Olivier's Shakespeare

Now that 'Deadwood' lies murdered in the mud, Shakespeare is the only solace.

DVD Watch

Olivier's Shakespeare

Criterion, $79.95

Now that Deadwood lies murdered in the mud, Shakespeare is the only solace. Proud warriors, conflicted noblemen, and Machiavellian cutthroats evolve, but early modern English – mostly in iambic pentameter – does not. "Artificial," calls it the former governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company in Richard III's essential commentary track, construction of the most maddening sort. Penetrating its Dante-esque levels of meaning is the rub, aye there. All the more reason to admire the men who convey it, then. Ian McShane as Richard III? Wouldn't exactly be a stretch of the tights for Deadwood's "vice" (dissembler), but Henry V or Hamlet might slip his grasp. Kenneth Branagh certainly, for both, but Laurence Olivier got there first, covered in blood. 1944's Henry V is Olivier in roaring Technicolor, the star commander full of cinematic ambition and English jingoism in the face of World War II. Its play-within-a-play will, in places, "linger your patience on," as gestures the lordly Leslie Banks as the chorus, but the wit and battle sequences still translate into the first critical and commercially successful screen adaptation of the Bard.

Foreshadowing the black inkwell of Kurosawa's Throne of Blood – imagine McShane doing Mifune doing MacBeth – 1948's Hamlet stole home four sword-clutching statuettes, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Olivier but was likely robbed in the photography category. Olivier's staging is masterful in the players set, another drama within a drama, while his graveyard reunion with poor Yorick, alas, is perfect. Jean Simmons stands in for the director's wife, Vivien Leigh, and future Hammer-head Peter Cushing only multiplies the gothic horror quotient and German expressionism. No bonuses tendered or needed past high school English. Richard III's scholarly guv'na marvels at how well Olivier translated Shakespeare's accents, and when the actor/director's deformed Duke of Gloucester appoints the camera his confidante, the playwright's "first big hit" beckons like the devil. John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, and Claire Bloom all fall down, but the 1955 film unfurls a one-man tour de force, Olivier riveting, so wicked. As with Kind Hearts and Coronets, another Criterion title celebrating serial-killing inheritance seekers, the disc-two BBC interview with its knighted thespian doubles as the crown jewels. Good night, sweet prince; or, as they say in Deadwood, lights out, cocksucker.

Also Out Now

Seven Samurai (Criterion, $49.95): Kurosawa's first samurai epic still cuts the deepest, Criterion's second DVD title bulking up from one disc to three with equally epic bonuses, including a trio of documentaries and a booklet with a ripe fish tale by Toshirô Mifune.

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