Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Shakespeare Films Series: Whole Lotta Laurence Part I: Henry V

So, here it is finally: the first in our series on Shakespeare’s films. For those of you just joining us, I have recently been compelled to undertake a serious study of Shakespeare’s films after reading Michael Anderegg’s Cinematic Shakespeare. I am starting with mini-marathons of the three great Shakespearean actor-directors: Olivier, Welles and Branagh. These posts are not serious scholarly work in any sense of the word, or even necessarily very good movie reviews. Instead, they are simply a forum for recording my impressions as I view the films and encouraging feedback.

Today, we are talking Olivier. The three Shakespeare films Olivier directed and starred in remain a gold standard for what a “faithful” and “traditional” Shakespearean adaptation should look like. Since it is taking longer to write these than I planned and because I don’t want to make an ungodly long post, I am splitting my Olivier evaluation up by film, with a final post to come comparing the three.

Henry V (1944)

Famously financed by the British government to boost morale during WWII, this film remains the most celebrated of Olivier’s adaptations, and rightfully so. It is a truly breathtaking film on many levels. First and foremost is the fact that Olivier the actor, despite giving a tremendous performance, does not dominate the film. Rather, it is primarily an achievement for Olivier the director, one he would never again come close to matching.

Much has been made of the film’s unusual structure and reading about it in Anderegg’s book and other places, I did not know how he could possibly pull it off and still make anything resembling a realistic film, but he does. The film starts out as a performance at the Globe, with a rowdy audience in full view and slapstick backstage antics. Olivier then answers the Prologue’s plea for a “muse of fire” as each succeeding act moves us farther from the world of the theatre to the world of film. First, the audience disappears and then, eventually, Henry and his men are outside, on the shores of France. It is hard to capture in words how effective this potentially corny device is, but it is rather astounding.

The second great accomplishment by Olivier the director is the production design. The Criterion DVD has some great reproductions from a medieval “Book of Hours” that illustrates where Olivier drew his inspiration from. The oversaturated colors show the glories of “merry old England” without dropping off the precipice into kitsch.

As for the main attraction, Olivier gives the most energetic and compelling performance of any of his Shakespeare films. Even his scenery-chewing turn in Richard III does not command your attention the way young Henry does. Anyone who grew up with the grumpy old man Olivier of Boys from Brazil and Clash of Titans will be shocked at his striking good looks and sexual magnetism in this role (and this is coming from a straight man). He of course nails the big spots (the St. Crispin’s Day speech, the wooing of Katherine) but it is the smaller moments, such his nervous cough before going on stage for the first time and the campfire scene, that make this by far his most affecting Shakespearean film performance. This propagandistic version obviously gives us a cleaned-up Henry (no threats to rape and pillage, no hanging of former tavern mates), but Olivier still manages to give him a human frailty to keep him from becoming a caricature.

Negatives? Just one major one that’s not entirely Olivier’s fault. The low comic characters – Bardolph, Pistol and Nym – are more insufferable in Henry V than in pretty much any other Shakespeare play. Olivier is often criticized for his willingness to cut the plays to make the lead characters more prominent (we will get into this more with Hamlet) so why he felt the need to not cut more of the comic scenes, I do not know.

All in all, Henry V is far and away Olivier’s best Shakespeare film and possibly the best example of a “traditional” Shakespearean adaptation. It has set a high standard for the rest of the films.

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