Kenneth Branagh has filmed his production of The Winter’s Tale at the refurbished Garrick Theatre. Choosing to film the play in the theatre is a far less expensive option than making a film of the play with its attendant costs, but there are downsides.
This approach is designed to give the filmgoers the experience of being in the theatre and Branagh begins by giving the film-goers a lengthy (10 minute or so at least) shot looking down from the gods into the theatre. It is as if you are sitting in the theatre waiting for the play to begin. Following on from nearly 20 minutes of advertisements in the cinema, this is a trifle tedious.
This is followed by an introduction from Branagh which is only slightly less tedious than the shot of the inside of the theatre. But these are quibbles.
Less of a quibble is that the lighting in the theatre does not translate well onto the screen. The entire production is filmed in very low light that makes it difficult to discern some of the details which camera can pick up and that a theatre audience may not see. So the poor lighting loses one of the advantages of this particular form of production.
The other irritating problem with this film is that the cinematographer has not managed to get his focal lengths and perspectives right. Characters on the left-hand side of the stage are nearly three times as tall as those on the right. As they move across stage, they either grow or shrink depending on which direction they are moving. Characters who come onstage from the left look as if they are walking in on stilts.
Now Branagh has made some of the best Shakespearean films in recent years:
Henry the Fifth
and a glorious Much Ado about Nothing where he stars with the wonderful Emma Thompson,
So you would expect that he would understand how to bring a Shakespearean play to the cinema screen, but his cinematographer and his lighting director have lets him down fairly badly in this production.
So what is to like about this production? Pretty much everything else. As I’ve explained elsewhere, I don’t think this is a great Shakespearean play with its clunky plot and psychological improbabilities. But this having been said, the acting is superb.
To start with, we have the incomparable Judi Dench as Paulina. She brings a deep compassion to the role which has echoes of the fool in King Lear. It’s a commentary on the longevity of the talent of this actor that she has now played all three of the women in The Winter’s Tale.
Judi Dench as Paulina in the film of Kenneth Branagh’s 2016 production
as Hermione in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s 1969 production
and as Perdita in the 1970 Royal Shakespeare Company’s production
Some actors have a special magic when it comes to Shakespeare and Judy Dench is one of them. She brings to the role of Paulina a passionate energy when confronted with injustice but also a note of sadness born of experience. Her final speech is Shakespeare at his best.
Paulina: There’s time enough for that;
Lest they desire upon this push to trouble
Your joys with like relation. Go together,
You precious winners all; your exultation
Partake to every one. I, an old turtle,
Will wing me to some wither’d bough and there
My mate, that’s never to be found again,
Lament till I am lost.
Kenneth Branagh is excellent as Leontes particularly in Act 1 Scene 2 where he oscillates between his increasingly insane jealousy and the calm exchanges he must have to disguise it.
Leontes. Too hot, too hot!
To mingle friendship far is mingling bloods.
I have tremor cordis on me: my heart dances; 185
But not for joy; not joy. This entertainment
May a free face put on, derive a liberty
From heartiness, from bounty, fertile bosom,
And well become the agent; ‘t may, I grant;
But to be paddling palms and pinching fingers, 190
As now they are, and making practised smiles,
As in a looking-glass, and then to sigh, as ’twere
The mort o’ the deer; O, that is entertainment
My bosom likes not, nor my brows! Mamillius,
Art thou my boy?
and then when the floodgates open
There have been,
Or I am much deceived, cuckolds ere now;
And many a man there is, even at this present,
Now while I speak this, holds his wife by the arm,
That little thinks she has been sluiced in’s absence 285
And his pond fish’d by his next neighbour, by
Sir Smile, his neighbour: nay, there’s comfort in’t
Whiles other men have gates and those gates open’d,
As mine, against their will.
After Paulina presents him with the baby Perdita and he begins a slow process of realisation of what he has done, Branagh’s Leontes shrinks as a stage presence and everything about him indicates the terrible price he is paying.
Antigonus with the baby Perdita. She is to be abandoned, he eaten by a bear
As a director, Branagh skilfully negotiates one of the difficulties of the play: the overlong wool shearing scene. He turns it into an Eastern European fertility rite with the shepherds, the shepherdesses and particularly Perdita brimming with erotic energy.
Tom Bateman and Jessie Buckley as Florizel and Perdita
Miranda Raison brings a quiet dignity to the role of Hermione, Leontes’ wronged wife.
Her response to Leontes’ histrionics is measured and restrained.
Hermione. No, by my life.
Privy to none of this. How will this grieve you,
When you shall come to clearer knowledge, that
You thus have publish’d me! Gentle my lord,
You scarce can right me throughly then to say
You did mistake.……….
There’s some ill planet reigns:
I must be patient till the heavens look
With an aspect more favourable. Good my lords,
I am not prone to weeping, as our sex
Commonly are; the want of which vain dew
Perchance shall dry your pities: but I have
That honourable grief lodged here which burns
Worse than tears drown: beseech you all, my lords,
With thoughts so qualified as your charities
Shall best instruct you, measure me; and so
The king’s will be perform’d!
In the final scene she is revealed as the statue that, in true fairytale form, comes to life.
Her response is revealing.
Paulina Turn, good lady;
Our Perdita is found.
Hermione.You gods, look down
And from your sacred vials pour your graces
Upon my daughter’s head! Tell me, mine own.
Where hast thou been preserved? where lived? how found
Thy father’s court? for thou shalt hear that I,
Knowing by Paulina that the oracle
Gave hope thou wast in being, have preserved
Myself to see the issue.
Not a word to Leontes. Hermione has been waiting sixteen years in the hope that her daughter was alive.
And in his final speech Leontes does not have a word to say to Hermione.
If this play is reworking the themes of the great tragedies particularly Othello and King Lear, then redemption and reconciliation for Leontes are both muted and qualified.