6th January 2008: My review of Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespeare’s Arthur

Some time ago, Ken MacLeod asked me to write this review, and I did, and posted it on rec.arts.sf.written. This morning, on Ellen Kushner’s LJ, Kij Johnson was asking why Shakeapeare hadn’t written about Arthur, and I remembered it. I posted it there, and I’m posting it here too, in case it would amuse anyone.

I want to say that since I wrote this, I’ve seen Emma Thompson in Carrington and Sense and Sensibility and Love Actually and I’ve totally changed my mind and think she’d make an awesome Guinevere. However, clearly she was miscast, or perhaps misdirected.

Review of Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespeare’s Arthur, King of the Britons

Arthur is one of those plays we all know — we read it for class, we hear snippets of it quoted, we’ve seen it done. It’s easy to think of it as something dusty and irrelevent. It was good to see it performed uncut and looking as good as this — the language vibrant, Shakespeare at the top of his powers, the story so dramatic, so touching, and the funny bits (Kay – a John Cleese cameo – dropping the cheeses springs to mind) genuinely funny. The anachronisms – they didn’t have castles like that, or bishops, never mind cannons – aren’t the point, this is Shakespeare, not history.

It’s hard to review something which forms part of the cultural gestalt.

I think that must equally make Arthur hard to film. There are lines that are quoted and requoted out of context, so much so that delivering them in context, smoothly, as plausible dialogue, becomes almost as challenging as “To be, or not to be” or “A handbag?” It’s enough to make me wish for a time machine to have seen the first Globe production where I could have had an audience around me who would have shivered to Mordred’s “I will my father’s name trail through the mire” speech, rather than one that is expecting it. Which isn’t to say that Kline didn’t deliver it very well. That’s more than I can say for the other most famous line. Frankly, I think Emma Thompson was miscast as Guinevere. She didn’t bring out the essential pathos of the character. It’s a pity, especially as Branagh and Everett were such a good Arthur/Lancelot pairing. But without sympathy for Guinevere the whole story is idiotic — if her character isn’t sufficient to say “The two best men in all the world have loved me” and mean it, then the rest of it, all the chivalry, all the pageantry, all the betrayal is hollow. I can’t quite see why either of them (never mind both of them) would have wanted that Guinevere, and that isn’t a problem I’ve ever had with it before.

I loved Connery’s Merlin – in fact the Merlin/Nimue parts were my favourite in general. I’ll always see Merlin like that now, I think that was the definitive rendering of the part. And Paltrow was wonderful as Nimue — maybe she should have been Guinevere. The woman can act, she isn’t self-conscious about it. I know there has been some controversy about the way the immuring scene was done, but I really liked it — OK, maybe it’s usually done with Nimue holding an oak branch, and I once saw it done on stage with an entirely imaginary tree, but why not use CGI to show the tree? That way when he invites her to “embrace me for all time” we can see it with our eyes and Merlin’s, as tree and woman together. (It even moved like Paltrow.) Someone did giggle, but I don’t care. Having Mordred watching was a nice touch – and he does speak immediately after, after all.

I don’t think it will come as a spoiler to anyone if I say that almost everyone dies at the end. I found the way the last speech was done, Nimue’s voice-over as a tiny light moves over all the bodies and then slipping away along the stream through the dark trees, reminiscent of the recent film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That was odd, but also fitting, reminding me that this too is a fairy play, though the dark and not the light side of faerie.

You should definitely see it.

Posted in Theatre, Whimsy