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Reviewed by:
  • Shakespeare on Film
  • Ramona Wray (bio)
Shakespeare on Film. By Judith Buchanan . Harlow and London: Pearson Education Limited, 2005. Illus. Pp. xii + 288. $17.95 paper.

When I saw the title for this work and the series (Inside Film) to which it belonged, I thought that this would be a relatively straightforward survey of recent Shakespeare films designed for student use. But I was pleasantly surprised when Shakespeare on Film turned out to be this and more, since the volume constitutes both a lively, accessible, and informed assessment of the features and felicities of Shakespeare film and a research-led and original contribution to the field.

The virtues of Shakespeare on Film are numerous, beginning with how it is arranged and organized: the contents page enables the user to seize immediately upon the exact purpose of each chapter (as do, incidentally, the running heads), while the book as a whole has the merit of a broad chronological sweep, beginning with the advent of Shakespeare film at the turn of the nineteenth century and ending with the millennium. Shakespeare on Film, however, is no easy canter through the subject. As well as surveying history, it is thematically angled, with individual chapters broaching such matters as offshoots, continental films, and A Midsummer Night's Dream on film, and such auteurs as Branagh and Kurosawa. The volume possesses variety, depth, interest, and surprise, and it is consistently oriented toward empowering the reader. These characteristics are abundantly on display in the "Select Filmography," which gives the reader the precise archive location or commercial status of a particular film, and the bibliography, which details a spectrum of unpublished material, as well as dissertations; books; book chapters; journal, trade paper, and newspaper articles; online materials; and audiovisual resources. This is a handy reference point for any student; it is also a cornucopia of scholarship for the dedicated critic.

As for the chapters themselves, these are full of trenchant arguments and intriguing asides. There are telling reflections upon the presciently postmodern qualities of the Italian Amleto (Hamlet) of 1908. Asta Neilsen's performance of Hamlet in the famous 1920 film is insightfully connected to contemporary "manifestations of womanhood" that were "on the move" (62). The films Island of Lost Souls (1932) and Iguana (1988) are seen here—most suggestively—as versions or spinoffs of The Tempest. Among other absorbing observations, Michael Hoffman's film 1999 version of A Midsummer Night's Dream is read in the context of the Warner Brothers' 1935 production, and Derek Jarman's 1979 Tempest is interpreted as a struggle for [End Page 131] sexual articulation. A grouping of more recent films—Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, Julie Taymor's Titus, and Michael Almereyda's Hamlet—are pertinently and illuminatingly related to "reflexive processes" and "ironic self-awareness" (222).

Throughout, Buchanan gratifyingly defends the necessity of a discussion that attends to Shakespeare films as a whole (the book does not privilege one culture or era). Questions of production, distribution, and reception are carefully examined, and acute theorization is wielded with modesty. The book ranges across and between national registers, is explanatory where it needs to be, and is consistently fruitfully conclusive and contextually responsive. Buchanan makes a powerful case for the sophistication of silent film (these sections are particularly new and refreshing), while the opportunity to confront labels and definitions is welcomed. Most impressive are the discoveries Buchanan has come across in the form of unpublished screenplays, working notes, timetables, memoranda, and interviews in such repositories as the British Film Institute and the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress. The never-made Magic Island by Michael Powell, a version of The Tempest in preparation between 1969 and 1979, is addressed as a production which privileged "the voice of the colonially dispossessed . . . unruly insurgent" (158). Apart from a penchant for erroneously adding or omitting an "-s" from performers' surnames—Ethan Hawkes for Ethan Hawke (237) and Keanu Reeve (205) for Keanu Reeves—Buchanan's study offers salutary and educative models for the future research methods of the discipline. Combining learning, knowledge, and expertise, it argues forcefully for the cultural importance of Shakespeare film...


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