Saturday, January 21, 2012

Enough already with the edginess

The only film in which I saw Ralph Fiennes was The Reader, which was not particularly good and after which I dismissed his thespian abilities as being mediocre to poor. Staring broodingly into the middle distance is no substitute for acting.

When I heard that he was going to direct and star in a film of Coriolanus, one of Shakespeare's most difficult plays, my heart sank. It sank even further when I saw the poster of Ralph Fiennes in army fatigues, covered in blood and .... staring broodingly into the middle distance.

The film  is out and Michael Billington's review (oh how one misses Alexander Walker) tells us that it is full of relevance and "prescient lessons to us all". Does that mean that Shakespeare's plays are not full of relevance and prescient lessons unless somebody decides to update them to some modern war that, in this case, is rapidly becoming even less well known than many others? (To be fair to Mr Billington, he indicates some doubt about the need to update this Roman play and about the "slightly filleted and adapted text".)

In the same newspaper there is a comment about dramatized versions of Great Expectations (no, not the great David Lean film). I did not see the TV version with Douglas Booth, which, according to Londoner's Diary, "garnered much praise over the festive season" but the people I spoke to  were considerably less complimentary. There is also a film due in which Jeremy Irvine, he of  War Horse, will play Pip (and Ralph Fiennes will play Magwitch). His comment about the two productions was priceless in its self-satisfied fatuity.

"You can't compare the two [the film and the TV serial]. That was for a British audience, this is aiming for worldwide success. It's not a typical British period drama. It's edgy."

Oh goody. Another "edgy" adaptation of a literary classic. Can actors be that stupid? Can directors? The answers are yes and yes.

In the first place, if it is worldwide success you want then British period drama is your pigeon. It remains hugely successful as long as the period costumes are beautiful and the acting is good, which may be questionable if reviews of War Horse are to be believed.

Secondly, Dickens is enormously popular all over the world. His works have been translated in many languages and are devoured by people in many countries. He does not need "edgy" updating or tinkering with.

Thirdly, neither Dickens nor Shakespeare needs some pipsqueak of an actor or director to make them relevant, edgy or prescient. The reason, dear thespians, we keep reading their works, discussing them, analyzing them and, yes, dramatizing them is because they dealt with difficult subjects in a complicated and, often, ambiguous ways.

Let me make a prediction: Shakespeare's plays will be watched and Dickens's novels will be read and they will all be filmed again and again long after the edgy productions of today have been consigned to the dust heap of history. If only we could do that right now.


  1. A couple of decades back, "Time" magazine practically swooned because a production of "Carmen" was updated to the Spanish Civil War.

  2. Actually Helen, I have only just seen The Reader and thought it a good film - other than Fiennes lack of emotion, but I digress.

    I am with you in that the original version of anything is hard to better - yet there is always some smart arse willing to try..... Adherence to the original in film and television where Dickens, Shakespeare and other great writers are concerned might also teach children some history - something sorely lacking today.

  3. Goodness, I hope they don't learn their history from Shakespeare. ;) Setting aside the factual misrepresentation (he was a Tudor propagandist, after all) the analysis of power and various relationships cannot be bettered.

  4. It could be worse, most of my generation learnt their history from Blackadder!

  5. Yes, AKM, that is worse. I quite agree. Though, to some extent, Blackadder did not invent any historical opinions, merely repeated the best known misconceptions, such as the ones about the First World War.