Renaissance Rom-Com

August 17, 2011 at 4:23 pm (Film Adaptations, Shakespeare's Plays, The Two Gentlemen of Verona) (, , , , )

I had the pleasure of watching Don Taylor’s 1983 production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona (part of the BBC’s Television Shakespeare series). This is one of Shakespeare’s first plays, and although it is not among his best, I find it entertaining. This BBC version remains close to the text and is easy-to-watch.

It is a straightforward Renaissance setting with lovely vistas and blue skies. Much of the courting in this courtly-love quadrangle takes place in a garden graced by statues of Amor (love) and Fides (Latin for trustworthiness). Early on, golden cherubs shoot an arrow into the sign for amor, cluing us into Proteus’s preference for following his heart at the expense of his integrity.

The play’s action is not particularly well-drawn, but Shakespeare returns in later plays to many themes raised here, so maybe it can be viewed as Shakespeare’s internship project. Proteus is a silly boy acting on infatuation, willing to give up his true love with Julia and his lifelong friendship with Valentine, hurting everyone along the way, in his efforts to win over the disdainful Silvia. Shakespeare ties up all the loose ends at the end of this play by creating a sudden and unexpected return to reality for Proteus, while everyone he has injured instantly forgives him, and all live happily ever after. It’s a bit far-fetched.

This production is fun to watch. Proteus and Valentine are both wide-eyed boys, falling in love at first sight with pretty girls and sharing trysts and secret kisses with them where ever they can. Silvia is portrayed as the other-worldly woman on a pedestal — as she walks (lightly, in flowing gowns), flower petals are strewn on her from above. She’s the object of everyone’s infatuation.

Poor Julia, who dresses as the boy Sebastian in order to visit her wayward love Proteus in Milan, is lovely and heartbroken when she sees Proteus throwing himself at Silvia.

The comic foils in this play, Speed and Launce (along with his dog, Crab), are great fun with their quick-witted wordplay, often mocking the courtly lovers. I especially enjoy Speed, Valentine’s quick-talking and always-smiling servant, who is played here by a teenager.

Along with the set and costumes, the music in this version is lovely. From the chorus at the beginning to quiet lutes in the courtly garden, the Renaissance-inspired music is a nice addition.

The other thing I really enjoy here are the actors’ facial expressions. Valentine’s wide-eyed adoration of Silvia, Speed’s mischievous smiles, Julia’s heartbroken sadness as she listens to Proteus serenade Silvia… the actors do a great job. I think my favorite of all is the Duke of Milan (played by Paul Daneman) whose steely glare and raised eyebrow show that he knows exactly what kind of “friend” Proteus is for telling him of young Valentine’s secret plan to elope with his daughter Silvia. That is a great moment.

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To Wit, To Woo

August 5, 2010 at 8:34 pm (Film Adaptations, Love's Labour's Lost, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , )

Oh, I’m tired. I’m witless from witty banter. I just finished reading Love’s Labour’s Lost and I’ve watched the 1984 Elijah Moshinsky version for the BBC Shakespeare series. I’ve watched it twice now. As I say, I am tired and witless from all the witty banter.

I had never read this play or seen it performed, so this was all new. It’s an acquired taste. I was lost the first time I watched the BBC version. The play is all about wit and puns and there’s very little action; it is difficult to keep up with the dialogue and make sense of it on casual viewing.

Then I read the play; I watched it again. Okay. I get it now. It’s very thick satire. Extremely thick, non-stop mockery of people who have nothing better to do than to be impressed with their own wit. So I say: To Wit, To Woo. That is, I think, Shakespeare’s pun on the lyrics in the final song representing the owl’s cry, “tu-whit, tu-who!”

The whole play is about wit and wooing. Or maybe, as the introduction in my text says, “Perhaps the men have been too witty to be able to woo effectively.” The banter and wordplay is just all-around too much for me. But I’m critiquing the content of the play itself, and that’s hard not to do when it’s the basis for the film.

I read that this is Shakespeare’s most intellectual play, and so one that is less accessible to modern audiences. And in fact, it probably was not originally produced for the general public, but for a learned audience who would get the thick allusions and wordplay. It’s not easy.

That said, I think that the BBC version does a good job of making it at least a bit accessible (and I’ve read that this play can also be quite enjoyable performed live… even when much of the witty banter goes right by you). There is really not a serious moment until the very end and the film keeps moving along briskly (not belaboring the wordplay at all).

The BBC setting reminds me of a Fragonard painting… a frothy 18th century French fantasia. The actors are well-suited to their roles. I especially like David Warner’s version of the endearingly goofy Don Adriano de Armado. I also enjoy the Beatrice/Benedick-esque sparring between Rosaline (Jenny Agutter) and Berowne (Mike Gwilym). But unlike Beatrice and Benedick, these characters are never developed enough in the play to really care about them and the sparring is all just verbal play — there’s little emotion behind it.

That’s a critique of the play again, not the BBC production. I cannot say I like this play much. It’s smarmy and pedantic. I feel like a pedant just saying that. When I start getting the jokes I feel like Miss Smartypants. The whole thing is making fun of smarmy pedants, but you have to be one to get the joke. And so the joke’s on you. Sneaky guy, that Shakespeare.

I appreciate that this BBC version is a fun take on Shakespeare. I can’t say I recommend this for people who are not familiar with the play. I don’t think most people will enjoy it or get much out of it on casual viewing.

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BBC = Gets the Job Done

June 11, 2010 at 8:46 pm (Film Adaptations, Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , )

I found Stuart Burge’s 1984 version of Much Ado About Nothing (part of the BBC’s Television Shakespeare series) quite enjoyable. It’s a straightforward rendition, true to the text, and nothing odd (i.e., green fairies) or annoying (i.e., boring, beige people). There are no bicycles, no Keystone Kops, no surreal umbrellas.

This is the 35th film adaptation I’ve watched for this blog, and I’d gotten so used to gimmicks, I’d kind of forgotten that Shakespeare could be staged in a straightforward Elizabethan setting… and work! Yes, this film works for me.

The setting is not breathtaking like the luscious Tuscan villa in the Branagh version, but it’s fine. The set is a lovely castle, the costumes are lovely Elizabethan costumes, the actors are all good. Now I realize how unusual that last statement is. None of the actors stand out as incredible, I knew none of their names going into it, and I don’t recognize any of them. They’re all good! None are floundering with their lines, none seem uncomfortable in their roles… I see now that this must be very difficult to achieve with Shakespeare.

Beatrice (played by Cherie Lunghi) is quick-witted and sharp-tongued. Lunghi has Beatrice down to a T. I found myself sometimes comparing her in my mind to Emma Thompson in the role, but she doesn’t fare poorly in the comparison. I love Emma Thompson… I find her facial expressions and facility with the words really amazing. But Lunghi does a great job. Her Beatrice is a bit more uptight in prim Elizabethan outfits than Thompson’s loose-limbed ease with her open-necked bodices. But still, it works well. No complaints.

And, she’s got great chemistry with Benedick, played by Robert Lindsay (it’s funny, I see now that Lindsay also played Lysander in the BBC version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but I didn’t recognize him at all). I really appreciate Benedick’s transformation in the film from scruffy, bearded soldier to clean-shaven, handsome swain.

Besides B&B, the rest of the actors do admirable jobs. In the introduction in my edition of the text, it says that the character Don John is “taciturn and opaque–and for most actors almost unplayable.” I had my strong issues with Keanu Reeves in the role in Branagh’s version. With this in my mind, I admire Vernon Dobtcheff’s take on Don John in this BBC version. He’s socially awkward and villainous… a devilish combination. I think he does a good job. I’m not terribly fond of Don Pedro in this version (played by Jon Finch), but I think he’s true to the text. The more I get to know the Don Pedro character, the less I like him.

Anyway, this version is straightforward Shakespeare. Nothing fancy, but it works. It has the drawbacks, I guess, of the Elizabethan setting and British accents (for people who find that intimidating). I like it all. Thumbs up to the BBC and thumbs up to B&B. They put on quite a smooch at the end.

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BBC = Boisterous, Beautiful, Charming

March 27, 2010 at 10:18 pm (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Film Adaptations, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , )

I knew that Romeo and Juliet was probably the low ebb of the BBC Television Shakespeare series, so I am happy to report that their version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is much better.

It is not fantastic, but it’s fun to watch and the acting is all decent. Helen Mirren is sensual and luminous as Titania. The “hempen homespuns” are bumbling, but funny. Helena (Cherith Mellor) is fun to watch as her character has to deal with the changes in her friends brought on by the fairy love juice.

I wasn’t sure I was going to like this version at all. The film starts very slowly. The “Athenians” are in what appears to be an 18th century English home with a big clock ticking in the background. The four Athenian youngsters are lined up at a table as Hermia’s father tells her she must marry Demetrius and give up Lysander. Helena’s character seems so bumbling and prunish at first. I just wasn’t sure I was going to get into it.

But enter the fairy world and things started moving along nicely. The story, with all its convolutions, is very easy to follow in this version. It’s clear who is in love with who at which moment and why.

So, I liked it all in all. And it can’t help but be funny, because the play itself is so silly with the Athenians falling in and out of love and the fairies playing tricks.

HOWEVER. And it’s a big however. This version creates a dark mood, especially in the fairy kingdom. Puck is creepy and Oberon is mean-spirited. There’s a darkness hanging over the whole production that seems off to me. Again, I haven’t re-read the text yet, but my memories of this play are all lightness, magic, and comedy. That’s not the tone here. Still, I enjoyed watching this and I’m looking forward to seeing more film versions.

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BBC = Boring, Banal, Choppy

March 13, 2010 at 11:26 am (Film Adaptations, Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , , , , )

I want to watch all the BBC productions, so I went ahead and watched Romeo and Juliet even though I’d heard it was not that good. It lived up to my expectations. 

On the plus side, the language is Shakespearean. I noticed a few places where they skipped lines, but it seemed essentially to follow the text. I liked this version’s Mercutio (played by Anthony Andrews, who you might recognize from The Scarlet Pimpernel with Jane Seymour). I also liked this Capulet (Michael Hordern) and the Nurse (Celia Johnson) grew on me.

I watched this movie on my computer with Netflix’s instant play feature, and I have to admit two things. One is that I was constantly watching the ticker click down those two hours and 47 minutes. The ticker moved v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y.

My other admission—watching this one on the computer was a mistake. There are about a million things on the Internet more interesting than watching this film. For example, I found out that Gnomeo and Juliet is due out next year! Set in the world of warring indoor and outdoor gnomes! Can you believe it?! Well, I found reading that more compelling than watching the BBC production.

A basic problem for me with this version is that I never connected with the title characters. The actors playing Romeo (Patrick Ryecart) and Juliet (Rebecca Saire) just didn’t appeal to me. I didn’t believe or care about their love affair. They looked way too May-December for me, and of course, I had ample opportunity to look that up on the Internet while I was watching. Indeed, she was 14 while filming and he was 25. Beyond that, I found her a bit stiff and boring (I guess always comparing her in my mind to Olivia Hussey from the 1968 version).

Patrick Ryecart’s Romeo is bland and blah and beige. He’s actually BEIGE! I was a little fascinated by the monotone effect—his poofy, permed hair, his skin, clothes and bizarrely, his eyes are all shades of tan. And I guess I focused on this because his acting was so banal. He’s totally blank-faced as Mercutio lies bleeding to death in his arms. Blank. Then he freaks out on Tybalt.

Ahh, Tybalt. A revelation there! Tybalt was a Slytherin! Alan Rickman, well-known now as Professor Snape from the Harry Potter movies, plays Tybalt. What great casting for that part!

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