British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access

Shakespeare and World Cinema

Mark Thornton Burnett, Queen’s University, Belfast, author of Shakespeare and World Cinema, explores the contemporary significance of Shakespeare cinema outside the Hollywood and UK mainstream.

About the Author: Professor Mark Thornton Burnett is Director of the Kenneth Branagh Archive, Chair of Research Committee and Research Director for the School of English and research interests include all aspects of the English Renaissance in its own time and beyond. Recent publications include Filming and Performing Renaissance History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011); Shakespeare and World Cinema (Cambridge University Press, 2012). Currently he is co-authoring Great Shakespeareans: Welles, Kozintsev, Kurosawa, Zeffirelli (Continuum, 2013) with Courtney Lehmann, Marguerite H. Rippy and Ramona Wray and working on a new project on the social and cultural history of Hamlet on film.

As the opening decade of the twenty-first century recedes, the discipline of Shakespeare on film has rooted itself firmly in the educational curriculum. Works such as Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V (1989) and Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) are a staple of university courses on Shakespeare and his film manifestations. Yet, strikingly, in commentary on Shakespeare films, there has been no corresponding move to detail how, where and with what results the plays are translated into the idiom of world cinema. The revival of the Shakespeare film genre in the period from the late 1980s onwards has excited a plethora of criticism, but, almost without exception, attention focuses on exclusively English-language or Anglophone productions.

I wrote Shakespeare and World Cinema, which has recently been published by Cambridge University Press, to see what might emerge when we look beyond a US-UK axis of interpretation. What I came across was a cornucopia of examples, with Shakespeare films from Africa, Brazil, France, Germany, India, Malaysia, Sweden, Tibet, Venezuela and elsewhere that constituted a distinctive and important body of material. I thrilled to a Sámi-language adaptation of Macbeth (dir. Bo Landin and Alex Sherpf, 2004) made in the Arctic Circle that canvasses questions about indigenous rights and minority tongues; I was inspired by adaptations of Romeo and Juliet that, set in the Rio de Janeiro favelas, countered popularized images of the drug wars; and I paused for reflection after viewing Prince of Himalayas (dir. Sherwood Hu, 2006), a Tibet-based adaptation of Hamlet invigorated by its message of forgiveness, Buddhist ideas of reincarnation and epic aesthetics. Not every film I encountered was a high production venture. For instance, Gebede (dir. Nam Ron, 2002) is striking as an adaptation that, utilizing dank interiors and empty malls, recasts Julius Caesar as a tussle for authority centred on Kuala Lumpur’s underground punk rock scene.

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