Film / Putting the Bard through his paces: Adam Mars-Jones on the contrasting approaches to filming Shakespeare represented by Christine Edzard's new version of As You Like It and Orson Welles's restored version of Othello

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The Independent Culture
WHEN Christine Edzard made Little Dorrit in two monumental parts, she seemed to be offering both a daring extension and a critique of the usual reverent British style of filming classics (call it the BBC 2 approach). She didn't just gut the book for its story, and she wouldn't allow the past to be represented by vague vistas and approximate costumes. For her, Little Dorrit was about wallpaper and underclothes as well as about dispossession and reconciliation, and there was something splendid about her refusal to cut the narrative free from a period sense that amounted almost to mania.

With last year's The Fool, Edzard jettisoned Dickens but kept the Dickensian world and its clogging detail. Now, with As You Like It (U), she has turned her back on the past, setting Shakespeare in a modern London of stockbrokers and street people. There is bravery here, in shedding the preoccupations with which her reputation was made (retaining only London) and even turning her original procedure on its head, by orphaning As You Like It of its cultural context and demanding that it still have something to say.

What has not changed is an extraordinarily limited notion of what film can do. In Little Dorrit the inertness of the camera, the rudimentary sense of film language, were almost contributions: they made it clear that Edzard wanted no skimming in this filmed book, and was tackling a whole dead world broadside on. But since then there has been no development of cinematic technique or sensibility.

There's an instructive moment early on in As You Like It, when Orlando and Oliver confront each other. The gimmick of the sequence is that the brothers are played by the same actor (Andrew Tiernan), but the shock of it is that the dialogue, for all its wooden cutting back and forth between the speakers, is not noticeably more awkward in its filming than many other sequences, where Edzard is under no such artificial constraint. For no obvious reason, for instance, Edzard chooses not to show the wrestling match between Charles and Orlando except through the reactions of spectators. Here, pure cinematic skill must carry the day, or not, when the effect is as flat as it is here.

Edzard prefaces the film with Jaques' 'Ages of Man', delivered by James Fox, but this is hardly the germ of the play. Much more to the point is the little debate between Rosalind and Celia about Nature and Fortune in their first scene: 'Fortune reigns in gifts of the world, not in the lineaments of Nature.' 'No? When Nature has made a fair creature, may she not by Fortune fall into the fire?'

The major characters of the play are displaced by fortune, but their natures are not undone. In the forest of Arden they develop in ways not possible at court.

The court in this version is a marble floored palace of plutocracy, all ringing phones and subservient yuppies, while Arden is a piece of urban wasteland, echoing to the sound of distant drills. A Duke refigured as a businessman is wrong-headed enough, with usurpation becoming a mere takeover bid, but an Arden with no hint of nature is nonsensical. Perhaps Edzard realises this, when, after turning a sheep-cote into a cabman's shelter and wild venison into a pack of supermarket meat, she relents and gives Corin the shepherd a single sheep. Never mind that one sheep does not make a city farm, let alone a forest.

It would be helpful to know if there is an underlying theory in the director's mind to explain why the 19th century should need detailed recreation, while the cultural context of the 16th can safely be disregarded. A Renaissance play made up largely of explorations of rank and gender cannot be guaranteed to survive transposition to the present day. Edzard approached Dickens as a conservationist, Shakespeare almost as an asset stripper, cashing in on famously beautiful speeches and a supposedly timeless concern with love.

And yet as the film enters its second hour, it starts to generate real pleasure. By this time Edzard's interpretation of the play has amounted to a vagueness overloaded with bits of business, but the actors begin to rise to the challenge, a challenge amounting almost to escapology. Phebe (Valerie Gogan) must deliver an exploration of her tangled feelings for 'Ganymede' while eating chips, dutifully inserting the soggy sticks into her mouth against the current of iambics, and still she brings it off. Celia (Celia Bannerman) must negotiate a speech while rolling her own cigarette with comic ineptness, then lighting it ineffectually, and yet this performance blossoms into a wonderful one. Emma Croft as Rosalind must pose as a man in a world where androgyny is presumably no novelty, but she is able nevertheless to find a plausible line from mild debby defiance to full self-possession.

When Ewen Bremner's wretched Silvius defines love, and the other lovers ritually endorse his words, it is undeniably a stirring moment. But at this point the film is showing only actors and synthetic mist, and the screen is aspiring to the condition of a blank stage. In this misguided and also perversely endearing version, Christine Edzard ultimately proves the Bard's resilience, but she proves it the hard way.

Orson Welles in his 1952 Othello (U), now restored, opts for a different blend of liberties and fidelities. He introduces the story with a paraphrase in voice- over, and has no qualms about fading Shakespeare out, when the speaker is only a Venetian warlord discussing tactics. His interpretation of the title role, though, is both orthodox and strongly imagined.

The locations are always striking, sometimes distractingly so. When Roderigo provokes Cassio, he flees into a sort of cloister ankle-deep in water. Welles goes to town on the ripples and reflections, but this is a relatively unimportant scene in the play. In the film, it overshadows the climax for which it should be preparing - the cashiering of Cassio. Only in the opening sequence does Welles really find a satisfactory showcase for his skills as a director - in a postscript to the drama (lovers dead, Iago punished) that Shakespeare didn't bother with.

In this film of great flair and considerable tattiness, it is often painfully easy to spot which shots are there to conceal things (missing actors, missing extras, missing costumes) rather than to reveal anything in particular. On the debit side are a ramshackle soundtrack, veering from ghostly choirs to bazaar orientalism, and a Desdemona (Suzanne Cloutier) who builds towards real pathos from a bad start, all plummy diction and 1940s hair - arranged on her pillow on the wedding night as if she was expecting a publicity photo-session rather than a husband.