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Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’

For a two-screen independent cinema dwarfed by the major chains around it and not exactly in a prime spot (off Leicester Square itself and well on the way to Chinatown), the Prince Charles has acquired a massive reputation as a place to watch and otherwise enjoy films. I think this is partly because the place is clearly run by people who understand why people still go to the cinema and what films they are prepared to pay and watch over and over again: on the schedule just this week are quotealong showings of Anchorman and Flash Gordon, a free-beer-and-pizza revival of Terminator 2, and a whole bunch of shrewdly-assembled double-bills – RoboCop and Dredd showing together, for example.

Despite the fact that one of the screens is really tiny and has hugely inadequate legroom for someone my size, I regret not being able to go to the Prince Charlie more often. I have very fond memories of watching The Wrath of Khan there two years ago, and had a fairly good time the other day watching the new version of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Joss Whedon.

muchado

Low-budget black-and-white modern-dress Shakespeare adaptations not featuring anyone you could honestly call a star name do not usually get the kind of release, or indeed media attention, that this one has drawn. Then again, the average low-budget black-and-white Shakespeare adaptation not featuring anyone you could honestly call a star name is not adapted and directed by the creative brain responsible for the third highest-grossing film of all time. That sort of thing gets you noticed.

On the other hand, I suspect the new Much Ado would have been guaranteed at least cult hit status regardless of the existence of The Avengers, for such is the effect of being touched by the hand of Joss Whedon. Let’s be straight about this: Whedon is a brilliant writer, director, and producer, and his career is littered with deservedly-celebrated films and TV series from Toy Story to Cabin in the Woods, taking in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-offs and Firefly along the way. No argument there.

However, I’m a bit less comfortable with the cult of adoration that seems to have developed around Whedon himself as an individual: several people I know are wont to publish gushing blog posts about the formative influence Whedon has had on their lives, and in the same way members of the faith tend to refer to him simply as ‘Joss’, as though he really were the intimate personal friend they clearly wish he was. I am very wary of this sort of thing.

Nevertheless, a built-in cult following does help when it comes to getting films financed and released, and I can’t help but suspect this has aided Much Ado along its path to a theatrical release. Still, one gets the sense that simply making a film as simple and intimate as this one was its own reward for Whedon: it was shot in and around his own house and the cast is largely comprised of people he’s worked with in the past.

The plot of the film is… quite famous and widely available on-line. But go on, I’ll spoil you anyway (not that this is likely to stop members of the Cult of Whedon coming round the garret with axes). Hey ho. Members of the household of prosperous gentleman Leonato (played by Agent Coulson from The Avengers) rejoice when popular nobleman Don Pedro (Dominic from Dollhouse) comes to visit with his retinue of followers. Romance blossoms between the young count Claudio (Topher from Dollhouse) and Leonato’s daughter, which inspires everyone to bring about a rekindling of romance between Pedro’s associate Benedick (Wesley from Angel) and Leonato’s niece Beatrice (Fred from Angel). Doing his best to scupper these matrimonial machinations is Pedro’s wicked brother John (Simon from Firefly). Will true love win through? Not if they have to rely on moronic local policeman Dogberry (Mal from Firefly) for help, that’s for sure…

Now, it doesn’t seem that long since the last film of Much Ado About Nothing – the Ken and Em version which came out in 1993, which I remember quite well. On the other hand, I’m currently working alongside people who weren’t born back then, so possibly another new take on the play is justified. Whedon’s version is distinctly different from Branagh’s, anyway: Branagh’s was very jolly, colourful, and straightforward, while Whedon’s is much cooler and more ‘classic’ in its look and feel. The Branagh film was mocked at the time for its endless choruses of hey-nonny-nonny, but a few of these (in an appropriately jazzy arrangement) have crept into the new version, too: clearly they are integral to the text.

For a while it looks like the stylisation of the new film is going to get in the way of Whedon’s take on the story, with only his most obvious directorial choices making it through to the audience. First and foremost, where the potential for slapstick comedy in the tale is concerned, Whedon goes for this in a big way: people falling down stairs and so on. Nathan Fillion’s performance as Dogberry is pretty broadly comic, too – but then, as I recall, so was Michael Keaton’s in the 93 version, and Fillion is at least less manic.

However, on reflection, suggestions that this is a feminist take on the play do not seem to me to be entirely unfounded. There seems to me to be an implicit critique of the differing positions in society of Beatrice and Benedick – the two are well-matched, equals in every practical way, and yet Beatrice is forced to ask others for assistance simply because there are some things a woman is not permitted to do. The crushing effect on a woman of acquiring a ‘reputation’, whether deserved or not, is also explored. All in all this isn’t much, and given that Whedon leaves Shakespeare pretty much as he finds him, it’s mostly grace notes anyway. But it’s a valid take on the play.

The film looks good and is impeccably put together, and the performances are fine as well: Shakespeare’s verse comes to life, which is a good sign. But I laughed at it a lot less than most of the other people at the showing I attended, and I couldn’t help thinking that this was a clever and admirable film rather than a really good one. If I had started watching Much Ado About Nothing on TV I’m not sure I wouldn’t have bailed out before the end. In the end, it seems to be the case that left to his own devices, Joss Whedon makes remarkable, hugely enjoyable films about hot, wise-cracking chicks battling armies to a standstill – but in association with the greatest writer who has ever lived, he just comes up with something which is interesting and fairly clever. Much Ado About Nothing is a nice little film – but for sheer entertainment value, give me something with the Hulk in it any day.

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All hail to Ralph, lord of the house of Fiennes

Respected well both here and o’er the pond

An Oscar did he get for Schindler’s List

He’s also the new boss man of James Bond.

Director now bold Ralphie has become –

A thing’s more worth the doing if it’s hard! –

A complex tale his debut offering:

He’s giving us his vision of the Bard.

No well-known play he’s gone for, no sirree

But obscure Roman saga, Coriolanus

And old Will Shakespeare’s versing’s kept intact

Which must have been a right pain in the neck.

So hence my tribute in this verse that’s blank

The key thing to it (and this I must stress)

Is in the correct placement of the stre… er, beats

At least irregular rhyming is allowed.

(Although this conceit’s wearing rather thin –

I think the time has come to pack it in.)

Oh, be quiet: it’s not like you’re having to pay for this, is it? Yes, it’s the new adaptation of Coriolanus, directed by and starring Ralph ‘Little Sunbeam’ Fiennes. (Rather mind-bogglingly, the script is credited to one John Logan, although some Shakespeare guy gets an ‘original material’ nod.) Now, I know this will come as a shock to regular readers, but there are limits to my erudition and this is not one of the plays with which I am terribly familiar. As a result I recruited an expert in literature to accompany me to the cinema, although the fact that his first words of wisdom on the play were ‘It’s a bit like 300‘ led me to worry I wasn’t paying enough attention when it came to the ancillary staff situation. Hey ho.

Fiennesy plays Caius Martius, respected and feared general in the service of the Roman Republic. The Volscians, old enemies of Rome, are playing up under the command of their military leader Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler – hey, what do you know! He was right!). The Romans come off better in the clash, though the personal feud of the two generals is unresolved.

On his return to Rome, he is gifted with the honorary name Coriolanus and, as is customary and expected (we’ll come back to this), proceeds towards the distinguished position of Consul, a source of much pride to his frankly scary mother (Vanessa Redgrave). However, while a brilliant soldier, Coriolanus is fatally lacking in the common touch and any kind of political sensitivity. His domestic enemies find it very easy to turn the population against him, with dire consequences for both countries and individuals…

Of necessity, any outline of Shakespeare’s plot wholly omits exactly how Fiennes chooses to present it. This is by far the most striking thing about it – rather in the same way that Ian McKellen’s Richard III movie took place in a 1930s Europe falling under the sway of Fascism, so Fiennes’ Coriolanus is contextualised in a world like the Balkans of the early 90s: bloody, senseless fighting; APCs rolling through bleak European cities; murky, self-interested politicking. This seems entirely appropriate for a film which takes as its theme the chaos which ensues when war and politics intersect.

That said, the text has a wider focus to it, and one which may possibly surprise people with only a passing familiarity with Shakespeare. This is a startlingly cynical film – the patrician class are scourged for their contempt and disdain for the wider population, but the public themselves are implicitly depicted as foolish sheep for allowing themselves to be so easily manipulated. Hardly any of the characters are presented in a remotely positive light, with the possible exception of Menenius (Brian Cox), one of Coriolanus’ political allies.

Cox, Fiennes, and Butler are just the most prominent members of an extremely strong cast, which also includes Jessica Chastain, James Nesbitt, Jon Snow, and, most prominently, Vanessa Redgrave as Coriolanus’ mum. Redgrave in particular is electrifying as a domineering, deeply controlling woman who is clearly the source of all that is both good and bad in her son’s character. Fiennes himself gives a striking central turn – he’s terrifying as Coriolanus the soldier, then chilling later on as the man falls from grace. That said, I don’t feel he ever quite gets to the heart of the character in terms of his pride and arrogance – Coriolanus the politician just comes across as awkward and a bit distant, rather than someone temperamentally unsuited to this course.

Another problem with the film is that, inevitably, the scissors have come out and much material has been excised (though my literary consultant distinctly muttered ‘I don’t remember that bit in the text’ at one point). Amongst the stuff that’s gone, alas, is whatever explanation is given for Coriolanus’s decision to become Consul. He seems fundamentally unsuited to the job and doesn’t actually seem to want it, so why’s he bothering? Is it just the done Roman thing? Is he being pushed into it by his mum? It’s central to the plot, so we really need to know why it’s happening.

Oh well – in many ways this is a very impressive film, and one that really works as a film in its own right most of the way through (although, one climactic scene has rather too much of a whiff of the Stratford stage about it in the way it’s staged). The acting is fantastic, the story is about as easy to follow as obscure Shakespeare play movie adaptations get (hmm, mayhaps damning with faint praise there), and it’s visually very interesting. If it doesn’t offer any easy answers to the questions it raises about what happens when the boundaries between soldiers and politicians blur, that’s perhaps because it would be fatuous to do so. I can’t honestly believe Coriolanus will wholeheartedly convert anyone going to see it with no prior knowledge of the play, but people with a better education than mine will probably find it a very rewarding experience.

There once was a soldier named Caius,

Lambasted for anti-prole bias.

When kicked out of town

He said with a frown

‘I suppose this stuff’s just sent to try us.’

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