, BUT stay for the (terrific) acting from a cast that includes Americans, Canadians, Brits, and Scots. Anthony Hopkins is in the title role of the war-weary Roman general, Titus Andronicus, who has captured the queen of the Goths, Tamora (Jessica Lange), her three sons, and her secret/Moorish lover, Aaron (Harry Lennix). Though Tamora begs for his life, her eldest son is slaughtered; Titus, who lost MANY sons of his own during years of battle, shows no mercy.

Tamora vows revenge against Titus and his kin, along w/ her other sons: Demetrius (Matthew Rhys) and Chiron (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Titus’ household includes his kind-hearted brother, Marcus (Colm Feore), his remaining sons: the grown-up/practical Lucius (Angus MacFadyen) and a pre-teen boy, and his only daughter-sweet/innocent- Lavinia (Laura Fraser). She is in love w/ Bassanius (James Frain), an honorable young man running to become ruler of this city against the vain Saturninus (Alan Cumming). Titus’ family become outcasts when Tamora (who is BOTH smart & gorgeous) convinces the new/gullible emperor, Saturninus (Alan Cumming), to marry and ally w/ her family. Who knew that Lange could be SO wonderfully evil!? I loved her chemistry w/ everyone, incl. Lennix (who worked as a teacher before getting into film). Fraser impressed me a LOT also; you hear NO hint of her (real-life) thick Scottish accent.

4) Romeo & Juliet (1996)

The actor who really sells this Baz Luhrmann adaptation is Claire Danes (great at ANY age)! Sure, Leo was the draw for the younger gen, BUT she is the one who raises the game w/ her interpretation of an innocent teen girl in love for the first time. Even is you’re NOT a fan of modernized Shakespeare, give this one a chance (IF you already haven’t). I know MANY high schools are using it to appeal to teens. 

5) Twelfth Night, or What You Will (1996)

Some of you may NOT have seen this film from Brit director Trevor Nunn (which is shot in Ireland and England), BUT it features two strong female performances. A young foreign noblewoman disguised as servant boy, Viola (Imogen Stubbs), unwittingly sparks the interest of a noblewoman from Illyria, Olivia (Helena Bonham Carter). Gender confusion is a common theme in Shakespeare; in The Merchant of Venice, a woman even disguises herself as a male lawyer and wins a court case for the man she wishes to marry. Viola finds herself falling for her boss, Duke Orsino (Tody Stephens- still looking cute w/ quirky facial hair) who pursues Olivia, though she spurns all men (b/c mourning her brother). Look out for Sir Ben Kingsley in the supporting role of Feste, the fool in Orsino’s court. 

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Othello (Shakeapeare Theater Company)

Though an active and talented member of Venetian society who has started to assimilate, he is never fully accepted—and it makes him all the more susceptible to the machinations of Iago, the one person he feels that he can trust. 

…Iago’s hatred of Othello stems from his own jealousy.  He resents the fact that Othello promoted Cassio over him, believes that Othello slept with his wife and cringes at the idea that a foreigner—whom he considers inferior—has the success and recognition that he has been denied.  It is a personal vendetta, and he makes the audience complicit. 

-Katherine Peterlin (STC’s Young Professionals Consortium)

As my regular readers know, Othello is my favorite Shakespeare play.  The themes of this play are relevant today (as we heard in the video above).  I saw it back in 2011 at the Folger; you can read that review here.  I went to see this new adaptation, starring Pakistani-American actor Faran Tahir, at STC on SUN, FEB 28 (7:30PM); it was just 5 days after the play opened.  I had a seat in the 3rd row (rare for me); three 20s gals sitting behind me had free tickets (how lucky)!  Sitting beside me were a middle-aged couple who also enjoyed the show a lot; the husband made some comments that proved that his wife was the Shakespeare expert, but he enjoyed it, too.  As for the desis (South Asians) in the audience, I didn’t see more than a handful (including myself).         

Some of you may be thinking: Isn’t Othello supposed to be black (as in African-American)?  But remember that in The Bard’s time, “black” may have had a different meaning.  “Renaissance representations of the Moor were vague, varied, inconsistent, and contradictory,” as E. A. J. Honigmann, editor of The Arden Shakespeare, noted.  “The term Moor referred to darker-skinned people in general, used interchangeably with similarly ambiguous terms such as African, Somali, Ethiopian, Negro, Arab, Berber, and even Indian to designate a figure from Africa (or beyond). Various uses of the word black are insufficient evidence for any accurate racial classification; that could simply mean swarthy,” Honigmann concluded.

MoorishAmbassador_to_Elizabeth_I

Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, Moroccan ambassador to the court of Elizabeth I (some consider him as the model for Othello)

Original Line:  She gave me for my pains a world of… sighs.

Changed Line: She gave me for my pains a world of… kisses.

Above is one of the lines that was changed from the original (I noticed it right away); it’s more suited to the WWI setting of this play.  This is the kind of adaptation that grows on you, though I quickly noticed that the lighting was very well-done (from the 1st scene).  Iago (played by Jonno Roberts, a New Zealand native) is a very strong villain; he’s matter-of-fact, yet funny.  One of his tactics is to tightly embrace several of the individuals (Rodrigo, Othello, and Cassio) who he has ensnared in his web.  Since Roberts is tall, broad, and muscular (like a modern-day military man), this comes off as potentially scary.  I especially liked Iago and Othello’s scenes; the actors obviously have good chemistry and a great command of the text.  All the supporting actors did well, especially the two who played Desdemona and Emilia.

There were two moments in this play that I thought were particularly good.  One was Othello grabbing Iago, pulling him down, and choking him (when the villain first accused Desdemona of unfaithfulness).  The other scene was when Othello went into a fit of epilepsy, falling to the floor, and shaking for several seconds (everyone leaned forward in their seats).  I was sure that this play would get better w/ time; it has been extended through April 2.  Go check it out if you have a chance! 

What I’m watching NOW

Downton Abbey: Season 3 (PBS)

Yes, this is a soap opera for the period drama crowd, but I have to admit the last 2 eps have been esp. good!  I cried, then laughed, along w/ the family upstairs and the servants downstairs.  The new kids on the show (Alfred, James, Ivy) are fitting in quite well, too.  Miss O’Brien & Thomas as enemies is quite good fun!  And yes, everyone wants to see more of Anna & Bates…

House of Cards (Netflix; online)

house-of-cards

WARNING: Do not watch this show if you have an addictive personality!  (You will get hooked right away!)  I’d describe it as a mix of The West Wing & Damages. Kevin Spacey (Who doesn’t love him!?) embodies a character that has been described as “part Richard III & Iago.”   (For fans of Law & Order: UK, Ben Daniels is in some eps.)

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit: Season 14 (NBC)

You STILL watch that show!?  But Stabler is not in it anymore!  (Please stop whining over Christopher Melon’s decision.  We ALL loved Stabler, OK?)  I suppose I “grew up” w/ SVU (13 seasons have gone by)!  My lil bro & some friends are big fans, too.  Det. Benson (Mariska Hargitay) continues to be one of the strongest (and hottest) leading women on network TV!  Amaro (Danny Pino) pretty seamlessly fit into the show.  Not a big fan of Rollins; they’re not giving her much to do…  And yes, we ALL want to see more of Munch (but he probably has stuff going on & lives partly in France).

Robin Hood: Season 1 (BBC; DVD)

Yes, I watch it for Richard Armitage!  (Most ladies over the age of 21 probably do, too.)  I will post reviews of S1 eps soon.

Shakespeare Uncovered (PBS; online)

Shakes_Uncovered_Henrys

I saw one ep last SAT on my local PBS station.  The above pics are from the new Henry V (2012) starring Jeremy Irons (fabulous) & Tom Hiddleston (one of the UK’s hottest young leading men).  I’m looking forward to seeing the ep on Macbeth w/ David Tennant!  You can buy the DVD, too.

Here is the link to watch the show:

http://video.pbs.org/program/shakespeare-uncovered/