Here and there – Shakespeare on film – a first XI


Someone suggested that I do a note on my favourite films of Shakespeare – recognising that the list today might change radically tomorrow.  Here then is today’s first XI – in alphabetical order.

All’s Well that Ends Well is the only play by this author I have not seen on stage.  The 1981 BBC version features two of my favourite actors, and not just in Shakespeare – Ian Charleson and Michael Hordern.  Bertram is a rotten role, but Charleson was so good.  Hordern for me is like Gielgud – they both look like they were born to play Shakespeare.  Hordern oozes Lafew.  There is a wonderful scene – Act V scene ii – where Parolles is wretched and roughly dealt with by the Clown, and Lafew takes him under his wing.  It is pure magic that can’t be taught.  No wonder Hordern terrified Richard Burton as a scene stealer.

The 1984 BBC Coriolanus has a spellbinding performance from Alan Howard in the lead.  He makes no effort to hide his contempt of the mob, and this author knew how to show politics in the gutter.  The sets the BBC employed are perfect for this plot.  Irene Worth is the mother-in-law from hell.  Riveting political drama that is relevant to our time.

I have never understood the fuss about Citizen Kane, but it is hard to avoid the word genius with Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight of 1965.  The film draws on all the Falstaff plays – except Merry Wives.  Somehow it manages to convey the essence of the author’s most famous character.  Gielgud plays the king, and Norman Rodwell is brilliant as a restless young prince wondering if he might be soulless. He was his father’s son.  (It was a bit rich for the producers to give second billing to the late Jean Moreau for Doll – she has about four lines.)

It’s hard to believe that Branagh’s Hamlet came out more than twenty years ago – in 1996.  I saw it four times at the Astor in packed houses.  Some of these dream cast jobs can get wearisome but not this one.  The late Richard Briers was a Branagh favourite and another professional scene stealer.  Rufus Sewell was perfect for Horatio – the kind of guy who would give you a very worrying night if he came to take out your daughter.  The late Robin Williams aired his magic as the courtier, and Gerard Depardieu shows what a wonderful screen presence he has as he stares down Richard Briers with the least lines in the play.

Branagh’s Henry V (1989) got flogged to death in my house when a daughter wrote a ballet to the music.  Branagh’s enthusiasm is infectious.  He broke off with Emma Thompson, but she is very sexy here – and backed up by the great Geraldine McEwan.  Ian Holm nearly steals the show as Fluellen, he having played the lead in the Harper Collins audio.  You also get the bonus of Brian Blessed as Exeter and Richard Briers as Bardolph. The other great scene stealer is Mountjoy, the French Herald.  Blessed is wonderful in confronting the French, and Scofield shows what a great actor he was.  (I’m sure Brian Blessed was in Z Cars and that Sergeant Barlow called him ‘a teddy boy in uniform’: that English frankness was a real revelation to me.)

The whole cast of the BBC Henry VIII (1979) is strong – led by John Stride and Claire Bloom – but Timothy West is splendid as the doomed Cardinal Wolsey – the very definition of a professional politician.  The phrase ‘spin doctor’ could have been coined for this great play.  The scene where the plot to unseat the Archbishop is foiled is unforgettable high politics.

When Brando did Julius Caesar in 1953, I was about eight.  This film helped introduce my girls to Shakespeare: ‘Golly, Dad, who’s that hunk?’  This is another wonderful political plot.  Brando is amazing in the big speech, but we tend to forget the dramatic power of the next two scenes.  Shakespeare wrote a lot about how easy it is to inflame the mob.  He would be horrified but not surprised by seeing the mob in action today.

Fantasy and slapstick are hard to put on the screen, but the 1998 Hollywood Midsummer Night’s Dream gives it a real shot.  Kevin Kline and the director, and clips from opera, make Bottom an intriguing star, but David Strathairn and Sophie Marceau are just right as royalty – and there is no doubt that Michelle Pfeiffer was Hollywood royalty.

The Branagh Much Ado about Nothing of 1994 has one of the most invigorating starts of a movie.  Emma Thompson is deadly as Beatrice, but Michael Keaton nearly runs off with show in the comic parts.

It would be churlish to skip Richard Burton and his then wife Elizabeth Taylor in the 1967 Taming of the Shrew directed by the great film and opera director, Franco Zeffirelli.  The screen is painted with something close to an Old Master level, and Michael Hordern as the unfortunate dad again shows his lethal scene stealing.

When I saw Julie Taymor’s debut as feature film director in Titus in 1999 at the cinema, on each occasion I could feel and hear the audience shift uneasily at the end when Anthony Hopkins appears on the screen ‘dressed as a cook’ – which I think is the stage direction.  This is for obvious reasons a difficult play to put on but I thought then and I think now that this production was a complete and gutsy success.  It is brilliantly set and choreographed.  Geraldine McEwen has a small part that finds the wrong end of a billiard cue.  While the sources are Roman, this film comes across as the archetypal Greek tragedy of a cursed house.  Hopkins is perfect as the square-jawed servant of public duty. Jessica Lange still conveys that sexy fatality.  As the play is developed in the film, it could be at the root of the great Westerns.  Most of the show is about how bad the bad guys are, so that when their dispatch comes at the end, the sense of relief is complete.  This is the revenge show of all revenge shows.  The film is also a demolition job on the notion that ancient Rome was civilised.

Well, there’s my first XI for today.  Imogen Stubbs and Helena Bonham Carter were both terrific in Twelfth Night of 1996, but the slapstick didn’t quite come off, and some of the boys got worried when they thought that Ms Stubbs – who I would have given an arm and a leg to see play the Jailer’s Daughter – looked sexiest when dressed as a copper and with a moustache.  That kind of thing may be unsettling, but she carried it off with her customary trade craft.

Well, whatever else may be said, we are not denied great offerings – and that’s without going to the Globe and other live productions.

Doctor Zhivago

Some writers make it feel easy – Grahame Greene.  Some let you know that you might have to dig in and hope – Hermann Melville.  Some come up at you like nuggets from out of rocks – Christina Stead.  Some are brilliant but prone to flash outside the off stump – Balzac.  Some just let you know that they are big hitters – Tolstoy.  Some just end up over the top – Joyce.  Some are all class but leave you wondering what the fuss is about – Flaubert.  Some leave you wondering where in Hell that came from – Emily Bronte.  And every now and then you come across one who very soon lets you know, and makes you confident, that they have real strength and power.  That was certainly the case with Boris Pasternak in Doctor Zhivago – which, to my shame, I had not read before.  I find it hard to recall a novel that is so strong and powerful.

A young boy born into Imperial Russia is abandoned by his father and when his mother dies, he is taken in by a kindly uncle.   The boy, Yuri Zhivago, who is bright and sensitive, grows up to be a poet and a doctor.  (You might think that is an odd coupling, until you recall Keats.)  He marries Tonya, who was also a medical student, and they go out to live in the provinces as the war comes.

Lara is a daughter of a Russian woman married to a Belgian.  When the husband goes, the mother has an affair with a friend of his, a ruthless man of business and politics – the precursor of the oligarch – who proceeds to defile Lara while she is seventeen and still at school.  The mother tries to kill herself, and then Lara tries to kill her lover.  The businessman hushes up the affair and Lara marries Pasha who is deeply engaged politically.  They too go the provinces.  Pasha is thought to have died in the war but he becomes a ruthless killer and a Commissar for the Bolsheviks after the 1917 revolution under the name Strelnikov.

The paths of Lara and Yuri cross, and they eventually fall deeply in love, even after they find that Pasha is still alive as Strelnikov.  But it is hard to see how they or their love can survive.  It is not just that they are both married – their whole world has been turned upside down by a revolution and a civil war far more barbarous than what France faced after 1789, and which took the French at least a hundred years to get over.  Both Lara and Yuri have what we call baggage that the new regime will reject.  The times are utterly beyond compassion.  If a child goes missing in the country, the parents will fear cannibalism.  The icy egoism of Lenin will give way to the murderous paranoia of Stalin.  Lara and Yuri strive to keep and treasure what humanity is left to them before they get washed away in the maelstrom.  They were not born in the right time or place.

That is a bare outline of a hugely complex story.  The number of characters and the variations in the names make the book very hard to read.  It is at times like separating the threads of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles.  But the effect is nearly overwhelming because you get this magical blend of sordid reality set against a feeling of remorseless fate.  Even accidents seem inevitable, and the effect is heightened by sudden changes in tempo or revelation.  The result is to make the two lovers ‘star-crossed’ in a manner that was perfected in Romeo and Juliet.  They are helpless victims and they are no less appealing for that.  They are in truth pathetic, and the backdrop for this pathos is the world being turned upside down in the most gruesome way possible.

Here is the author on the new men after the 1917 Revolution.  ‘Commissars with unlimited power were appointed everywhere, people of iron will, in black leather jackets, armed with means of intimidation and with revolvers, who rarely shaved and still more rarely slept.  They were well acquainted with the petty bourgeois breed, the average holder of small government bonds, the grovelling conformist, and never spared him, talking to him with a Mephistophelian smirk, as with a pilferer caught in the act.’  There were a lot of sans-culottes just like that in Paris in 1793.

Here is the apotheosis of the Commissar: ‘For some unknown reason it became clear at once that this man represented the consummate manifestation of will.  He was to such a degree what he wanted to be that everything on him and in him inevitably seemed exemplary; his proportionately constructed and handsomely placed head, and the impetuousness of his stride, and his long legs in high boots, which may have been dirty but seemed polished, and his grey flannel tunic, which may have been wrinkled but gave the impression of ironed linen.  Thus acted the presence of giftedness, natural, knowing no strain, feeling itself in the saddle in any situation of earthly existence.  This man must have possessed some gift, not necessarily an original one.’  This could be Reinhard Heydrich, a brutal Nazi killer, one of the most evil men ever born.  Strelnikov as the Commissar was a brutal killer– but was the husband of Lara evil like Heydrich?  Or Stalin?  How do ordinary people become cold-blooded killers?

The picture of Strelnikov could also derive from Robespierre.  When the pure are corrupted by power, their killing is indeed merciless.  Puritanical killers like Cromwell and Robespierre may or may not have been as brutal as, say, Stalin, but their dead are just as dead.  Lenin would take after Robespierre, and Stalin was Lenin gone rotten.  The book contains slashing insights into the jealous cruelty that is unleashed after centuries of cruel oppression.

There are passages of poetic insight.  ‘The cannon-fire behind his back died down.  That direction was the east.  There in the haze of the mist the sun rose and peeped dimly between the scraps of floating murk, the way naked people in a bathhouse flash through clouds of soapy steam.’  Snow is a recurring image.   The hero gets a letter from his distant wife, Tonya.  She says of Lara: ‘I was born into this world to simplify life and seek the right way through, and she in order to complicate it and confuse it.’  As it happens, that is fair – but did it have to happen?  The letter concludes with Tonya believing that they have come for her execution.

Yuri Andreevich [Zhivago] looked up from the letter with an absent, tearless gaze, not directed anywhere, dry from grief, devastated by suffering.  He saw nothing around him.  He was conscious of nothing.  Outside the window it began to snow.  Wind carried the snow obliquely, ever faster and ever denser, as if trying all the while to make up for something and Yuri Andreevich stared ahead of him and through the window as if it were not snow falling but the continued reading of Tonya’s letter, and not dry starlike flakes that raced and flashed, but small spaces of white paper between small black letters, white, white, endless, endless.

Even in translation, that writing has a kind of grace and power that can only come from a writer who is justifiably confident of his own strength.  It is a passage that might remind some of a well-known passage by James Joyce in his story called The Dead.*  This is the kind of writing that annihilates the boundary between prose and poetry.

The book is shot through with writing that could only come from a writer who is happy to back his judgment.  This is how the narrative part of the book ends.

One day Larissa Fyodorovna [Lara] left the house and did not come back again.  Evidently she was arrested on the street in those days and died or vanished no one knew where, forgotten under some nameless number on subsequently lost lists, in one of those countless general or women’s concentration camps in the north.

The author was deeply spiritual in the Russian tradition.  There is an epistle of Paul that said something to the effect that ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’  Pasternak translates that ‘in that new way of existence and new form of communion known as the Kingdom of God, there are no peoples, there are persons.’  This is a proposition that might unsettle a whole lot of people, and it was not well received in some parts of the world.  It is hugely liberating for some – including me.  (What kind of God, anyway, would want to play favourites?)  So is the ethical consequence.  ‘To belong to a type is the end of a man, his condemnation.’  That too is so true.  .The author goes on: ‘If he doesn’t fall into any category, if he’s not representative, half of what’s demanded of him is there.  He’s free of himself, he’s achieved a grain of immortality.’

The author is super-bright, but he knows the dangers of intellectuals finding the answer.  He has Yuri saying this: ‘I think philosophy should be used sparingly as a seasoning for art and life.  To be occupied with it alone is the same as eating horse-radish by itself.’  He got that right.  And he also gets right the fearful impact of the revolution on the lives of persons, and not just peoples.  Lara says this to Yuri.

Is it for me a weak woman to explain to you who are so intelligent what is now happening with life in general and why families fall apart, yours and mine between them?….All that’s productive, settled, all that’s connected with habitual life, with the human nest and its order, all of it went to wrack and ruin along with the upheaval of the whole of society and its reorganisation.  All everyday things were overturned and destroyed.  What remained was the un-everyday, unapplied force of the naked soul, stripped of the last shred, for which nothing has changed, because in all times it was cold and trembling and drawing towards the one nearest to it, which is just as naked and lonely.  You and I are like Adam and Eve, the first human beings, who had nothing to cover themselves with when the world began, and we are now just as unclothed and homeless at its end.  And you and I are the last reminder of all those countless great things that have been done in the world in the many thousands of years between them and us, and in memory of those vanished wonders, we breathe and love and weep, and hold each other, and cling to each other.

This is a novel of immense strength, beauty, and humanity.

Nor had I seen the movie, which is very famous, and, apparently, the eighth most seen movie ever made.  It was a great effort by David Lean to get this complex book on to the screen, and it had to be uncomfortably long.  The stars, Omar Sharif and Julie Christie, shine very brightly, but they have to stand against two of the best screen actors ever, Alec Guinness and Rod Steiger (as the loathsome seducer.)  Steiger is viciously seductive in the power he maintains over Lara throughout the film, and you wonder if she is a kind of allegory for Russia, that just continues to swap real bastards as its rulers.  I might say that for both the book and the movie, Lara was for me the moving force.  It is one thing to be seduced by your mother’s lover while you are still at school – it is another thing to call on a society function on Christmas Eve and try to shoot the bastard.  In some curious way, Lara seemed to me to have a fair bit of Heathcliff in her, but this is not easy to put on screen.  Tom Courtenay is the bespectacled and antiseptic Strelnikov who has the signature line: ‘The personal life is dead in Russia.’  You can see that sad truth now every day in Russia in the ugly face of Vladimir Putin.

*Here is the final paragraph of The Dead, which occurs after the wife of the narrator has just told him in bed that a young man called Michael Fury had in her youth had a crush on her and had died for it.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window.  It had begun to snow again.  He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight.  The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward.  Yes, the newspapers were right; snow was general all over Ireland.  It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves.  It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Fury lay buried.  It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns.  His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.