Brush up your Shake­speare


The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television -

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

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