Alphabetical movie – Henry V
When Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V was first released, it was a more popular film than it is now. Especially amongst critics, the film is typically dismissed as inferior to Laurence Olivier’s classic version.
Shakespeare films are, I think, more subject to that sort of analysis than any other. The question is not “how good is this filmed version of ‘Hamlet'” but rather “how does this filmed version of ‘Hamlet’ stack up against every other filmed version of ‘Hamlet’ I know of?” If Shakespeare is indeed the greatest writer in the English language, he is also one of the most frequently produced.
If I wanted to do the research, I imagine I would find that not a year goes by in which one of Shakespeare’s plays is not put on film. They may be obscure (I expect very few people I know – including myself – saw 2011’s Coriolanus) but they are out there. Even if you can’t find a direct adaptation of the bard, there are films like 10 Things I Hate About You, Throne of Blood or Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.
And beyond that, how many films contain quotations from one of the bard’s works or references to them? Shakespeare is everywhere and most everyone has a favorite rendition of his plays.
The pervasive nature of Shakespeare belies one of the most obvious problems any production of a Shakespeare play has. Performing Shakespeare, my friends, is really freaking hard.
People don’t talk in iambic pentameter. They don’t speak in soliloquies that last hundreds of words and make references to long dead mythologies. To perform Shakespearean dialogue and to perform it naturally, as if you talked like that all the time, is not something everyone can do.
I have a theatre degree so of course I’ve performed Shakespeare. I believe the diploma they hand you at graduation is technically invalid if you had nothing whatsoever to do with a Shakespearean production in college.
I know how hard it is to speak the Bard’s words even though I had to speak comparatively few of them. Even so, I was aware of the fact that tens of thousands of people had uttered those lines before me. My goal was to ensure that I played my part better than at least a few of those people.
If you really want to be a great Shakespearean actor, you have to have a healthy dose of ego because you can never escape the weight of those other performances. Every actor says things like “I really want to take the character of Hamlet and make him my own.”
Of course you do, Mel. It doesn’t matter, though, because the character of Hamlet belongs to all of us and we all have our own personal impressions of how he should be performed. For myself, I remember a production of “Hamlet” I saw at the Royal Shakespearean Company in January of 1990. That production is the yardstick by which all other productions of “Hamlet” will be measured for me.
And none of them live up to it.
If you are going to play Hamlet, you have to accept that almost everyone watching has some ideal Hamlet in their heads. You’d better believe you are going to blow every one of those away. You can’t do Hamlet (or Henry V or Lady Macbeth) half assed.
Nobody wants to watch you stumble through those characters. They want to watch you grapple with them and make them shout their safe word (which – oddly enough – is “forsooth”). Failure with an ambitious interpretation is actually more impressive to most than success with a tepid one.
Getting back to Branagh’s Henry V, I really like the film. I like it precisely because Branagh had to know there was no way his film could be compared positively to the Olivier version and he didn’t give a shit. He had an ego that said “fuck it – I want to film Henry V and I’m going to film it. I guarantee at least one person who sees my film will like it better than Olivier’s and when I find that person, I’m going to use their review of my work to give a big old middle finger to Sir Laurence.”
And I say Bravo.