Michael Keaton Does Shakespeare

Back in 1993 Kenneth Branagh directed a film version of Shakespeare’s comedy, “Much Ado About Nothing.”  Michael Keaton was given a small role as the dim-witted constable Dogberry and along with the malapropisms and absurd swagger Keaton added an almost Monty Pythonesque quality to the role and to that of his associates in the night guard.  I ten to think it’s the best part of the show.  Shakespeare did love his clowns.

Shakespeare in Film – Part 9 – Henry V – Branagh’s 1989 Version

Sunday, I wrote the review of Olivier’s Henry V.  I watched Branagh’s version that night.  I watched a while ago but I wanted to have it fresh in my mind especially because I would be contrasting it to Olivier’s film.

When Branagh’s movie came out in 1989 it made him a star.  He was a young dynamic character and the world wanted to believe in heroes again.  He was married at the time to Emma Thompson and she played Katherine to his Henry.  They were seen as an exciting couple in Hollywood circles and there was great interest in their films together.  Putting all that aside, people were ready to take a fresh look at Shakespeare.  Branagh adapted the play for the screen and directed himself in the lead.  Branagh was young enough and active enough to make King Harry believable.  The movie was a critical success.

Interestingly, Branagh’s Henry V left in some of the smaller incidents that Olivier omitted.  The three conspirators who planned to assassinate Henry on behalf of the French are duly exposed and condemned.  The hanging of Bardolph, one of Prince Harry’s former companions is a stark reminder that King Henry is a changed man.

But the major thrust of the film of course runs in the same vein as Olivier’s.  And yet there are clear differences in tone and emphasis.  Despite the theme of war Olivier’s play is the more light hearted and optimistic of the two by far.  A good point of comparison is the St Crispin’s Day speech.  When Olivier gives the speech, he exudes confidence and a controlled enthusiasm.  But when Branagh speaks he impresses on the audience the sense of passion and energy he feels.  It’s a rush of adrenaline that he captures in words.

And the action of the play mirrors this same difference.  Olivier’s cinema is typical of what the 1940s would do to portray the late middle ages.  It reminds you of how Hollywood would give us Robin Hood or Ivanhoe.  It was a sunlit world of grassy fields and picturesque castles with banners flapping in the breeze high above the fields.  Branagh gives us explosions, fire, battles in the dead of night and lots and lots of mud.  Mud on the ground, mud on the soldiers and mud on the King.  And he keeps some of the lines on the war that Olivier left out.  When the English besiege the city of Harfleur, Henry harangues the town elders with the horrors that resisting the besiegers would entail if they failed to surrender in advance.  He mentions rape, plunder and the vicious destruction of human life from the youngest infant to the oldest inhabitants.  So, we can see that Branagh has made the more accurate version of the play.  He’s left all the warts in plain sight.

Now in addition to the grittier nature of Branagh’s production it should be said that his handling of the romance between Henry and Katherine is also more naturalistic.  Branagh has an earthier, more openly comical approach to Henry attempting to woo Katherine in terribly halting French.  Olivier’s approach is calmer and more restrained.  So, all in all let’s call Olivier’s a more formal and austere approach to the story and Branagh’s a more naturalistic and emotional version.

How do they compare?  In my opinion they are both excellent films.  And they have different strengths.  I watch the Olivier version when I want to enjoy Olivier’s language.  He is the gold standard, in my book, for what Shakespeare’s dialog should sound like.  No one else makes the text sound real the way he does.

But if I want to see the story of the war, I will watch Branagh’s version.  Branagh and his excellent cast bring the war to life.  By the end of the battle of Agincourt you can feel the exhaustion that the English feel as they struggle to bury their dead.  Even the miraculous victory they’ve won is almost beyond their strength to grasp.  Branagh has done a very fine job of making a Henry V that is faithful to the text and conveys the reality of a King going to war in the Hundred Years War.

Shakespeare in Film – Part 7 – Hamlet – Branagh’s 1996 Version

I saw this in the theater when it came out.  There are a few things that should be said about it to start with.  It’s fully four hours long!  It has everyone in Hollywood (and outside of it) in the cast.  Richard Attenborough, Brian Blessed, Julie Christie, Billy Crystal, Judi Dench, Gérard Depardieu, John Gielgud, Charlton Heston, Derek Jacobi, Jack Lemmon, Kate Winslet and so help me even Robin Williams.  And the cinematography is full of pomp and circumstance and beautiful settings.  But it is unwatchable.

Branagh runs around doing his crazy act and shouting out his lines at a dizzying rate but the whole thing is annoying and after even a half hour becomes too tedious to endure.  Some of the performances I did enjoy.  Richard Briers as Polonius I thought was good.  I liked Derek Jacobi as Claudius.  Jack Lemmon as one of the watchmen I found unconvincing.

For a true devotee of Shakespeare who is determined to watch it, I suggest watching it in a scene by scene fashion.  Probably twenty or thirty minutes is the sub-lethal dose.  So taking it in eight to twelve bite sized chunks you could get through without losing your ability to appreciate the lines.

It’s a pity.  Branagh was given a budget and an array of talent that is impressive.  And a lot of the visual presentation is beautiful.  But his vision for the title role falls far short of even such popular versions as Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 version with Mel Gibson.

So let me not go on beating it up.  Let me just say I cannot recommend this version for an enjoyable experience of the play.  Watch Olivier or Gibson.

Shakespeare in Film – Part 3 – Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Back in 1989 Kenneth Branagh made a splash in the title role of Henry V and because of it became a movie star and was allowed to produce several of Shakespeare’s plays paid for by major studios!  One of the fruits of this strange marriage of Hollywood and Branagh was “Much Ado About Nothing,” one of the comedies.  The cast combines English stage and screen actors with American movie stars such as Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, Kate Beckinsale and Keanu Reeves.  And because at the time she was Mrs. Branagh, Emma Thompson co-starred.

Up front I will say that this film is a bizarre mix of good, bad, indifferent and unbearable acting.  The subplot that involves the thwarting of a marriage by a wrongful accusation against the bride is so emotionally overwrought and pathetic that I am tempted to fast forward through it.  On the other hand, the antagonistic love/hate relationship between Branagh and Thompson’s characters is at times very amusing.  But the stand out part in the play is Michael Keaton as the chief night constable Dogberry.  His bizarre appearance and mannerisms are very funny.  His malapropisms and nonsensical instructions to his men sound like they come from someone hallucinating.  My favorite exchange occurs when Dogberry tries to explain to the lord of the castle what he has discovered during his night watch.  When he speaks at length without making any sense the lord tells Dogberry that he is tedious.  Dogberry mistakes this for a compliment and promises that if he himself were as rich as a king he would willingly bestow all his tediousness on the lord.

Aside from the young love interests the worst acting of the play is provided by Keanu Reeves.  He plays the villain of the story Don John.  Never before or since have Shakespeare’s words been spoken so woodenly and so bereft of any skill.  Luckily he was able to move on and use this skill where it belonged, in John Wick 2.  Don John’s brother in the movie is Denzel Washington’s Don Pedro.  I must confess I couldn’t see the family resemblance but Don Pedro did acquit himself much more ably Keanu.  He was amusing and amiable.

For fans of the tv show House, the actor who played Wilson on that show, Robert Sean Leonard, plays the young love interest opposite Kate Beckinsale.  His emotional scenes which involved frequent tears are so embarrassing it’s a wonder he ever acted again.

So what can I say about this movie?  Anyone I haven’t scared away with my descriptions should give it a viewing.  It is most definitely a mixed bag.  But for someone who enjoys Shakespeare there are some fine scenes interspersed amongst the awful.  It’s your call.

29MAR2018 – Quote of the Day

Of late I’ve been looking forward to watching Mel Gibson’s Hamlet.  I remember watching Branagh’s version in the theater and thinking it sterile.  My plan is to watch them both on the same weekend and compare them.  Maybe I’ll even throw in Olivier’s version for good measure.

 

Shakespeare, Hamlet Act 2, Scene 2

HAMLET

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust?