In praise of Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespeare adaptations
Nathanael Smith | On 26, Apr 2016
In the Community episode “Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design”, the drama teacher tells Jeff that they’ve just done “a modern retelling of Macbeth set in gangland Chicago.” With a sarcastic smirk, Jeff replies, “Oh, fresh take.” There’s something about Shakespeare that encourages each generation to try and do something new or different with his work. That could be setting Romeo and Juliet on the beaches of LA, as Baz Luhrmann did, or modernizing the language as happened in the disastrous Julian Fellowes version. It’s become almost parodic, now, this constant need for reinvention, which is why Kenneth Branagh’s resolutely traditional interpretations feel so refreshing.
Specifically, his versions of Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet rank among the best cinematic adaptations of the Bard ever. The key to their success is not trying to reinvent or reimagine the plays, it’s just picking a setting and then performing the text with unmatched gusto. His version of Hamlet, for instance, is a full four hours long, putting every single word of Shakespeare’s magnificent text on-screen.
In these films, Branagh utterly shatters the illusion that Shakespeare is inaccessible. Even today, when so much of our language has changed from Tudor English and plays are more Pinter than pentameter, Shakespeare can be enjoyed by anyone. You just need to see the right production of it with a cast that brings it to life. Branagh understands the rhythms and themes of Shakespeare so well that conveying them looks effortless. Look at the way that his Benedick monologues about conflicted feelings towards Beatrice in Much Ado. Branagh’s diction rolls with the lyricism of the Bard’s language, while his blocking ranges from stooped uncertainty to riotous, fountain-splashing ecstasy. Viewers will be able to deduce from the context any linguistic nuances that otherwise might elude them.
Part of the appeal of Branagh’s adaptations are the gigantic casts he assembles for each. Richard Briers, Derek Jacobi and Emma Thompson are a few of his lucky recurring talismans, while he also brings out remarkable performances from Denzel Washington, a teenage Christian Bale and even Keanu Reeves – equally astonishing is the way he makes Brian Blessed a credible screen presence. The cast of Hamlet is so big as to be baffling. Peter O’Toole, Judi Dench and Ken Dodd have wordless appearances, while Charlton Heston, Robin Williams and Jack Lemmon appear for tiny cameos. Clearly, actors love working for him.
Branagh’s directorial style makes the most of cinematic techniques – close-ups allow an intimacy with actors that theatrical audiences can never experience – while still using long takes to let the performances and scripts speak for themselves. The form of the films entirely serves the texts, which may lead some to dismiss his films as stale. Indeed, Henry V veers dangerously close to stuffiness. Yet Branagh manages to capture the emotional truth of Shakespearean drama, which helps to avoid any risk of dryness.
A large part of this success has to be attributed to Branagh’s talented production designer, Tim Harvey. The warm Tuscan villa of his Much Ado intoxicates the audience with its permanently shining sun and the chirrup of insects in the background. The play could be Shakespeare’s finest romance and it would take a hardened heart not to fall under its – and Branagh’s – spell. Yet the real triumph of his work is Hamlet, set in a Versailles-inspired palace. Every frame feels opulent and excessive, making Hamlet’s mourning garb seem all the more incongruous. It’s a lavish spectacle that befits the grandeur and the epic nature of the story. All of Branagh and Harvey’s aesthetic decisions ultimately are there for the greater mission of the story. Some of these choices may not be radical or boundary-pushing but, crucially, they do bring well-worn stories to life.
Branagh hasn’t always been successful with his Shakespearean films, but they tend to fail when he pushes at more unconventional ideas. His version of As You Like It has many charms, but is crucially hampered by the choice to set it in Japan. The setting is poorly realised and doesn’t make much sense within the context of the film. Turning Loves Labour Lost into a 1930s musical equally received mixed responses.
Ultimately, Branagh’s films succeed when there is no central gimmick, no selling point to jazz up Shakespeare – just the Bard’s words produced with no expense spared, telling the story in the best way possible. That’s exactly why they work so well; this is unalloyed Shakespeare, and it is magnificent.