Monday, October 22, 2012

O Kenneth Where Art Thou?

O Kenneth Where Art Thou?

Dear Kenneth Branagh,
                      Do you know how it is to see a movie that hits you like a ton of bricks and changes your life? Well, of course you do.
                      Your Henry V did that to me. The first time I saw it I was only as vaguely aware of Shakespeare as most people are and I had some trouble following it, but understanding it all proved to be secondary to the impact the film had on me.  My days as a Shakespeare freak were about to begin.
                      You don't get quite all of the credit – I was studying English literature at the Stockholm University at the time and good professors helped, but Henry V started making everything fall into place. Your Much Ado About Nothing didn't hurt – who could resist falling for your Benedick and Emma Thompson's Beatrice? Not I. 
                      And then I saw your Hamlet and I was a goner.  It's probably the best movie ever made; it's certainly my all-time favorite.
                      In other words I was hooked and your Love's Labour's Lost and As You Like It only deepened my addiction; your excellently evil Iago only made it worse. Or better, or whatever.
                      And then.
                      No more Shakespeare.
                      Yes, everything else you've done is more or less brilliant too. I loved Frankenstein.  The Magic Flute made me like opera (at least while watching this one). Your Sleuth was even better than the 1960's version and that has always been one of my Top Ten or so. Your Wallander does Sweden and Mankell proud. You were the perfect Gilderoy Lockhart. Et cetera, et cetera.
                      But what happened to Shakespeare?  You have more than thirty more plays left to film! Aren't you longing to do the other biggies? Lear, Prospero, Macbeth? You and Emma Thompson (you're still friends, aren't you?) would do a spectacular murderous couple!  You could do so much with King John – the first Shakespeare play put on film, by the way, doesn’t that tempt you?  Measure for Measure has always been one I'd like to see, as long as it's not made romantic and lovey-dovey at the end.  You could do great things with Timon of Athens.  Or The Winter's Tale. Or – well, you know which plays you haven't filmed yet.
                      Julie Taymor has made excellent Shakespeare films. Baz Luhrman did a fantastic R&J. Al Pacino made a masterpiece. But they’re not…you.
                      So Dear-Kenneth-Branagh-Making-Shakespeare-Movies, you are sorely missed. I can't begin to thank you enough for everything you've done so far but Shakespeare freaks are never satisfied. The world needs you!  It's time for a new wave of Shakespeare movies and nobody can do it like you.
                      Please come back! 

With best and hopeful regards,
Ruby Jand
Shakespeare blogger


  1. This is how adulatory letters ought to be written. Did you send it to Kenneth, Ruby? If not, by all means do.

    My own attitude to Kenneth Branagh is far more ambivalent. "Henry V" I haven't seen yet, nor his takes on "Love's Labour's Lost" and "As You Like It" (I insist on reading the originals first), but "Hamlet" was disappointingly histrionic if visually stunning and with some fabulous performances among the supporting cast (especially Derek Jacobi and Richard Briers).

    Nor did I like Kenneth's direction in "Sleuth". But here Harold Pinter should be blamed most for he has transformed the lighthearted seriousness of Shaffer's original into nasty bitterness, outdated homosexuality and foolish foul language.

    By the way, which is "the 1960's version" of "Sleuth"? I know only the 1972 one with Olivier and Caine, directed by Mankiewiecz. This is certainly in my personal Top 10. Indeed, a 1960's version would be a fascinating historical curiosity since the original play was first produced in 1970.

    That said, I loved "Much Ado" and was totally blown away by Kenneth's Iago. And yes, of course, I can wholeheartedly join the appeal to his Shakespearean conscience. Prospero I don't find particularly interesting, but would love to see him as Lear or Macbeth. Perhaps Richard III as well? Or is this for younger fellows?

    Julie Taymor's movies are "Titus" and "The Tempest", aren't they? Have just re-visited the latter and I again found it horrible, and I mean horrible, monumentally wrong and fabulously dull in each and every way. Maybe this is simply because I don't find "The Tempest" anything special. As I suggested once, maybe Bernard Shaw's devastating words about Schumann's Fantasia for piano (Op. 17) apply here as well: it is too hard to fathom because there is next to nothing in it.

    All the same, I'd love to see Taymor's "Titus" once I actually manage to read the play.

    (And to admit another personal prejudice about "The Tempest", I'm not terribly fond of Helen Mirren either. This dates to her lackluster performance as Karen Stone in a visually splendid but otherwise indifferent adaptation of Tennessee Williams' brilliant novella "The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone".)

    Al Pacino's masterpiece is perhaps "Looking for Richard"? If yes, I completely agree. Very strange and indeed unique movie, but compelling from start to finish. Shall we see "King Lear" with him once of these days or not? I also found his Shylock terrific, even if I have - of course - host of complains about the rest of the cast.

    By the way, do you know who reads Prospero's famous words uncredited in the beginning and in the end of "Looking for Richard"? Sounds much like Laurence Olivier, but I'm not sure.

    Last and least, because Alec Baldwin plays Clarence in this movie, I am always amused that in "Nuremberg", where he plays of course Justice Jackson, he should quote from the notorious wooing scene between Richard and Anne. Just a piece of trivia, somewhat interesting as coincidences go.

    1. First of all welcome to the blog! I really enjoyed this multifaceted comment and will do my best to answer it, in no special order. About the original Sleuth, sorry, my mistake (and me a history teacher!) You’re absolutely right, the original was in 1972. Many agree with you about Brabagh’s version but I find Pinter’s script intriguing and relevant and Branagh’s hypertechno version quite brilliant. The Pacino masterpiece I was referring to was Merchant of Venice (hmm? Complaints “of course?”) but Looking for Richard was just as good. I think you’re right about Olivier as the uncredited speaker. I didn’t know that about Alec Baldwin. And yes, we’re hoping Pacino’s King Lear will be released in 2013 as scheduled. Taymor: yes those are the two. Haven’t seen her Tempest yet, waiting until we read it again. Your take on it of course arouses my curiosity. I’ll let you know in a year or so if I agree. Titus is…well it’s weird but fascinating. It’s always interesting to read how views differ and many agree with you about Branagh. As you have seen, I very much like his interpretations but in spite of my enthusiasm I’m not blind to their flaws. I would have made other choiceshad I been the director but the power and drama and beauty of his versions far outweigh the wrinkles. No, I haven’t sent this to him but it has just been posted on which reaches a wider audience than this one. So who knows? Maybe he’ll see it…

  2. Great news about the letter! If Kenneth did make a new Shakespeare movie, we'd know whom we should thank.

    Even if he never makes it, and despite my reservations about some of his interpretations, Branagh will surely remain in history as one of the great forces when it comes to Shakespeare on screen, certainly the greatest since Olivier. Who's better than whom is, of course, deeply personal and largely irrelevant matter. What does matter is that both are great above all as inspirations. Heaven knows how many fellows from several generations have been converted to Bardolatry (in the best sense of the word) after seeing one of those wondrous movies.

    (Speaking of inspirational value, I wish Baz Luhrman would attempt Shakespeare again, instead of wasting his talents with rubbish like "The Great Gatsby". Then again, he might just improve Fitzgerald's lame melodrama.)

    Branagh's "Hamlet" alone is enough to make his name immortal. Very bold, very audacious to put the complete text on the screen, and not in some TV-theatre-like production but in a full-scale movie. People who have known only some of the big-budget greatly-cut versions of the past (Olivier and Zeffirelli, mostly) might just be surprised how much more complex characters Hamlet, Claudius and Polonius are.

    Also, Branagh seems to be the only Shakespearean actor - together with Larry, of course - who has been successful as a director too. Orson Welles is the finest example how the latter could be at the awful expense of the former. I have never understood why he is revered as a Shakespearean actor: both his Othello and his Macbeth are soporific to the extreme! But as a director the man is stupendous! A visual poet on par with the Bard - especially considering his notoriously limited budgets.

    As a matter of fact, I like Kenneth enough to read a play only to see his movie version of it. With "Much Ado", it accidentally happened the other way round. Now I find the play verbose when compared to the movie's judicious cuts and brisker pace. And once one's seen the movie it's difficult to put it out of one's head while reading.

    On Pacino. I thought you meant "Looking for Richard" because there the whole conception was his, while in "The Merchant" he was "only" Shylock - but he still eclipsed everybody else; maybe that's Shakespeare's fault (of "fault"). I have complaints about everything else in this movie. Neither Jeremy Irons nor Joseph Fiennes are to my mind entirely satisfactory. Lynn Collins is simply dismal. Portia is such a spirited girl - witty, naughty, smart, charming, hot if you like - that it's a crime to turn her into a talking statue. To top all that, Michael Radford is a rather poor director. He seems to have little idea how to make the most of some of the most dramatic scenes ever penned. All in all, still a fine movie, mostly because Pacino's beautiful performance and the lush visual side, but it could have been so much better.

    By the way, speaking of "The Merchant", in your wonderful essay you have missed to include a merciless critique of Olivier's Shylock. You must rectify this omission! I am also curious what you think of the Victorian staging. I find it completely hideous. The drab colours and the amateurish direction don't exactly help the matter. Oddly enough, Joan Plowright is yet another dull Portia, though the rest of the cast is rather spectacular.

  3. I look forward to the day we have the Olivier version of RIII to criticize. Sadly, it is not in our collection yet. Your description makes me think I will enjoy being merciless on that day…I so agree about Baz Luhrman!