My Favourite Film of 1899.

Film The first filmed Shakespeare was a one minute short version of King John, the surviving part of a quartet designed to advertise Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s forthcoming production at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London. Since there are only a few weeks left of this project and it will be my final opportunity to talk about my love of Shakespeare, I thought I’d list some of the screen versions which have meant the most to me or are just favourites and I haven’t had a chance to talk about yet.

Hamlet (1996)

My Hamlet of Hamlets and would have been in there for 1996 if it hadn’t been for the one film per director rule and director Sir Ken's In The Bleak Midwinter having been released the year before. Everything you would ever want to know about my love for the production is in this old 2009 review and in the intervening years my admiration for his achievement has only increased. Admittedly, I’ve more recently become testy about conflating Shakespeare texts and indeed cutting anything out of them, of the opinion that you would slice away half of a Renoir or expect to read an edited Jane Austen novel, but this is such a celebration of the material, presenting as many of Shakespeare’s words as is coherently possibly, I’m inclined to say this is my favourite film of my second favourite play, perhaps even my favourite film of any Shakespeare play.

Measure for Measure (1978)

One of the finest of the “traditional” approach BBC Shakespeare productions (in other words in period costume and set design), I first watched this during English class, my pubescent mind sucker punched first with full on lust for Kate Nelligan’s Isabella then by the implications of the late Tim Piggott Smith’s Angelo’s similar reaction. Their key scenes in Act II are electrically played in this production, as the Vulcan-like Angelo enters full on pon farr in the face of a woman he can’t have and shouldn’t want. It’s the first occasion I really understood the power of Shakespeare after having to endure Julius Caesar the previous year which the mid-teen version of me found remote and archaic. The productions I’ve seen since have often painted Angelo and Isabella in mono terms, whereas the text and this production implies that every character in the play is morally ambiguous. Plus it doesn’t assume that it’s a comedy trying to wring humour out of lines which are clearly anything but.

As You Like It (2009)

For no other reason that it’s a recording of the very production I saw during my only visit to Shakespeare’s Globe (so far). It’s disconcerting to see just how much of the production is similar to my own memory, right down to what appeared to be moments of improv. There aren’t any pauses for the sound of planes which was definite feature when I attended, and it’s a pleasure to actually see the Seven Ages of Man speech which I inexplicably missed on the day due to a toilet break. Here’s the inevitable blog post about that afternoon. Nearly all of the productions from the Dromgoole era have been gathered in a big boxed set which at £80 seems expensive but considering that they’re otherwise £20 individually, really isn’t.

Romeo and Juliet (1996)

Which also contradicts what I was saying about cutting the text and so forth, but Baz Luhrman’s adaptation which retains the emotional power of the play as well as servicing its aim of presenting the text to a young audience. It’s one of the cinema visits I remember most vividly, in the late Odeon on London Road, filled with teenagers who by the end were split directly by gender, boys scoffing, girls sobbing. Peter David writes about a similar experience in his essay, “On The Terrible and Unexpected Fate” that viewers were reacting as though the ending was a complete surprise even though Shakespeare actually tells us the ending in the prologue. Unlike him, I didn’t get up and berate the audience for their lack of observational skills, reasoning that it takes most cinema audiences a minute or two to settle so they probably just missed it. My only other memory is of buying the VHS release and finding a wining noise in the background throughout which after having tried a couple of replacements turned out to be a mastering error.

Much Ado About Nothing (2012)

I adore the Branagh film which I saw on its opening day in an otherwise empty screen at what’s now the World of Cine on Edge Lane (Virgin Cinemas back then), and find myself sobbing even when listening to the soundtrack and Emma intones with “Sigh no more…” Joss Whedon’s version wins out for a couple of reasons. For a start, Nathan Fillion is that rarest of curiosities, a Dogberry whose funny yet hopelessly poignant in a way which Michael Keaton’s sweaty mugging never is. It’s also an exceedingly mature presentation; these are characters with inner lives, even minor characters with few lines that are often removed from productions, worn down by everything which is happening outside of the bubble of the house. Plus there’s the fan theory that it offers Angel’s Wesley and Fred the chance to redo their relationship in a strange monochrome afterlife. That Whedon achieved all this between shooting and editing The Avengers is a marvel.

Playing Shakespeare (1984)

Not a production, but a series of instructive filmed workshops presented by John Barton, director and producer of the RSC with members of the company past and then present, including David Suchet David Suchet, Lisa Harrow, Alan Howard, Ben Kingsley, Michael Pennington, Patrick Stewart, Susan Fleetwood, Sheila Hancock, SinĂ©ad Cusack, Mike Gwilym, Jane Lapotaire, Ian McKellen, Richard Pasco, Donald Sinden, Michael Williams, Judi Dench, Barbara Leigh-Hunt, Norman Rodway, Peggy Ashcroft and Roger Rees. They present an idea of the rehearsal process at the RSC, how the text has been taught actors across the years especially how it’s verbally presented. One of the more valuable lessons is that when reading Shakespeare you should follow the punctuation rather than the line breaks unless he calls attention to them by putting the punctuation there. Follow that process and the words flow. Any actor who pauses at the end of a line is doing it wrong. If you have any interest in Shakespeare at all, I’d urge you to seek this out.

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