Sunday, 22 January 2012

Shakespeare versus the World

by Tom Dunn


Shakespeare adaptations are always an interesting event, particularly if you’re a film fan who also happens to enjoy a bit of the bard. Troublesome questions are posed to a potential director from the outset; blank verse or modern English? Historically rooted, fantastical, or re-fitted as contemporary allegory? Shakespearean stage interpreters, or Hollywood camera muggers – what is one to do? Ironically, many of these issues lie at the heart of most Shakespeare performances today; indeed, only the issue of blank verse is left sacred on stage. No, the real interest in cinematic Shakespeare adaptations lies in how they allow for a moment of greater, cross-cultural exposure than a typical RSC production might, and the responses this garners as a result.

 Take, for example, MattBochenski’s review of Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut, Coriolanus, for Little White Lies. We’ll come to Coriolanus shortly, but there’s more pressing issues present in Little White Lies’ article that must be addressed beforehand. Bochenski’s review isn’t so much a critique of this latest silver screen outing for old Will as it is a violent savaging of the bard’s work at large. Clearly alienated by Fiennes’ decision to retain the blank-verse of the original play, Bochenski’s review regards the film as “mealy mouthed” to the point of incomprehensibility, using Coriolanus as a case study for his rather simply put conclusion: “there’s no place for William Shakespeare in cinema.” Well.

 Bochenski’s article is interesting for a number of reasons (not least the rather profound leaps in logic it makes throughout), and belies how easily most people shun Shakespearean works purely through a refusal to engage with the language. I’m not saying Shakespeare is for everyone, nor that those who get nothing out of his work are boors. But there’s something rather dangerous in Bochenski’s review – there is no movement beyond the language into the qualities that define this film as a cinematic adaptation rather than a play. All we really gain from it is that Bochenski would rather not watch Shakespeare, and would prefer to see it confined to the stage. By anticipating an “intellectual” backlash to the fact he personally did not enjoy the film, Bochenski ironically draws the enemy’s lines out for him.

 This is worrying, particularly from a magazine that prides itself in discussing not only the merits of the form it reviews, but how cinema is part of a wider artistic dialogue that encompasses all forms. Perhaps theatre is rather passé amongst the cutting edge ranks of Shoreditch and their love of graphic design, who knows. Given how indebted cinema is to theatre though, one would think that this love of the great artistic web would allow for film’s most obvious predecessor. One wonders what Bochenski makes of Polanski’s Macbeth, Olivier’s Henry V, or Welles’ Othello; all Shakespearean adaptations showing masterful approaches to the power of cinema – approaches that no cinephile should be blind to. Fiennes' take on Coriolanus might not stand up to Bochenski’s idea of a worthy film (he gave it the lowest score available for the mag), but this alone doesn’t justify a dismissal of all Shakespeare from the screen. By that logic, every Disney film out there must be atrocious because I thought Tarzan was a total crap-fest.

 There are problems with Fiennes’ debut behind the camera. Coriolanus is a play about one man’s stubborn pride, and how that leads to him being banished by the people – the individual failing to adhere to the collective. In bringing the play into modern day, certain aspects of Coriolanus’ exile from Rome lack necessary resonance; the war hero’s refusal to slip off his toga and display his wounded, vulnerable body to a rabble of onlookers, in being transformed into a failure to “speak” openly somewhat reduces the sense of Coriolanus as the peoples’ property to be owned and destroyed. Likewise, the call for death asks for too much of a leap from reality in this world of democratised Western Europe. Redgrave, Cox, Butler and Fiennes all give individual performances ranging from fine to fantastic over the course of the film, but never seem to ignite sparks within each other during the key dialogues, instead existing in personal vacuums. Jessica Chastain is embarrassing as Virgilia, and highlights Fiennes’ own uncertainty toward both her and his titular character with regard to the power of silence against language. What remains is a satisfactory film, at times charming in its flawed re-contextualising (the storming of Corioli is a highlight).

 If Bochenski had raised any of these issues – particularly those toward performance, or the inadequacies of the shift into modern Rome against the clear reliance on the machinations of the Roman Senate, his critique of the film, whilst something I still wouldn’t agree with, would at least be respectable and thought out. Instead, Bochenski’s article merely exacerbates a fascinating, if troubling, issue in the reception of cinema. Why are people so willing to make allowances for the idiosyncratic ways of Terrence Malick, or ignore the fact that Wes Anderson’s directorial box of tricks is becoming increasingly well-used, but at the first whiff of Shakespeare, they shut down? Were high-school English lessons really that bad? More seriously, are people really that willing to be led by what is labelled as “groundbreaking” or “alternative” in rather amorphous, indefinable terms, rather than actually engage with difficult passages of cinema?

 If the answer is yes, it's fucking frightening.