“The Bard Goes Global: Shakespeare on the International Screen” continues through July 26 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York. The 18-film series, which kicked off last Wednesday, surveys an international array of adaptations of the playwright’s works by directors ranging from Orson Welles to Akira Kurosawa to Baz Luhrmann to Aki Kaurismäki.
“As the Western canon’s go-to guy, William Shakespeare has inspired and/or confounded numerous directors looking to be both pop and profound,” muses the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman. Hoberman suggests checking out the “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.'”
David Edelstein has recommendations of his own: “The film that changed my life was the 1971 Soviet ‘King Lear,’ directed by Grigori Kozintzev: No one ever made such sense of the play’s public dimension – and the pressure on Lear to maintain his kingly mien. Aki Kaurismaki’s deadpan, hilarious ‘Hamlet Goes Business’ with Michael Almereyda’s cool, allusive 2000 ‘Hamlet’ with Ethan Hawke are also essential.”
Like Edelstein, Elisabeth Vincentelli at the New York Post also has high praise for Kozintzev “King Lear” (which screens tonight, July 20, at 4pm). “Many of its scenes rate as pure, head-spinning genius: the way we peer down on Lear and his Fool as they struggle against howling winds, with Dmitri Shostakovich’s score matching the storm in shrieky gusts. Destitute hordes drag themselves across a hostile landscape and Cordelia dies by hanging, as black smoke billows from a burning castle. Shot in black-and-white Cinemascope, the movie is gloriously over-the-top bleak.” Vincentelli also notes that “Although he’s remembered for his acting, Laurence Olivier directed magical, purely cinematic moments in his ‘Henry V’ (1944). Inspired by medieval illuminations, he played with perspective and a singularly vibrant Technicolor, and his staging of the battle of Agincourt is a wonder of energetic filmmaking.”
“Questions of how to transcend the stage-oriented material to suit the filmic world or when to show an image in place of one of Shakespeare’s perfectly-crafted lines are at the center of these films, exploring the boundaries set between great literature and great cinema in the attempt at arriving at a symbiotic whole,” writes Kazu Watanabe about the series in the Film Society’s blog. “Moreover, specific issues relating to Shakespeare’s language and history present unique challenges which these international directors tackle in order to adapt the deeply-rooted Englishness of the Bard’s works without sacrificing their own national identity and history: consider Akira Kurosawa’s samurai interpretation of ‘Macbeth’ in Throne of Blood or Don Selwyn’s Maori twist on ‘The Merchant of Venice’ in The Maori Merchant of Venice. Without a doubt, the Bard is alive and well.”