[1996. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie. Columbia PicturesColumbia-Tristar Home Video. 242 mins.] It 's difficult to decide whether to laugh or cry about the American Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Science's recent snub of Kenneth Branagh's epic Hamlet. At the very least, our Academy's oversight of this most faithful big screen English-language adaptation of Shakespeare on celluloid - and the most faithful cinematic translation, period, not counting Grigori Kozintsev's magnificent1971 RussianKngLear - is.atthevery least, nothing short of feckless. Indeed, this oversight is as laughable as it's pitiful for an industry unduly preoccupied with juvenile pyrotechnics and outlandish prosthesis. Yet equally more serious, it's also a rather serious symptom of willful cultural illiteracy. Given the choice between two pathological sons bent upon fratricidal homicide, the Academy chose to give the adapted screenplay Oscar to Billy Bob Thorton's Sling Blade over a nearty unexpurgated Hamlet. Thorton's film won'tberememberedinfiveyears - muchless 50 years - or, for that matter, far less than 400 years. So what's to be made of this exceedingly tasteless (and even èmbarrassing) provincial gesture? Having nominated Branagh for his 1 989 Henry V, there's not much use in nominating him for adapting Shakespeare again? Or honoring Lawrence Olivier for his Hamlet in 1 948 is enough recognition f orthis play over the course of a half-century? Or, finally, better not to deal with the film now since every generation hencef orth will be attempting to get the English language'sgreatesttragedyright every 50years orso? There's only one problem with all these attempts to phantom the lack of sensibility on the part of our supposed experts in the film arts: They haven't reckoned on Branagh's film solely on its own merit. Whilegranting the film is every bit of its morethanfourand-a-half hours in length, it's also 242 minutes that moves remarkably fast. And running across the board, the film is quite likely the high point in Branagh's career in terms of production qualities; film values; and most certainly, literary quality. Like it or not, the film is a mature masterwork. Branagh more than shoulders the workload and he indeed finds a novel translation in his depiction of the Prince of Denmark. Ratherthan compete sulk for sulk with Olivier's downcast protagonist, Branagh's Hamlet is vital and confused. He is, more accurately, a man of action whose inability to digest the unsavory actions of his traitorous uncle, Claudius (Derek Jacobi), and the equally shallow venality of his mother, Gertrude (Julie Christie), leads him to a state of uncommon indecisión. Each major character in the film is likewise sharply delineated. And Branagh's gamble to spend his film's time with Shakespeare's dialogue is repaid by Hamlet's uniform excellent performances. From the first act's cali for revenge from his ghostly father to the play's climactic duel with equally revenge-minded Laertes, Branagh's Hamlet is alive with a fiery passion that takes full advantage of the possibilities embedded in Shakespeare's play. A feast for both the eyes and the mind, Branagh's Hamlet will be watched, admired, and studied long after most of the films of our time have been forgotten and dismissed. LOOKING FOR RICHARD [1996. Directed by Al Pacino. Cast: Al Pacino, Winona Ryder, Kevin Spacey. Fox Searchlight20th Century Fox Home Video. 112 mins.] The conceit behind Al Pacino's first directorial effort is the running gag that William Shakespeare intimidates us from the top to bottom rung of our cultural ladder. The veritê interviews in Looking for Richard - from brand name actors like Kevin Kline to the ubiquitous "man on the street" - attest to this peculiar brand of literary stage fríght as though it's a national inf eriority trart. The pre mise is laughable. For the producers of Looking for Richard have spiced the film's cast with top rung American actors and actresses - ncluding Pacino himself; Alee Baldwin, . Estelle Parsons, Aidan Quinn, Winona Ryder, Kevin Spacey, and Harris Yulin - to spice the box office. And they certainly don't appear intimidated. Perhaps this tactic is meant to make the audience comf ortable with yet another adaptation of Shakespeare. But it isn't really honest, nor does it soften the impact of what is the first thoroughly post-modemist wrangling of Shakespeare on the silver screen. Not discounting Baz Luhrmann's recently superbadaptationof Romeo and Juliet, Pacino's Looking for Richard goes one step better than any other recent Shakespeare film adaptation. His Richard is a 21 st century marvel that's inadvertently planted on this side of the upcoming millennium's divide. Luhrmann's hip-hopped Romeo + Juliet strains at breaking the mold of classicism. But it does so only within the context of the play itself . As such, and despite its punk apocalyptic exterior, the film is really no more a recasting of Shakespeare than Orson Welle's 1 948 nor interpretation of Macbeth. Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet is ultimately not much more than a speedball Wesf Side Story. By contrast, Looking for Richard is purely cinematic. It deconstructs Shakespeare' s text while embodying it n the film's structure. And this f racturing is something that could only be accomplished in film. Pacino's energetic exploration of the text, its meaning, and the handling of its tropes, makes Looking For Richard a noteworthy landmark in Shakespearean interpretation. The set-up is simple: Pacino wants to communicate his love of Shakespeare to worid-wide audiences through an analysis of his favorite title. By juxtaposing diff enng stages of rehearsal with a thoroughly disjunct performance of the play itself - and by stitching diff ering bits of interpretive and analytic narrative through different periods of rehearsal with drffering colored readings of the text in a number of differing voices - the film creates a mosaic of aural and visual imágenes whose sharp discontinuities would be tedious if left i n their original f i Imed f ormulation and diffused of their meaning if not pruned judiciously. What results f rom this obliteration of linearity - both cinematically and narratively - is a reading of Richard III whose very meaning is dependent upon the snippets of nformation and images that Ilústrate the play's performance. As precise as a fine crafted watch, yet as shattered as a smashed mirror, Pacino's playful interpretation of Shakespeare's play emerges slowly f rom the varied cacophonies that surround its discontinuities. Texture upon texture is superimposed upon the film. And by the time Pacino translates his effort through his interpretive layerings, his cinematic weavings constitute the body of his narrative. This constant interpolation of discontinuous strands supplement each other even as each alone could never justrfy a full-fledged interpretation of Richard III. Fusing these approaches through lighting, sound, editing, and cinematography, this radical integration of non-linear dialogue proves itself f aithf ui to the spirit of Shakespeare's Richard by erasing and reconfiguring the text's themes. Pacino's sham wony about America's unwillingness to grapple with Richard III dissolves in the face of his (and our) perennial preoccupation with the psychological complexities of the English language's greatest playwright. RATING KEY ik Acting Cinematography Direction fE Editing fa Narrative Sound Special Effects When a symbol appears following a titíe, t implies that the corresponding category s a strength of the mom.
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