1988: Paul Kafno, Kenneth Branagh
This is Kenneth Branagh’s first foray into directing Shakespeare for film (a year before his much surer handling of Henry V), and it’s something of a mixed success.
The acting is all adequate, but little if any of it really stands out. The main clusters of characters (Sir Andrew, Sir Toby, and Maria, and Orsino, Viola, and Olivia) interact with a certain lethargy that saps the production of much of its potential vigor. One imagines that all this is at least partly an artifact of the direction, since these are all solid actors. Frances Barber’s Viola is not bad, but somewhat slack; in most scenes, Christopher Ravenscroft’s Orsino absorbs most of the lines directed to him like a heavy velvet curtain, producing little echo or interest. I found his performance as Montjoy in the Branagh Henry V quite good, so I don’t really know what has happened here. When he’s expressing any emotion, it seems to be mostly anger. The one scene that clicks between them, from my perspective, is the one where they are talking about men, women, and love (II, iv). Malvolio is not really remarkable either (though certainly Richard Briers has turned in many a creditable performance in other places); Feste (Anton Lesser) is a scruffy and alienating entity who never seems to engage the other characters or the audience. His rather approximate approach to pitch is also a bit of a liability for a character who has (I believe) more songs than any other in Shakespeare. While he’s a liminal character almost by definition — as virtually all of Shakespeare’s clowns are — we still need to be able to connect with him in order for his chorus-like function to work.
For reasons that Branagh recounts obliquely and not entirely satisfactorily in an interview on the DVD, the whole is set in a kind of Victorian Christmas-card world, with snow and Christmas trees everywhere. Nothing much is made of that, but there’s not much point to it either. It’s shot in a sound-stage cinematic style (plausible, as Branagh explains, because it was largely an attempt to preserve a well-received stage performance), allowing the flexibility of camera movement and prepared shots, but without any of the visual richness of location shooting. The DVD transfer, for what it’s worth, does reawaken the rather dead and bled-out colors that affected the videotape version available previously, and there are a few extra features (including the interview with Branagh). All in all, this is an adequate performance, but in a field so populated with remarkably good productions, it’s not particularly outstanding.
Antonio; Sea Captain: Tim Barker
Fabian: Shaun Prendergast
Feste: Anton Lesser
Malvolio: Richard Briers
Maria: Abigail McKern
Olivia: Caroline Langrishe
Orsino: Christopher Ravenscroft
Sebastian; Curio: Christopher Hollis
Sir Andrew Aguecheek: James Simmons
Sir Toby Belch: James Saxon
Valentine: Julian Gartside
Viola; Cesario: Frances Barber