All the World’s a Screen: Shakespeare on Film
(UK, 60 min.)
Dir. David Thompson
Brush up on your Shakespeare with this hour-long BBC doc that offers a survey course to the world of Shakespeare on film. Downton Abbey’s Penelope Wilton lends her regal voice to narrate this brisk overview of adaptation that touches upon many of the enduring qualities of Shakespeare’s verse. Similarly, the study of the Bard’s legacy and universality goes hand-in-hand with the inherent cinematic quality of Shakespeare. Although the film is clearly cut and paced for television, it’s a treat to see so many readings by some of the world’s greatest filmmakers cut side-by-side. The range of interpretations is inspiring.
All the World’s a Screen wears its Britishness on its sleeve with pride as it cites Laurence Olivier’s 1944 adaptation of Henry V as the first true case of Shakespeare on film and as the benchmark against which future takes on the Bard should be compared. The move downplays the significance of Shakespeare (and adaptation in general) in shaping cinematic storytelling as early filmmakers drew inspiration from established works. The doc highlights some early adaptations in its quick look at the pre-Olivier days, but All the World’s a Screen firmly puts Olivier as cinema’s Shakespearean equivalent.
Olivier’s faithful rendering of Henry V remains an epic achievement for its scope and cinematic scale, as the doc shows in emphasising the director’s opening up of the play. Wilton narrates how Olivier’s adaptation remains faithful to Shakespeare’s verse while finding the proper visual complements to enhance Shakespeare’s work through the cinematographic freedom of filmmaking. Most significantly, the film illuminates Olivier’s task from Sir Winston Churchill to make a picture that instills the power and legacy of Britain during World War II. As clips of Olivier’s speech to troops are cut alongside excerpts of Harry’s rousing soliloquies to his army, All the World’s a Screen conveys how the best cases of Shakespeare on film allow the contemporary to seep into a classic work.
The film keeps Olivier as the model for good Shakespeare while looking at his best film, his Oscar-winning Hamlet (1948) and its moody Freudian atmosphere. Other auteurs essential to the canon of Shakespeare on film make notable appearances, like Roman Polanski who tells how he drew upon the sounds of Jews being rounded up during the Holocaust as inspiration for screams peppering the sound mix of Macbeth (1971). Particularly worthwhile is the film’s look at Orson Welles and his troubled productions of Macbeth (1948), Othello (1952), and Chimes at Midnight (1966). The latter film endures as one of the most unique and inspiring adaptations of Shakespeare as the doc highlights Welles’s ingenious fusion of five Shakespeare plays into one film centered around the character of Falstaff. Chimes at Midnight, which is only now getting a respectable cut and upcoming release from Criterion, is one film that All the World’s a Stage should inspire audiences to explore.
The doc also charts the cross-cultural adaptations of Shakespeare as plays are born again in new languages and contexts. All the World’s a Screen pays particular attention to Akira Kurosawa’s thrilling adaptations of Macbeth and King Lear with Throne of Blood (1957) and Ran (1985). The film notes how Kurosawa infuses the adaptations with traditions of noh theatre and elements of samurai lore to make adaptations that are both culturally specific and universal. One sees the same in the film’s quick glimpse at the Bollywood takes on Shakespeare and the Russian adaptations that appear in the discussion. The study of Shakespeare on film is partly a glimpse into the currents that make world cinema accessible to film buffs around the globe.
Similarly, director David Thomson invites youthful adaptations of Shakespeare, like the teen rom com 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), Baz Luhrmann’s exhilaratingly OCD Romeo + Juliet (1996) or the Oscar-winning adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story (1961), to show how a variety of filmmakers reinterpret these works within the styles of their time. The film inevitably favours adaptations of Shakespeare’s most frequently filmed works, namely Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, but the focus helps convey the points by showing a variety of takes on the same play.
The world of Shakespeare on film is a cornerstone to the art of adaptation, so fans of page to screen or stage to screen endeavours might find the brevity of the film frustrating since there’s so much more to see that doesn’t make the cut. For example, the doc makes some significant omissions from its catalogue, the most notable of which is Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996) since its four-hour running time and literal fidelity to Shakespeare’s play really needs to be a part of any discussion of Shakespeare on film, especially since Thomson’s doc often uses fidelity as an evaluative precept. The absence of Branagh’s Hamlet really is bizarre.
Similarly, the doc misses some of the rarities in the canon of Shakespeare on film, like Julie Taymor’s singular Titus (1999). I might be biased since it’s a personal favourite, but Taymor’s innovative rendering of Shakespeare’s tragedy, fused with anachronisms and cinematic references, deserves a mention as one of the films that looks beyond the oft-filmed body of the Bard’s work. The doc includes Taymor’s lesser adaptation of The Tempest (2010), if only for its novel casting of Helen Mirren as Prospera to show film’s ability to recast Shakespeare in contemporary currents.
Omissions aside, this brief overview of Shakespeare on screen hits many of the key facets of Shakespeare and cinema alike that make for a good pair. It’s bound to inspire some Shakespearean movie-going and, hopefully, a sequel.
All the World’s a Screen plays at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Thursday, June 16 with an introduction by Adrian Wooton, producer and co-writer of the film, as part of the ongoing All the World’s a Screen series.
Many of the adaptations presented in the doc also appear in the series. (As do all four hours of Branagh’s Hamlet… in 70mm, no less!)