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Reviewed by:
  • Shakespeare at the Cineplex: The Kenneth Branagh Era
  • Mark Thornton Burnett (bio)
Shakespeare at the Cineplex: The Kenneth Branagh Era. By Samuel Crowl. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2003. Illus. Pp. xvi + 254. $34.95 cloth.

Samuel Crowl's illuminating study offers a much-needed critical discussion of the revival of Shakespeare on film over the course of the 1990s. Crowl offers sensitively-turned [End Page 104] appreciations of fifteen Shakespeare films made between 1989 and 2001. Pulling together the multiple strands of the argument is the figure of Kenneth Branagh, who is enlisted both as a material influence on filmmakers and as a conceptual template for the volume as a whole. Branagh's endeavor to find a "congenial film style for Shakespeare" (12) has inspired a rush of related ventures in other media and genres. Elements such as international casting, for instance, which have done much to bring Shakespeare and the cineplex audience into a new proximity, are traced to Branagh's generative effects. This is one context engagingly investigated by Crowl; another is Hollywood itself, understood less as an institutional mechanism than as a "stylistic mode" (7). Alert to Hollywood's aesthetic requirements and production values, Crowl is also aware of issues such as financing and the involvement of particular corporate controls. Contextualization, indeed, is a notable feature of this work, with Crowl consistently providing historical—and theatrical—anchorage for his approach. In this sense Shakespeare at the Cineplex constitutes a major advance on another classic in the field—Jack Jorgens's Shakespeare on Film (1977)—since it is always fully informed of pressures and influences, conversations and intersections. Crowl problematizes Jorgens's tripartite categorization of Shakespeare films as "realistic," "theatrical," or "filmic," proposing a more complex arrangement whereby all Shakespeare films are seen as responding both explicitly and implicitly to popular models and techniques.

Crowl is particularly strong when charting the ways in which Branagh combines and applies a multiplicity of filmic elements—from screwball comedy, as in the case of Much Ado About Nothing, to vaudeville and Broadway conventions, as in the case of Love's Labor's Lost. These observations are salutary in and of themselves; what gives Crowl's perspective a distinctive edge, however, is his admirably supported claim that Branagh's oeuvre embraces contradictions without becoming incoherent. Crowl departs from the critical consensus in order to cleanly describe the interpretive reverberations set up in Branagh's Henry V and to see his Hamlet as a controlled visual and verbal achievement. Throughout this discussion, Crowl locates continuities (for example, he identifies Branagh always as a type of soldier) and utilizes filmic methodologies, as when he comments insightfully on visual vocabularies, the emotional rhythms attached to unbroken shooting sequences, and the resonances of unusual camera angles.

As the Branagh chapters unfold, we are also given treatments of a host of related films, treatments that are characterized by a gimlet-eyed attention to detail and a shrewd sense of the general prospectus. Franco Zeffirelli's Hamlet is scrutinized as type of family romance that, indebted to opera, enlists vertical and horizontal structures along with brooding landscapes to communicate its theme. Similarly, the multiple meanings of the Cornish setting in Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night receive enlightened analysis in a discussion that also discovers this film's autumnal filmic economy. The careers of particular directors are expertly spotlighted, as in the chapter on Christine Edzard, which both detects countercultural elements in her As You Like It and interprets the audience's role in her The Children's Midsummer Night's Dream. The chapter on Julie Taymor's Titus is a model of sophistication, since Crowl concentrates with a lively brio on such matters as materialist imagery and external/internal relations. The chapter on Michael Almereyda's Hamlet is just as cogent, with Crowl revealing a fine sensitivity to the director's versatility and manipulation of filmic parallels. But this is not to [End Page 105] suggest that Shakespeare at the Cineplex ends with cinematic affirmation; on the contrary, Crowl is keen to observe instances of unsuccessful translation from stage to film. Hence, in a chapter on film versions of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Crowl identifies...


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