As the Western canon’s go-to guy, William Shakespeare has inspired and/or confounded numerous directors looking to be both pop and profound.
The most productive was Orson Welles, a man of the theater, whose staged Shakespeare productions were more gimmicky, and thus more influential, than his film adaptations. “The Bard Goes Global: Shakespeare on the International Screen” (July 15 through 26, Walter Reade Theater) includes only one of Welles’s three Shakespearean movies, his 1948 Republic Studio, heavily burred, sound-stage Macbeth, showing in the restored director’s cut. Other adaptations of the popular Scottish play include Roman Polanski’s programmatically dark, blood-soaked hippie Macbeth (1971); Akira Kurosawa’s terrific samurai version, Throne of Blood (1957), with Toshirô Mifune; and Vishal Bhardwaj’s Bollywood update, Maqbool (2003). The most exotic translation, however, is Don Selwyn’s The Maori Merchant of Venice (2002), the first feature shot entirely in New Zealand’s indigenous language.
“The Bard Goes Global” opens with a pair of proven crowd-pleasers: Lord Laurence Olivier’s wartime Henry V (1944) and Franco Zeffirelli’s lush teenage Romeo and Juliet (1968)—Baz Luhrmann’s “remake,” Romeo + Juliet, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, shows later. Even more pop is the 1935 Warner Bros. spectacle A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), co-directed by Max Reinhardt and featuring a raft of studio contract players (Jimmy Cagney, Joe E. Brown, Hugh Herbert, Dick Powell, Olivia de Havilland, and a very young Mickey Rooney as an exceedingly obstreperous Puck). Boasting the most elaborate fantasy sequences of any Hollywood talkie before The Wizard of Oz, Reinhardt’s Dream is a triumph of vulgarity—something that eludes Julie Taymor’s overwrought Titus (1999), from Shakespeare’s most overwrought play, with an insufferable Anthony Hopkins as Titus Andronicus, and Derek Jarman’s low-budget camp on The Tempest (1979), which at least has Elisabeth Welch singing “Stormy Weather.” Jarman is also represented by The Angelic Conversation (1985), more visionary and, having been originally shot on Super 8, even cheaper, with Judi Dench reading from Shakespeare’s sonnets.
The series has but one Lear—Soviet director Grigori Kozintsev’s post-apocalyptic, Shostakovich-scored, 1971 version—and three Hamlets. There’s Michael Almereyda’s 2000 Manhattan-set Ethan Hawke vehicle, and its comic precursor in updating Shakespeare to the corporate world, Finnish prankster Aki Kaurismäki’s Hamlet Goes Business (1987). More experimental than either is the 1920 silent, in which the great Danish diva Asta Nielsen plays the Prince of Denmark as a woman brought up and disguised as a man. And actors do have their day! Al Pacino ponders the villainous Richard III in Looking for Richard (1996), and, in his rarely screened filmmaking debut, Charlton Heston directs himself opposite British actress Hildegarde Neil in Antony and Cleopatra (1972). Represented only as one of the interviewees in Looking for Richard, and thus conspicuously absent, is the most dogged and dreary of contemporary Shakespeare adapters, Kenneth Branagh. J. Hoberman
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 15, 2009