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Shakespeare on Film – The Bard’s Big Screen Odyssey

Richard The Third

By Cleaver Patterson. 

A cold and blustery January morning at London’s BFI Southbank, saw the launch of Shakespeare on Film, the BFI’s latest themed season which promises to be their biggest and most ambitious to date. Shakespeare, often referred to as England’s national poet, is one of cinema’s most filmed writers, and with 2016 celebrating the 400th anniversary of his death it seemed only appropriate that the BFI – as custodians of British film – should mark the contribution of perhaps the English language’s most influential writer to the most influential art form of the modern age. To coincide with the global celebrations marking the anniversary, the BFI have organised a groundbreaking programme of screenings, events and talks at their cinema and exhibition centre in London, as well as a selection of eighteen key Shakespearian films which will tour throughout Britain and 110 countries worldwide. Spearheaded by Sir Ian McKellen – one of Britain’s leading Shakespearian actors, who attended the launch, reminiscing on his own experiences of bringing many of the writers’s works to the screen – the event will see the actor travel the world to present Shakespeare on Film to audiences as far afield as Cuba, Iraq, Russia and the USA.

The season’s launch, on the 25th January, hosted by Robin Baker, Head Curator at the BFI, presented a montage of bites and clips from the various cinematic interpretations of the Bard’s work which will be included in the season, including scenes from the earliest silent screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s King John (1899) featuring legendary actor of the British stage Herbert Beerbohm Tree, through one of Sir John Gielgud’s first screen appearances in Romeo and Juliet (1924), to more recent adaptations such as Franco Zeffirelli’s iconic version of the same story from 1968 starring Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting. However, as well as the more traditional interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays, the cinema has seen his work rethought in a host of different forms and settings as with King Lear transported to feudal japan in director Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985) and The Taming of the Shrew set in an american high school in 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) featuring Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles. Films like these will be shown along with Kiss Me Kate (1953), another twist on The Taming of the Shrew, this time with the added novelty of it being transformed into a 3D musical.

The season will also focus on many of the silver screen’s most famous stars for whom Shakespeare’s works have provided intrinsic and career defining roles. No celebration would be complete without portrayals by Laurence Olivier, the actor probably most closely associated with the Bard, and a screening of his Academy Award winning film of Hamlet (1948). However, the actor perhaps better known to today’s audiences, Sir Ian McKellen, also makes no secret of his admiration for Shakespeare’s plays, and his reimagining of Richard III (1995) – a play which Olivier himself was famous for bringing to the screen in 1955 – redefined cinematic Shakespeare for the modern age, as well as showing iconic London landmarks in a dramatic new light.

The Shakespeare on Film season promises to be a memorable event, and should be a delight for lovers of the Elizabethan playwright, whilst helping to dispel any lingering misgivings the rest of us may still feel from having Shakespeare thrust upon us during our formative school years.

Cleaver Patterson is a London based film critic. News Editor for the website Flickfeast, he also contributes to Scream, Rue Morgue and Video Watchdog magazines, as well as the Film International website, where he has reported on events including the FILM4 FrightFest film festival and BFI London Film Festival.

Further details of Shakespeare on Film and its associated events can be found here, whilst a full programme will be available from the 26th February, 2016.

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