Shakespeare on Film
December 3 – January 5
From December 3 to January 5, the Gene Siskel Film Center presents Shakespeare on Film, a series of ten film adaptations of the Bard, the 400th anniversary of whose death has been commemorated throughout the world in 2016.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616) has been by far the most fertile literary source for movies. The IMDb database currently lists 1,189 films based on his work. With such an embarrassment of riches, one needs to set parameters for the sake of winnowing down the choices.
Our first guideline was that the most essential element of Shakespeare's plays is the language; ergo, the films in this series should be rooted in Shakespearean language. The screenplay might (and, with the exception of Branagh's HAMLET, invariably does) prune and rearrange the original text, and transpose it to another time or place, but what's left is still essentially the Bard's words. Some remarkable films have creatively reimagined Shakespeare without retaining the language — FORBIDDEN PLANET, THRONE OF BLOOD, WEST SIDE STORY, THE LION KING, to name just a few — but we have placed them outside the boundaries of this series. To narrow the choices further, as well as to increase variety, we have included only one version of each selected play, and only one film by each director.
Of course, Shakespeare's contributions to cinema can be measured by more than numbers. The richness of his imagery, the durability of his stories, and the universality of his characters have provided an incomparable stimulus for the skills and imaginations of countless actors and filmmakers.
— Martin Rubin, Associate Director of Programming
Chimes at Midnight
1965, Orson Welles, Spain, 115 min. With Orson Welles, Keith Baxter.
★★★★ "This is a magnificent film, clearly among Welles' greatest work...It is also magnificent Shakespeare." — Roger Ebert
The recipient of mixed reviews and poor distribution when first released, CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT is now considered by many to be the greatest of all Shakespeare films; it was also Welles's personal favorite among his own films. Portions of five different plays (primarily Henry IV, Parts I and II, and Henry V) are woven together to focus on Sir John Falstaff as the center of a tragicomic narrative tracing his relationship as mentor, boon companion, bad example, and eventual embarrassment to Prince Hal (Baxter), later King Henry V. Welles's hearty, heartfelt, ultimately heartbreaking performance as Falstaff heads up a cast that includes John Gielgud as Henry IV, Jeanne Moreau as Doll Tearsheet, and Margaret Rutherford as Mistress Quickly. Despite being filmed under difficult, underfinanced conditions, CHIMES displays Welles's gifts for visualization and editing in full form, capped by the spectacularly brutal Battle of Shrewsbury scene. DCP digital. (MR)
Much Ado About Nothing
2012, Joss Whedon, USA, 109 min. With Alexis Denisof, Amy Acker.
"Finally! A romantic comedy that works...Whedon's pocket-sized MUCH ADO knocks the characters off their perches and treats them like living, breathing human beings." — Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune
During post-production of THE AVENGERS, Whedon took a break and filmed this lark in 12 days, using his own house as the location, and casting actor friends who had previously convened there for weekend Shakespeare readings. The off-the-cuff nature of the production, filmed in black and white and played in modern-day dress, resulted in one of the least starchy, most effervescent, yet spiritually attuned Shakespeare adaptations. Antagonistic (but fated-to-be-mated) former lovers Beatrice (Acker) and Benedick (Denisof) set the template for countless future rom-com couples, battling and bickering until they come together to foil a foul plot against Beatrice's virginal cousin Hero by the villainous Don John. Culled from Whedon's movies and TV shows, the cast is all the better for not being star-heavy, with Nathan Fillion (SERENITY) especially amusing as the bumbling cop Dogberry. DCP digital. (MR)
The Merchant of Venice
2004, Michael Radford, USA, 131 min. With Al Pacino, Ralph Fiennes.
"Radford succeeds in rendering the complexities with clarity and vigor... Portia's defeat of Shylock becomes one of the great courtroom scenes in recent movies, a dense, emotionally volatile tableau of cruelty and beauty, much like the rest of Mr. Radford's well-judged interpretation of this impossible play." — A.O. Scott, The New York Times
The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s best-known yet least familiar plays, rarely produced because of its controversial villain, the vindictive Jewish money-lender Shylock. Michael Radford’s gripping, highly cinematic adaptation was in fact the first film version since the silent era, and the canny choices he makes in negotiating this minefield provide as much fascination as the text itself. Radford doesn’t disguise the bigotry inherent in the creation of Shylock’s character; instead, he contextualizes it by elaborating the historical background of medieval antisemitism. And Pacino’s hushed, haunted performance brings out Shylock’s full tragic potential, culminating in the play’s matchlessly dramatic courtroom showdown. 35mm widescreen. (MR)
William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet
1996, Baz Luhrmann, USA, 120 min. With Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes.
"Luhrmann's gleefully cinematic version of the play is so relentlessly inventive and innovative, it takes 20 minutes to get a grasp on how appropriate is his approach to the material...Fine as the rest of the cast is, it's DiCaprio and Danes — vulnerable, innocent, impassioned and beautiful, both of them — who steal the honors." — Geoff Andrew, Time Out London
Before MOULIN ROUGE, Aussie whiz kid Luhrmann flexed his postmodern muscles with this revved-up rendition of the Bard’s most youth-oriented drama. Employing a razzle-dazzle MTV style that is often as ingenious as it is infuriating to traditionalists, Luhrmann opens the film with a TV newscast, plops a giant fish tank in the middle of R+J’s first meeting, stages the balcony scene by a swimming pool, turns Mercutio into a drag queen, adorns the characters with Hawaiian shirts and tattoos, and draws impressive supporting performances from John Leguizamo as Tybalt, Pete Postlethwaite as Father Laurence, and Miriam Margolyes as the Nurse. 35mm widescreen. (MR)
1971, Peter Brook, UK/Denmark, 137 min. With Paul Scofield, Irene Worth.
"This is a King Lear of splendor and shock ... Brook at his manic best. It triumphantly ignores both romantic and naturalistic traditions to achieve something akin to the so-called new theater in film terms." — Vincent Canby, The New York Times
In 2004, actors of the Royal Shakespeare Company were asked to vote on the greatest Shakespeare performance of all time. The winner was Paul Scofield’s Lear — a performance which many of the voters knew primarily through Peter Brook’s 1971 film version. His 1962 stage production with Scofield had been both panned and praised (critic Kenneth Tynan called it “revolutionary") for stripping away what Brook saw as nineteenth-century sentimentality in favor of a more relevant Samuel Beckett-like nihilism. Brook’s film retains the core of the legendary stage production while boldly reconceiving it in cinematic terms, using relentless close-ups and replacing the abstract stage setting with the winter-swept flatlands of Denmark. 35mm. (MR)
A Midsummer Night's Dream
1968, Peter Hall, UK, 124 min. With Helen Mirren, Judi Dench.
"A sparkling but unpretentious gem." — Kenneth S. Rothwell, Shakespeare on Screen: A Chronicle History
Eminent theater (and sometime film) director Hall was unusually faithful to the text in this high-spirited Royal Shakespeare Company production (shown in movie theaters in Europe and on TV in the U.S.). However, the title "Athens" cheekily superimposed over an English country manor lets us know right away that he's not going to be slavishly literal in his approach to Shakespeare's tale of mismatched lovers, meddling fairies, and hilariously inept tragedians. Despite the title, the weather is stubbornly, Britishly rainy, and there's a definite 1960s vibe to the costumes and camerawork. But the cast's the thing here, especially on the distaff side, with the mindboggling trio of Helen Mirren, Diana Rigg, and Judi Dench (the last nearly nude throughout) in the main female roles, ably supported by David Warner as lovesick Lysander, Ian Holm as mischievous Puck, and Paul Rogers making an ass out of himself as Bottom. 35mm. (MR)
1955, Laurence Olivier, UK, 158 min. With Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson.
"Not even in the same actor-director’s HENRY V had Shakespeare ever made such dazzling, hypnotic screen entertainment as in Laurence Olivier's RICHARD III." — BritMovie
RICHARD III was the third and last of Olivier's Shakespeare adaptations, and he acts and directs with tremendous gusto, rendering the play as a rousing black comedy with touches of horror movie and Grand Guignol. His Richard is a magnificently malevolent monster as he schemes and slaughters his way to the English throne. Olivier's contorted postures as the crookbacked monarch were copied by Johnny Rotten in his Sex Pistols performances, and his seductively sinister asides to audience provided a template for Kevin Spacey's Frank Underwood in House of Cards. The incredible cast includes John Gielgud as Richard's hapless brother Clarence; Claire Bloom as his tormented wife Ann; Cedric Hardwicke as the ineffectual Edward IV; and Ralph Richardson as the opportunistic Duke of Buckingham (his and Olivier's crafty-and-craftier duets are among the film's highlights). This recent restoration by the Scorsese-sponsored Film Foundation was taken from the original VistaVision negative and restores twenty minutes of footage that had melted away in various rereleases. DCP digital. (MR)
The Tragedy of Macbeth
1971, Roman Polanski, UK/USA, 140 min. With Jon Finch, Francesca Annis.
"Where Justin Kurzel's recent MACBETH bellowed its cinematic credentials at its audience, Polanski's just inherently oozes cinema. It is a masterful adaptation of a master by a master." — Ben Nicholson, CineVue
As evidenced by, among others, ROSEMARY'S BABY, TESS, and his underrated OLIVER TWIST, Roman Polanski has been one of the screen's greatest literary adapters, with an almost uncanny ability to convey the essence of the original while at the same time making it unmistakably Polanskian. His MACBETH is a supremely intelligent adaptation of Shakespeare, full of subtle condensations and alterations that focus the original without distorting it. At the same time, it is firmly located in the Polanski-verse, depicting a world in which brutality is routine, treachery a means of survival, and evil ineradicable. Finch and Annis are an atypically youthful Lord and Lady Macbeth, their line deliveries more naturalistic than poetic, their grab for power seeming more a lethal film-noir cocktail of impulse and chance than the result of crafty scheming. 4K DCP digital widescreen restoration. (MR)
1996, Kenneth Branagh, UK/USA, 242 min. With Kenneth Branagh, Julie Christie.
★★★★ "At the end of this HAMLET, I felt at last as if I was getting a handle on the play...Branagh's version moved me, entertained me and made me feel for the first time at home in that doomed royal court." — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
Kenneth Branagh has been Shakespeare's most devoted chronicler on film, with five adaptations to date, and HAMLET is widely considered his finest bout with the Bard. It is the only film to include the entire text of the play, but, as many critics observed, the film moves briskly, and its completeness reveals dimensions diminished in shorter versions — such as elevating Claudius's character to more than a stock villain, and making the Players subplot more central to the overall design of the play. However, Branagh is more showman than scholar, as evidenced by his own forceful performance in the title role, the dazzling sets, the epic swordfights, and a star-studded cast too numerous to list beyond a few highlights: Billy Crystal delightful as the first gravedigger, Charlton Heston commanding as the Player King, and Kate Winslet sensual and sad as Ophelia. DCP digital widescreen. (MR)
NOTE: There will be a 10-minute intermission.
The Taming of the Shrew
1967, Franco Zeffirelli, USA/Italy, 122 min. With Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton.
"High-spirited whoop-de-doo Shakespeare, not too adulterated, not too precious, and geared slyly towards an audience who may have read about this kind of marriage on the showbiz gossip pages." — Film 4
For his first film, celebrated opera director Zeffirelli's broad, populist style proved well-suited for Shakespeare's rowdy battle-of-the-sexes comedy, whose gender politics (unfashionably patriarchal? slyly ironic? merely an accurate mirror of its times?) are still hotly debated by scholars and theatregoers. The film gains an added dimension by its casting of Burton and Taylor, at the time the world's most famous (and not always tranquil) couple. Their flamboyant performances are supported by a vibrant Nino Rota score, richly colored Oswald Morris cinematography, and sumptuous production values that nabbed Oscar noms for Best Costume Design and Best Art Direction. DCP digital widescreen. (MR)