Rogert Ebert, At The Shakespeare Movies

You likely know by now that legendary film critic Roger Ebert has lost his battle with cancer and is at long last reunited with his partner Gene Siskel who passed away a good number of years ago.  In tribute I went through his review archives to see what he had to say about Shakespeare on film.

Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet

“…long but not slow, deep but not difficult, and it vibrates with the relief of actors who have great things to say, and the right ways to say them….Branagh’s version moved me, entertained me and made me feel for the first time at home in that doomed royal court.”

Ok, then, what about Hamlet 2?

“The problem with a sequel to Hamlet is that everybody interesting is dead by the end. That doesn’t discourage Dana Marschz, a Tucson high school drama teacher, from trying to save the school’s theater program with a sequel named “Hamlet 2.” … he brings back the dead characters, plus Jesus, Einstein and the very much alive Hillary Clinton.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Whether you’re a follower of Harold Bloom or not, how cool is it that a movie critic can drop his name like that?

“Why is Shakespeare so popular with filmmakers when he contains so few car chases and explosions? Because he is the measuring stick by which actors and directors test themselves. His insights into human nature are so true that he has, as Bloom argues in his book, actually created our modern idea of the human personality. Before Hamlet asked, “to be, or not to be?,” dramatic characters just were. Ever since, they have known and questioned themselves. Even in a comedy like “Midsummer,” there are quick flashes of brilliance that help us see ourselves. “What fools these mortals be,” indeed.”

Much Ado about Much Ado

“…this is not a film “of” a Shakespeare play, but a film that begins with the same materials and the wonderful language and finds its own reality. It is cheerful from beginning to end.”

Twefth Night, or, Did I Mention Romeo+Juliet Sucks?

I’m guessing that these two movies came out at roughly the same time? 

The period has been moved up to the 18th century, and the dialogue has been slightly simplified and clarified, but Shakespeare’s language is largely intact (and easier to understand than in Baz Luhrmann’s new “Romeo & Juliet”).

Shakespeare’s language is not hard to understand when spoken by actors who are comfortable with the rhythm and know the meaning. It can be impenetrable when declaimed by unseasoned actors with more energy than experience (as the screaming gang members in “Romeo & Juliet” demonstrate).

Wait… Peter Brooks’ King Lear? How old was Ebert?!

I was surprised to find this review of the 1972 film.  I immediately went searching for an Ebert review of the legendary Dream but alas I could not.  (Turns out that Ebert started reviewing movies in 1967, by the way.)

“Shakespeare’s Lear survives in his play and, will endure forever. Brook’s Lear is a new conception, a rethinking, and a critical commentary on the play. It is interestingly precisely because it contrasts so firmly with Shakespeare’s universe; by deliberately omitting all faith and hope from Lear’s kingdom, it paradoxically helps us to see how much is there.”

Step Aside, Private Ryan.  Somebody loves Shakespeare in Love

“A movie like this is a reminder of the long thread that connects Shakespeare to the kids opening tonight in a storefront on Lincoln Avenue: You get a theater, you learn the lines, you strut your stuff, you hope there’s an audience, you fall in love with another member of the cast, and if sooner or later your revels must be ended, well, at least you reveled.”

I’m going to leave it there, because I like that last line.  Your revels now are ended, Mr. Ebert.   Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

2 thoughts on “Rogert Ebert, At The Shakespeare Movies

  1. Ebert's great sensitivity to the language and technique shines through in his reviews. I find nothing to argue with in the excerpts you've chosen. Especially gratifying–and confirming–for me is his notice of the great care taken in Branagh's Hamlet to get it right, and how easy it is to get the message across if the actors know what they're doing. And this little blurb warms my heart:

    "Shakespeare's language is not hard to understand when spoken by actors who are comfortable with the rhythm and know the meaning. It can be impenetrable when declaimed by unseasoned actors with more energy than experience (as the screaming gang members in “Romeo & Juliet'' demonstrate)."

    –Dead on. "SHAKESPEARE'S" Romeo and Juliet, NOT.

    And he notices the penetrating philosophy deeply embedded in what is many times simply viewed as a silly comedy–Midsommer.

    Say hello to The Master for us, Roger.

  2. Duane, "Twefth Night, or, Did I Mention Romeo+Juliet Sucks?" LOL

    If you're interested, Ebert's review of "Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet". 1996–same month and year as 12th Night.He reviewed 12th Night a week after R+J. I guess he couldn't get over how much it really did suck in his estimation. 🙂

    Here's a couple of excerpts:
    "Much of the dialogue is shouted unintelligibly, while the rest is recited dutifully, as in a high school production. Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes are talented and appealing young actors, but they're in over their heads here. There is a way to speak Shakespeare's language so that it can be heard and understood, and they have not mastered it."

    "The movie takes a “Shakespeare's greatest hits'' approach, giving us about as much of the original as we'd find in “Bartlett's Familiar Quotations.'' And even then it gets nervous and tarts things up."

    It has been commented on how generous Roger was to what we might call "schlock", always remembering that the movies are there to entertain as well as inform. He finds neither of the latter qualities in R+J.

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