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Invigorating the Bard.

By Brent Lancaster

MAY 26, 1998:  There's probably no bigger challenge in cinema today than to bring Shakespeare to the big screen. In our point-and-click world, there are few movie-goers who have an interest in the Bard—or even an attention span long enough to enjoy a film version of his work.

One way to bring Shakespeare to life is to steal his story-line and transform it into a more modern tale. The recent video release A Thousand Acres (1997, R) is an American Gothic take on King Lear from the daughter's point of view that adapts Jane Smiley's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, in which a farmer (Jason Robards) decides to divide his land equally among three daughters (Jessica Lange, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Jennifer Jason Leigh). The plot mirrors the story of Lear's abdication of his kingdom to his daughters and the tragedy that ensues; Robards even goes insane in a driving thunderstorm (sorry, no eye-gouging). The focus of Jocelyn Moorhouse's film is the relationship between the oldest sister and narrator Ginny (Lange) and the middle-child Rose (Pfeiffer), and their struggles with bad marriages and breast cancer. Their portrayals of two people haunted by dark secrets are riveting; plus Robards' monotonous dead-pan delivery actually works wonderfully here. However, without the benefit of Smiley's expansive prose, we are left with a plot that is a little over the top, making this Shakespeare as soap opera.

Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet (1996, PG-13) chooses another route, presenting a line-by-line theatrical version of the greatest drama ever written. Branagh outdoes his versions of Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing with this beautiful 70-millimeter epic that is as accessible as straight Shakespeare can get. After his father, the king, dies, Hamlet's (Branagh) uncle Claudius (Derek Jacobi) takes the crown and marries his mother. The ghost of Hamlet's father confirms his suspicions that Claudius actually committed fratricide to gain the throne and a power-struggle ensues. Branagh provides the most insightful and passionate version of this tragedy since Laurence Olivier's. The cast is nicely peppered with both thespians and big-time movie stars like Jack Lemmon and Billy Crystal. Shakespeare's dialogue is always more understandable when performed, and it's downright comprehensible here.

For a more immense interpretation of Lear, try Akira Kurosawa's Ran (1986, R). This time we're in feudal Japan, and the land is divided between warrior sons instead of daughters, but almost everything else is the same. Kurosawa is a film-school legend because of his work ethic and great attention to detail, which is evident in the two of the most intense battle scenes in cinematic history. The Bard would approve.

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