July 10, 2011

"The play's the thing": Olivier's Shakespearean Trilogy

This entry is part of the Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier Appreciation Blog-A-Thon hosted by Kendra of VivAndLarry.com

Before I started this blogathon, I knew very little about Laurence Olivier beyond what everyone knows about Laurence Olivier: that he was a great actor. Some say great Shakespearean actor. Some say great stage actor. Some say the greatest actor of all-time. The emphasis is, anyway, on acting.

But after watching Olivier's Shakespearean trilogy, Henry V, Hamlet, and Richard III, I was astonished (well, maybe not astonished, but certainly impressed) with what a brilliant director he was. Maybe I'm overstating things because of my ignorance of Olivier's directorial output; after all, all three films were released by the Criterion Collection and it's not like Olivier is some unknown, obscure figure in international film. But in the online film community, there's very little chatter (that I've observed) over Olivier-as-director or his incredible Shakespearean films. Perhaps this is a reaction to the predictable critique against Shakespearean films as "non-cinematic" (rubbish) or the impulse to give William Shakespeare's words total authorship over any staging of his plays (tempting, but still rubbish). Perhaps it is the third charge, that Olivier's interpretations of Shakespeare, both on stage and in film, are so classically definitive that they're better left unmentioned for fear anyone else attempting to stage the works will inadvertently ape them. You see a little bit of this reactionary impulse in Kenneth Branagh's Henry V and Hamlet which, if you watch them back to back with Olivier's, seem to purposefully be ducking where Olivier dodged. 

Whatever the reason, here's the truth: these are damned good films. Really good. Maybe an eighth-grader being forced to sit through 137 minutes of Technicolor Henry V in English class wouldn't think so, but they damned well are. And if you will allow me another dim-witted observation: that William Shakespeare was no slouch either. As brilliant as his works are, one must only watch a terrible rendering of Shakespearean verse to know how truly skilled Olivier was in making his own stagings so successful. 

There is so much to say about these three films, all directed and produced by Olivier within the span of 11 years, but I must limit myself to a few targeted observations otherwise I would just ramble more than I already have. 

Foregrounding authorship/Establishing narrative metaphor in Henry V (1944)

The first of these films is Henry V, produced in 1944. Olivier was hesitant to direct the picture himself, first approaching his Wuthering Heights director William Wyler, then Carol Reed who demurred and suggested Terrence Young. Eventually, Olivier had to take the reins himself. There was pressure to get the film done before the end of WWII. Like That Hamilton Woman, Henry V was to be an important propaganda piece in the war effort. 

Henry V is indeed a spectacular production filmed in Technicolor which in 1944 was by no means a common occurrence, especially in a British film industry that had to ration as much as it could. Indeed, the film was so tightly budgeted that most of the soldiers' armor was cloth or cardboard painting to look like metal. The film's trailer advertises the color photography and boasts "a cast of thousands!", many of whom were servicemen borrowed from battle to playact combat as medieval French and English soldiers. 

With its exciting battle scenes, spectacular color photography and distinguished literary pedigree, it's clear that Henry V was a hugely important production. There was a lot riding on this.

To ensure that 1944 audiences, especially American audiences, could attune themselves to the complicated diction, arcane political conflicts and historical background, Henry V has an embedded narrative structure. The film begins with a title that announces the title of the play, its author and where and when it will be performed (in the year 1600, at the Globe Theater in London). The flyer than pulls away from the screen, floating on the breeze as the camera pans across a huge model of Elizabethan-era London. We see the Thames, the little rolling hills, cathedrals and neighborhoods that made up that great metropolis 300 years prior, before settling on the Globe Theater.

In another long take, the camera descends into the Globe which is packed with theater-goers there to watch Henry V. The play is introduced with its own title on a board being held by a member of the theater troupe.

The Chorus (Leslie Banks) comes out onto the stage and addresses the gathered Elizabethan audience, and the 1944 film audience directly into the camera:

In the play, The Chorus entreats the theater audience/reader to use their imagination to go back in time to 1415 for the events of the Battle of Agincourt. Olivier gives us a rendering of this play-within-a-play, inviting the camera backstage where the actors playing actor gather before coming out on stage. The first appearance of Olivier himself is as the Elizabethan actor readying himself before appearing on stage to play Henry. (In a cute bit of business, Olivier-as-Elizabethan seems nervous, coughing before his grand entrance.)

Olivier's Henry V is as much of an Elizabethan movie as it is a medieval movie, as it is a WWII movie. He edited much of Shakespeare's play to tailor it to wartime sensibilities, making Henry a saintly king, much less blood-thirsty and warlike than he is in the play.  With fully three time periods at work in the picture, it's a delicate balancing act to suss out where Olivier & co. have edited the text or accentuated set dressing and production design to privilege one element over another. 

The bulk of the movie is in this medieval setting. Here, Olivier & co. have constructed a fully artificial world that takes its visual cues from medieval painting, notably "Les Tres Riches Heures," the only remaining illuminated manuscript of the period. The art style in these texts is flat, lacking dimension or depth of field; there are no shadows or voluptuousness in the architecture or design. The film reflects this style. The costumes were designed with period-appropriate fabrics and the dyed the bright colors reflective in medieval art.

Pages from "Les Tres Riches Heures" next to stills from Olivier's Henry V

"This is a tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind": Hamlet (1948)

Hamlet is a film with so many superlative elements that I had a hard time deciding what I should single out in this entry. Olivier's definitive performance? The stellar supporting cast? Inevitably, one element stands out above the others, and this is the photography. Shot by cinematographer Desmond Dickinson, Hamlet is the single film in the trilogy in black and white. Although it's tempting to attribute its cinematically striking results to sheer genius on the part of Olivier & co., the truth of the matter is the production couldn't get its hands on any Technicolor stock. Filming took six months, and at that length, Technicolor would have proved financially prohibitive. Of course, it's unimaginable now to envision gloomy Elsinore rendered in vivid color. 

And gloomy it is. Doom and gloom from the get-go. The obscure and suggestive production design reveals a castle enshrouded in fog, entombed and isolated. Of course there are ghosts here. The lighting is supernatural, the photography is straight out of James Whale; Hamlet's opening scenes are pure horror movie.

Complementing the black and white photography is Olivier's own pale visage, the white hair and pallid skin, perpetually clammy, accentuate the film's stark contrasts. 
Unlike the direct address to the camera in Henry V and later in Richard III, Hamlet's asides and soliloquies often begin being spoken aloud but then become an internalized monologue, as if Hamlet, in his grief and later in his affected madness, had just trailed off, indifferent to the effect of his ramblings. The internalized voice-overs take on an air of psychological melodrama that would not be out of place in a film noir. Indeed, I think many aspects of of the film speak to a familiarity with the current (1948) film cycle; their is a noir-ish subjectivity to Olivier's interpretation, a stripped down revenge thriller with a hefty emphasis on madness and psychological manipulation. In this light, Hamlet himself can be seen as a noir-ish unreliable narrator. 

In the film's best scene, the play-within-a-play, Olivier's camera makes several graceful camera moves that capture with ruthless efficiency the fiendish application of his trap. Watch each time camera tracks behind Gertrude and Claudius and how the entire mood and tenor of the scene changes between the first and second sweep: 

"...the crown so foul misplac'd": Richard III (1955)

Olivier's Richard III is probably the most drastically edited of his three Shakespeare films. Its entire first scene is taken from Henry VI, the play's pre-cursor. Therein, essential information is conveyed to the viewer lest they be totally confused as to the royal line of succession. Richard III was already a prominent character in Shakespeare's historical plays and an Elizabethan audience would be familiar with what had transpired, which is why Richard III begins in medias res. Everything in Olivier's version is stripped down to its narrative base--the play is called Richard III and Richard is calling all the shots. The film works best when Olivier is delivering his character's asides and soliloquies straight down the barrel: he ingratiates us into his nefarious conspiracy and my goodness, is it delicious. 

Olivier's charm as Richard the devious hunchback maybe works too well. I, for one, never cared how many friends he drowned, grieving wives he wooed, or children he murdered--as long as he kept us in the loop. The famous "winter of our discontent" speech is brilliant as written and spectacular as performed. Olivier's economical camera movement is as intuitive and graceful as it is quietly thrilling--forcefully punctuating key lines and moments--and brilliantly retreating from Richard where a less sure-footed director would track in for a close-up. Look at the way Olivier walks away from the camera to underlines Richard's deformity and how he invites the viewer to track his ramblings across the stage while the camera sits still. Just great. Well, just watch it for yourself: 

In the latter part of the speech, Olivier nimbly sets up what will be the defining visual symbol of the film: the crown. The crown, both as abstract representation of power, and as literal, physical object of desire, is the central concern of everyone in the film, not just Richard. It is his ambitions we are privy to, but no one is inured against lusting for the crown; he just does it best. I imagine the crown kind of like the rugby ball and all the players are determined to smash against each other to get it.

The film even begins with a title card that announces

and then cuts to the coronation ceremony:

Richard III is perhaps the least subtle film of the three in clearly deliniating its protagonists' intensions (even more so than Hamlet's deceptive revenge). You can be sure that whenever a crown appears, some serious stuff is about to go down.

Which makes Richard wearing the crown into battle (a humorous image with his hooked nose and pageboy haircut, let's be serious), more pointedly tragic where its absence on top of the royally misshapen head signals sure defeat.

The film's final image echoes its first, the crown being raised to grace a new head. The sparseness of the framing underlines the futility of all Richard's scheming. In the timeline of the film, he was King for only a few minutes before receiving his comeuppance in battle.

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