Brush up your Shakespeare
SHAKESPEARE continues to fascinate filmmakers and there are many ways of enjoying him on screen. Often it’s enough to hear some of our favourite speeches recited in the background. For me, one of the pleasures of Tom Stoppard’s film of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which he directed from his own play, was hearing familiar passages from Hamlet spoken off-stage. In the same spirit I’m recommending Me & Orson Welles (Monday, 8.30pm, Movie One), which contains, among other good things, some fine, incidental extracts from a performance of Julius Caesar.
Richard Linklater’s captivating film is about Welles’s landmark production of the play with New York’s Mercury Theatre in 1937. Welles was 22 and the event entrenched his already formidable reputation as the enfant terrible of American showbiz. Here he is brilliantly played by Christian McKay, who gets the look and the voice just right, in addition to Welles’s devastating combination of genius and egomania.
There’s a true story here. Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) was a 17-year-old kid from New Jersey, bored with school and dreaming of making it in the theatre. One day he meets Welles by chance during a visit to New York and is offered a small part in his production of Julius Caesar. It proves to be a life-altering experience. Richard is seduced by an older woman (Claire Danes, who once played Juliet for Baz Luhrmann) and finally is rejected by Welles, who we always knew was a two-timing bastard.
He was also a great butcher of Shakespeare’s texts. In Linklater’s film he boasts of trimming 40 lines from Mark Antony’s funeral oration. So anyone wanting the full version of that speech should see Stuart Burge’s Julius Caesar (Sunday, 9.55am, Showtime Drama), made for TV in 1970, but still among the best Shakespeare films I’ve seen: plain, gimmick-free, largely uncut and a match (well, almost) for Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1953 film with Marlon Brando.
Kenneth Branagh has made five Shakespeare films, including a first-rate Henry V and an uncut version of Hamlet that ran for more than four hours. His film of As You Like It (Sunday, 8.30pm, Showtime Drama) is set in Japan — keep reading, please — but there are no Japanese faces in the cast and the locations seem to be English. The idea was, apparently, that 19th-century Japan, a country in transition from medieval seclusion and ready to welcome foreign traders, was a suitable background for a story of transformation and disguise. Kevin Kline makes a decent fist of the melancholy Jaques and Bryce Dallas Howard does her best as Rosalind, but it’s not one of my favourites.
At least The Merchant of Venice (Wednesday, 8.30pm, Movie Greats) is set in Venice. The director, Michael Radcliff, has tackled the anti-Semitic problem by showing Jeremy Irons’s Antonio publicly spitting on Shylock in an early scene. Is this meant to justify Shylock’s hatred and intransigence near the end? On-screen titles refer to the deep springs of resentment against Jewish usurers in 16th-century Venice, but there’s no getting away from the fact Shylock is portrayed as a nasty old Jewish codger and that Shakespeare would have been happy for Elizabethan audiences to hiss him off stage.
Even so, Al Pacino brings a magnificent, wounded grandeur to this Shylock, who is driven as much by contempt and pride as he is by thoughts of revenge. Pacino fans, incidentally, can see him again this week as a hard-bitten CIA instructor in The Recruit
Kathryn Bigelow has made some exceptional films about life under extreme conditions and The Hurt Locker (Saturday, 8.30pm, Movie One) is a tense, brilliant and horrifying one about the work of military bomb disposal units in Iraq. It won the best picture Oscar last year. For these men, danger is an addiction and no one is more crazy-brave than staff sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), who takes over a hardened team of disposal experts in Baghdad. It’s not an anti-war film. How could it be, when it extols virtues such as loyalty, courage and comradeship? It works as a thriller and a ruthlessly honest depiction of an aspect of modern warfare and the minds of those who take part in it. Shakespeare, who gave us his definitive study of men at war in the two parts of Henry IV, would have liked it. (Thursday, 8.30pm, Movie Extra). The superior thriller, directed by Roger Donaldson, is an insider’s-eye view of the workings of the US spy agency with more betrayals in its story than, let’s say, Richard III.
Christian McKay and Zac Efron in Me & Orson Welles