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FEBRUARY 9, 1998: 

Hamlet

D: Kenneth Branagh (1996)

with Branagh, Julie Christie, Derek Jacobi, Jack Lemmon, Kate Winslet, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Dame Judy Dench

Othello

D: Oliver Parker (1995)

with Laurence Fishburne, Kenneth Branagh, Irene Jacob, Anna Patrick

Richard III

D: Richard Loncraine (1995)

with Ian McKellen, Annette Bening,
Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith, Robert Downey, Jr.

"O Shame, where is thy blush?"

Few actors can resist proving their prowess by mounting the Bard on film for all of posterity. And for good reason, I suppose. Shakespeare did write some of the language's best tragic heroes, full of wicked turns, fatal flaws, and furrowed brows, rich fodder for any actor who yearns to prove he learned his Method like a good little boy and is eager to don Hamlet's black, Othello's seizures, or Richard III's hump in order to fret and strut his hours upon the stage.

Perhaps the best known of these actors whose egos may have gotten a bit too big for their codpieces is Kenneth Branagh. Yes, the man did bring a luscious Henry V to the screen and reminded the world why Shakespeare is famous. But that was a younger, humbler Branagh, before the media or Miss Thompson convinced him he was a new wunderkind of the cinema. Since, he has thrust his four-hour Hamlet upon the world, and the world now has the opportunity to watch it in its very own living room, preferably in a nice, comfy chair.

I understand that the movie was made to convey the epic-ness of the drama of an angst-filled Dane whose father was killed by his brother so that said brother could take both the throne and the queen. But it must have lost quite a bit of its awe-inspiring detail during its translation to video. Gone is the epic grandeur, the lush 70mm compositions, replaced by out-of-proportion framing that makes the performances seem much too large for such a tiny space. If you can, seek out a letterbox version, because there are some performances contained in these overblown moments that are well worth discovering. Winslet's Ophelia is magical and she makes the most of this character's jerky transitions from innocence to insanity. Jacobi plays the murdering uncle Claudius with an understated seductiveness that leaves little argument as to why Christie's magnetic Gertrude succumbed to his charms. Williams and Crystal make the most of their walk-on roles and inject much-needed comedy into these otherwise Branagh-aggrandizing proceedings.

Branagh also pops up in Oliver Parker's Othello, a much more watchable adaptation of Shakespeare that Parker had the sense to edit for the needs of film. Unlike the unabridged Hamlet, words - including full scenes and interior monologues - have been cut from Parker's Othello if their content can instead be conveyed with rich sets, tight close-ups, and broken fourth walls, a boon to those who get rattled by the sheer plethora of words in your average Shakespeare play and who realize that film and theatre are two entirely different mediums.


Iago (Kenneth Braugh, right) plants the seeds of doubt in the ear of Othello (Laurence Fishburne, left) with tragic consequences. So what were you expecting? This is Shakespeare!

In terms of tone and style, Parker's Othello is Branagh's Hamlet sucked through a glass darkly. Hamlet is bright and expansive, Othello dark and cramped. Othello is a tight film that concentrates on simply telling an intriguing story of jealousy, love, and betrayal. At no point does the film stray from this end - it's like Shakespeare Lite, a primer for those who don't like to wrap themselves in poetry and just want to know what the hell happened. Branagh's Iago is murderous, with clear objectives and a wicked gleam, reined in by the claustrophobic sets and story line. And he has actually managed to disengage his ego long enough to not turn this film into another one-man show. Fishburne is magnetic as Othello as he writhes on the tortures that Iago has created for him. Patrick is a joy to watch as Iago's long-suffering wife, each line split alternately with arch vitriol and genuine compassion.

Thankfully, there are other adaptations of other Shakespeare tragic hero dramas that do not contain the ubiquitous Branagh. Richard Loncraine's Richard III is a Branagh-free, Nazi-esque adaptation of Shakespeare's classic tale of a ruthless prince who is willing to kill anyone, and I do mean anyone, who stands between him and the throne. Set between the wars, this film seems to make some larger comment on the rise of Hitler but watching the ever-growing trail of Richard's dead becomes simply too fascinating to waste time worrying about some silly subtext, despite Loncraine's rich shots, full of the glamour and art of England between the wars. But the twisted Richard is just not a nice guy, despite his elegant surroundings, and Ian McKellen plays him with glorious aplomb. Deep behind McKellen's eyes are rich layers of meaning and explanations for his character's ill deeds that only serve to explain, not excuse, when these layers are brought to light. The Americans - Bening, Thomas, and Downey, Jr. - are skillfully cast to note the demarcations in this twisted family. Each plays his or her part with pluck and vigor, only to be blown both literally and figuratively off the screen by McKellen's intense performance. It is, however, Loncraine and McKellen's modernizations on the script, not in terms of language but in characterizations and visual commentary, that make this more than yet another actor proving his mettle on the battlefield of the Bard. - Adrienne Martini


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