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.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Screens Reviews
What If the Marx Brothers Got Around to Making That Movie With Salvador Dalí?
What If the Marx Brothers Got Around to Making That Movie With Salvador Dalí?
Josh Frank brings the legendary unproduced movie to printed life

Wayne Alan Brenner, March 22, 2019

What If <i>The Texas Chain Saw Massacre</i> Was Really About the Horrors of Modern American Society?
What If The Texas Chain Saw Massacre Was Really About the Horrors of Modern American Society?
Putting the Austin-made seminal slasher back into context

Marc Savlov, March 22, 2019

More by Raoul Hernandez
Texas Platters
Grupo Fantasma
American Music Vol. VII (Record Review)

April 19, 2019

Texas Platters
Sydney Wright
Seiche (Record Review)

April 5, 2019

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Olivier's Shakespeare, Criterion

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle