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Rich gifts wax poor

Hamlet (PG) Looking for Richard (12) The Crucible (PG) Ridicule (15)

Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet lacks soul, says Robin Buss, but The Crucible is excellent. Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet is a magnificent spectacle: this is the best and the worst of it. Many young people will be prepared to sit patiently through the four hours - and many more will take it in easier chunks on video - because there is so much to see, and on such a scale: a cast of hundreds, including such names as Sir John Gielgud, Richard Attenborough, Gerard Depardieu, Robin Williams and Jack Lemmon - and all these worthies have mere cameo roles. Nod off, and you'll miss Sir John Mills or Dame Judi Dench.

Everything and everyone from Shakespeare's text is here. Yorick, who features in most productions only as a prop (to wit, one skull), appears in person, in full-colour flashback: "I knew him, Horatio." We all know him, it's Ken Dodd.

The sets and props, too, are a distraction from the words, the heart of Elizabethan theatre. Clearly, Elsinore could not be played by any old National Trust castle: the action unfolds at Blenheim Palace, where every room is a museum. The eye constantly wanders from the pictures on the walls to the furniture and objects scattered on a table. Colour, clutter, costumes - Branagh has chosen a 19th-century look - combine to overpower the ear. And, as we cannot forget, looming over it all, director, star, the man who can call on these great names to play his little parts for him and summon up the budget to finance this princely display, is Kenneth Branagh, today appearing as Hamlet, that most inward-looking of dramatic characters, the epitome of powerlessness and indecision. The ghost we have - played by Brian Blessed - but I am not so sure about the soul.

Al Pacino's Looking for Richard is ostensibly a far more modest enterprise. Pacino is also an actor with friends; they set out together to explore the text of Richard III - how one can stage it, who the characters are, what meaning it might have for a modern audience. They ask the opinions of scholars and actors (including Kenneth Branagh); they act out a scene, in the Cloisters Museum in New York; they chat with passers-by in the street. There are moments of bewilderment and moments of real humour. Slightly overawed and slightly alienated by the very tradition of Shakespearean acting that Branagh represents, they wonder how best to speak the lines and bring out the sense.

As the film and the play proceed, and Pacino's face travels from full-bearded to clean-shaven and back, past every shade of stubble, we glimpse what a fine Richard he would make; and, at the same time, follow him in his growing understanding of the part. Looking for Richard, hard to describe, harder still to dislike, is an important aid towards an appreciation of Shakespeare.

Nicholas Hytner's film of Arthur Miller's adaptation of his play The Crucible, set against the background of the witchhunts at Salem in 1692, is the contrary of "heritage" cinema. It doesn't try to beautify the past (or to blacken it), but conscientiously explores its otherness, until it has convinced us that these are real people holding the beliefs it ascribes to them and facing the dilemmas. The acting, especially by Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, Paul Scofield and Joan Allen in the leading roles, is excellent. The whole film is gripping, spare, without flourishes or clutter.

Miller's play is commonly seen as an allegory for McCarthyism in the 1950s; if that were all, it might be no more than a historical curiosity. But it is more: a drama of the struggle between conscience and power, truth and the dominant (politically correct) ideology, with universal applications, all the more effective for being so confidently located in a single time and place. This is a superb resource for any student of the play.

Ridicule is something of an ahistorical curiosity, set in an imagined court of King Louis XVI where all social standing is determined by the ability to strike others down with a witty riposte. The verbal fencing matches are both formal and informal, the rapier points always as deadly as that of Laertes. Into this world comes an engineer, who needs money to drain an infested swamp, but can only obtain it by winning the favour of the King. As it happens, he proves adept at the exercise of ridicule, and makes his way at court, though he may lose sight of his true purpose while doing so. Patrice Leconte's film is a pleasure even for those who have to rely on the subtitles.

Film Education's new study guides for Hamlet, Looking for Richard and The Crucible are available from: Film Education, 41-42 Berners Street, London W1P 3AA, tel: 0171 637 9932.

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