- Shakespearean Star: Laurence Olivier and National Cinema by Jennifer Barnes
Mapping the life and work of Laurence Olivier onto the corpus of William Shakespeare, Barnes's Shakespearean Star: Laurence Olivier and National Cinema is meticulous in its detailing of Olivier as theater star, film auteur, and preeminently British (though ultimately international) cultural icon. Barnes's paradoxical theses and her steadfast and dogged pursuit of interpretative byways and myriad interconnections make for a brilliant, if involuted, narrative. And though Barnes's critical vocabulary can sometimes be off-putting, her detailed attention to productions' archival publicity materials, to the ever-present pressure of what Kenneth Rothwell called "tickling commodity" and its effects on production decisions, to national and international politics, to British filmmakers' rivalry with Hollywood, [End Page 259] and to Olivier's rivalry with the great ghosts of Shakespearean performance creates a wonderfully rich tapestry.
Barnes focuses primarily on four of Olivier's Shakespeare films, which serve as the monograph's organizing principle: Henry V, Hamlet, Richard III, and the unmade Macbeth (on which she spends two chapters). She traces Olivier's self-fashioning evolution from theater actor/director/producer to "Shakespearean star" par excellence as a filmmaker, reading the four films made under his sole artistic control in the context of public documents, playbills, cinema programs, posters, and Olivier's autobiographical "life-writing" (5). Olivier's Shakespeare films, Barnes argues, are both highly personal creations and responses to the national, political, and social landscape. Her book goes well beyond the much-covered ground of Olivier's originary role in the consolidation of "British film" as it emerged from the shadow of British theater. In the later chapters, Barnes follows Olivier's development as he handled major setbacks and responded to new cultural movements, becoming, by the time he began making Macbeth, more fully committed to a cinematic aesthetic.
As she does throughout the book, Barnes devotes a section of each chapter to visual representations of Olivier associated with his Shakespeare films. In the chapter on Henry V, she analyzes the pictorial through publicity materials—Olivier's branding theater/film collages. These promoted Olivier's body as a kind of contemporary "effigy" of Shakespeare's characters (25) and of the playwright's position at the acme of British high culture. In tracing the emergence of the wartime Henry V film, Barnes nods in passing to the formative psychological pressures Peter Donaldson addresses in his groundbreaking Shakespearean Films/Shakespearean Directors. She takes exception to the "immense body of critical scholarship [that] approaches the film-as-propaganda" (37), and, by focusing on Henry V as film, wherein "the character of Henry is overwritten by a transparent emphasis on the actor-director Laurence Olivier" (37), she explains excisions and reemphases that make Henry's character unambiguously heroic. Unlike Donaldson, who mapped "Weimann's locus/platea model onto a binary notion of theatrical or cinematic space" (31), Barnes prefers to examine "how Olivier performs in these spaces" (31) and to show "how the theatrical framework establishes and informs—rather than merely keys—the filmic narrative" (31–32). Her analysis closely tracks the progression of shots and camera angles as they privilege Olivier's film-star image, articulating a cultural history of these materials as much as a performance analysis.
Barnes's reading of Hamlet (1948) and its accompanying film production materials builds upon Bernice Kliman's "famous conception of Hamlet as a film 'hybrid'" (59). She shows the film to be a paradoxical compromise between cinematic and theatrical modes that on the one hand "works to foreground an understanding of film as a particularly national-cultural art form by borrowing from the legitimising discourses associated with the theatre" and on the other is "an exciting 'experiment' in film production" (59). With similar insight, Barnes next explores the apex of Olivier's career in his role as Richard III in his performances both at the Old Vic and in the 1955 film. These performances occurred just before the great reversals [End Page 260] that Olivier underwent when he endured the...