Saturday, May 7, 2011

The next logical step after Shakespeare

In February of 2010 I wrote a post called "Who directed that?," which delved into the topic of movies directed by people you would not expect to be directing them. I used the release of Cop Out, directed by Kevin Smith, as my "news peg" for this idea.

But I clearly should have waited until this year. If I had, I would have gotten to include No Strings Attached (directed by Ivan Reitman), The Dilemma (directed by Ron Howard), and Thor, directed by ...

Kenneth Branagh.

Yep, you read that right. This generation's foremost interpreter of the works of William Shakespeare has reemerged as the director of a comic book movie.

For you younguns who may not be familiar with Branagh, a full five of the twelve features he's directed are adaptations of Shakespeare: Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, Love's Labours Lost and As You Like It. A sixth, A Midwinter's Tale, features a staging of Hamlet as one of its major plot points (not to mention that the title is kind of a nod to A Midsummer Night's Dream). Branagh is of course also an actor, and in addition to appearing in most of the Shakespearean adaptations he's directed, he also appeared as Iago in a 1995 adaptation of Othello, directed by Oliver Parker.

So how did the Bard's present-day voice -- at least in the cinema -- end up directing a movie about a Norse god appearing and fighting monsters in modern-day America?

Apparently, the story is that Branagh campaigned pretty hard with Marvel Studios to get the gig. He's supposedly a big fan of the comic book.

But let's set aside that public explanation and look deeper into it. Because what would seem like a plum job for most directors actually seems kind of like slumming for Branagh, doesn't it? Yeah, you've got a major studio's summer tentpole entrusted to you, but it's also total junk food compared to what you've been making previously, isn't it?

Then again, it's not like all of Branagh's previous projects have been highfalutin affairs that speak only to snooty college professors. Branagh also directed the lambasted 1993 version of Frankenstein, in which Robert DeNiro played the monster. (As weird as it sounds now, yes, that actually happened.) He also made the fun movie Dead Again, which basically amounts to a supernatural thriller.

But I have a hard time buying the narrative that Branagh saw his career naturally leading toward making a movie version of Thor. Fact is, he hasn't directed a film since the 2007 Michael Caine-Jude Law feature Sleuth, marking his longest layoff since he started directing back in 1989 with Henry V. You could argue that he hasn't directed a truly relevant film since 1996, when his four-hour version of Hamlet won general praise and an Oscar nomination (for best adapted screenplay, which is about the most hilarious thing I can think of, since the play was famously presented at full length). His oddball adaptation of Love's Labours Lost in 2000 was generally panned (for good reason), and I wasn't even aware he'd directed a version of As You Like It (in 2006) until preparing this piece.

So when I heard that Branagh was directing Thor, which I have always thought looks bad, my first reaction was a sense of sorrow for him. Even if many of his movies were better in theory than they were in reality, I always enjoyed the fact that we had a resident Shakespeare interpreter in the broader film community, and we could expect some new version of one of the Bard's works every couple years from him. Therefore, slumming for a Hollywood paycheck seemed like him failing his own standards of artistic merit.

And possibly out of necessity. Straightforward Shakespearean adaptations just don't fly anymore, do they? I think Branagh himself sensed this even back in 2000, when he made Love's Labours Lost a musical set during World War II. Which didn't work -- and how. But points for trying I guess. Reading up on As You Like It right now, I see that Branagh moved the events of that play to 19th century Japan. I guess that didn't work either, since the movie was not even on my radar.

Now it seems like the baton has been passed to Julie Taymor, who has twice adapted Shakespeare in her inimitable, colorful style: Titus in 1999 and The Tempest last year. Not that those movies raked in the dough either, even with the enthusiastic participation of many esteemed actors who wanted to wrap their lips around Shakespeare's words.

Well, Thor does at least deal with antiquity, in terms of this god who comes down to earth. I just hope Branagh feels genuinely okay about the whole thing.

Me, I think Thor's star (Chris Hemsworth) seems like a zero, and the movie seems like another unwarranted attempt to make bank on a fringe comic book hero.

Maybe Branagh is just trying to prepare us for his next Shakespearean adaptation -- Macbeth as a bad-ass crimefighter with the strength of Superman?

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