The second most often leveled charge against the various versions of the plays of William Shakespeare on film, after the difficulty of the language, is that most suffer from a common ailment: they are plays. This is not to say that plays cannot be made into good or even great films. Watch Arthur Miller’s adaptation of his own stage play for the fine film The Crucible, or Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof if you require proof.
No, Shakespeare on film more often than not simply looks like a play that has been filmed. The acting is grandiose and more suited to the stage. The sets are spare owing to the paucity of support for such productions–compare Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, made for $9 million, while Fun Size, a truly awful Nickelodeon Movies offering, was mounted with a $14 million. Fun Size went on to set records for the worst opening weekend for any film released in over 3,000 theaters $4.9 million. Henry V at its widest release was seen on only 134 total screens yet returned a domestic gross of $10 million.
The cinematography and camera work are often hindered by both budget, time, and the blocking of the director.
Blocking is a film/theater term for setting the precise movement of the actors to various marks around the stage or set. With limited budget and time the blocking is often simple. Actors move only short distances and then deliver great chunks of dialogue. This lends the production an artificial air. How many of us in real life ever stand in one spot and talk and talk?
This 2012 production of Richard II has the resources, acting, camera work, and blocking to avoid much of this artificiality yet still the brilliance of the language of Shakespeare shines through. It is the first film in a series BBC is calling “Hollow Crown” and will include Henry IV(both parts) as Henry V. If you are a fan of Shakespeare, give this first installment a try. The full film is presently available on YouTube.