'Shakespeare at the Cineplex:' A Review

Ed Quattrocchi

Samuel Crowl, Shakespeare at the Cineplex, Ohio University Press, Athens, OH, 2003. 254 pages. $34.95.


he April issue of the Caxtonian featured several articles about the multifaceted and enduring appeal of William Shakespeare. It coincided with the publication of Samuel Crowl's Shakespeare at the Cineplex, a comprehensive and lively review of the revival of Shakespeare film genre in the last decade of the 20th Century.

Some may remember Professor Crowl's informative and entertaining Caxton Club dinner presentation on the history of Shakespeare on film in May 1999. His new book is a sequel to his Shakespeare Observed (1992), a review of Anglo-American films from Roman Polanski's Macbeth (1971) to Kenneth Branagh's Henry V (1991).

The sequel is the distillation of Crowl's research and viewing of Shakespeare theatrical performances and movies for the past 40 years. As an old friend and former colleague, I have learned from and marveled at his complete immersion in the Shakespeare canon as a scholar as well as his enthusiasm for the plays in performance. He has shared this enthusiasm with several generations of students at Ohio University, not only in the classroom, but also on numerous theater trips to London and Stratford.

Although my bias may cause fellow Caxtonians to take my critical opinion with a grain of salt, I recommend the book without qualification to anyone who has seen, or intends to see, a Shakespeare play on film or a spin-off. In the first of 14 chapters, Crowl gives an overview of the period that consists of the most concentrated release of sound films based on Shakespeare's works in the century. In the next 13 chapters he analyses 15 Shakespeare movies with the gusto of Harold Bloom and the filmic sensibility of Pauline Kael.

He has mostly praise for the remarkable directors who have broken new ground in melding Shakespeare's text with Hollywood's techniques. Among the several talented directors, Crowl's admiration for Kenneth Branagh as the pacesetter is unstinting. He says that Branagh found in Hollywood movies a film language that allowed Shakespeare films to break free from the elite art-house audience to find a broader public, especially among the young. "Each of his films appropriates an established Hollywood genre: the war film for Henry V; screwball comedy for Much Ado About Nothing; the intelligent epic for Hamlet; and the American movie musical for Love's Labour's Lost."

Crowl's admiration for Branagh results, no doubt in part, from his personal contact and interviews with Branagh over the years he traveled to London. Nevertheless, Crowl gives convincing arguments for his exuberant praise. Here, for example, is his description of Branagh's direction of Much Ado About Nothing: "Branagh can infuse his film with so much ripe romantic energy without destroying the more subtle and unconventional elements in Shakespeare's tale because of Thompson's remarkable performance as Beatrice. She is the film's radiant, sentient center. Intelligence and wit illuminate every moment of her performance. Thompson's Beatrice can register emotion, underline irony, change mood, raise alarm, deflect attention, suppress sorrow, and enhance wit by a mere tilt of her head, the cocking of an eyebrow, the flick of an eyelid, or a pursing of her lips. She can also capture just the right inflection for Shakespeare's muscular prose and deliver it in a rhythm properly suited to the camera."

Crowl's endorsement of the renaissance of the Shakespeare film genre may strike many readers, especially academic purists, as too exuberant. Although he goes further than I would in his positive reaction to the films he explicates, he is not unqualified in his judgments. His insight into why some of the movies fail is enlightening. For example, he admires Richard Loncraine's technical expertise, as a journeyman Hollywood film director, in directing Ian McKellan in Richard III, but he laments that the film stumbles because of a critical idea, rather than technical execution. The film falters when Loncraine's parodic imagination, his head swimming with Hollywood genres like the gangster film, meets McKellen's script. With Richard III conceived as a fascist member of Britain's royal family in the 1930s, the two ideas, each potent for the play on its own terms, fail to cohere when piled on top of one another.

The book is worth the price of admission to a performance at the Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, where, by the way, you can purchase a copy of Shakespeare at the Cineplex at the Samuel Crowl Book Stall in the theater.

Dust jacket of the new Samuel Crowl book on Shakespeare. From the collection of Ed Quattrocchi.

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