Thursday, 13 November 2014

Hamlet (1948) vs. Green Street (2005)

That's me settling down into university now. I've learnt how to cook a decent omelette, I've made a perfectly neat room look like shit, and I have the number for the local pizza place in my contacts. The past couple of months have been a swiveling mash of pub quizzes, pubs, public embarrassments and quietly scribbling notes down on a pad. I've not had that much time for films, and when I have, I haven't had that much time for writing anything on this blog; or, there's never been anything worth writing about. I've been told by my friends that the biggest problem with this blog is that I find so many films insufferably good. The writing is, naturally, far more entertaining when I find the film unbearably fecal, and I can go on a massive rant about how painful it is to live in a world where such a film can secure funding from grown men. That's why I never wrote about Interstellar or Nightcrawler, both of which I saw last week, and both of which were very very good. You ought to go to the cinema and pay to see them both. Last night, I watched Apocalypse Now for the first time. It was excellent, as I imagined it would be, but it would be tricky to write a whole post on it because I'd run out of superlatives after a couple of paragraphs.

A couple of nights ago, however, an interesting cinematic situation struck which finally gave me something worth writing about.

I'll give you some context, because I like the sound the keys make when I type on them. I had been struggling to get through Hamlet, one of the set texts for my English course, since I started reading it on a train in Sweden a couple of weeks ago. By Monday of this week, I had only got to The Mousetrap scene, and so I resolved to watch a film version and read along with it. Stupid me went for Laurence Olivier's 1948 best picture-winning version, for which he hacked away at the text like Cambodians hacking away at a sacrificial ox, cutting a four hour play down to a two-and-a-half hour movie. Out when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the main comic relief of the play, as well as the entire Fortinbras sub-plot, a sub-plot I only realised existed when it was mentioned at a lecture earlier this week. I was flicking between pages with such intensity, it must have looked like I was reading a Stephen King choose-your-own-adventure book.

It's a difficult watch, even with the Bowlder-like cuts. Olivier directs himself, prancing about in his tightest pair of medieval tights, with a haircut that looks like an albino Paul Simon. Of course he was one of the best actors of the twentieth century, Of course he knew Shakespeare better than almost any other director of his era. That doesn't make it look any less ridiculous. Unbelievably, costume design was one of the five Oscars this film picked up, despite everyone being dressed like they just stepped out of a Shrek film. The acting is terrific, as you should expect from a Shakespearean production as large-scale as this, but this is not the film to win over any Shakespeare skeptics. It is precisely the wrong kind of Shakespeare film - there is nothing new, no curveballs to get the audience sitting up in their seats. It's one of the Bard's biggest fans playing Hamlet for the rest of the Bard's fan club.

I suppose this was what was expected of a Hamlet adaptation back in the 1940s. I suppose back then critics were looking for something that was more revered than it was entertaining. Maybe the Academy's judges felt like they owed Shakespeare something, for some reason. But imagine if someone in Shakespeare's day gave their highest creative award to a particularly good version of something written by Sophocles. That year, Hamlet beat The Treasure of the Sierra Madre to Best Picture. Go figure. They should've just given Willy Shakes the award for Best Original Screenplay and made do with that.

Anyway, when I was twenty minutes from the end of Hamlet, I was called down the corridor to watch a movie called Green Street (released outside the UK as Green Street Hooligans). I'd never heard of it before, but it seems like the other folk in my corridor can quote any scene at the drop of a hat. It concerns an American student who ends up in a violent football firm when he visits England, and it has more in common with Hamlet than you might think. It's about a young man who has recently dropped out of university, and is pressured into violence by a relative who is dead by the end (admittedly, Hamlet's father is dead before the start of the play, but I'm clutching at straws here). Both end with a climactic fight in which a main character dies (all the main characters die at the end of Hamlet, but once again, cut me some slack, I'm trying to compare the two most dissimilar things on the planet). Both stories largely take place indoors, but not exclusively. See?

I get the feeling Green Street was written for quite a particular audience, one that I really don't put myself in. It's for folk who love football, for one, and folk who are entertained by a massive group fistfight for another. While it does attempt to slip in an interesting anti-violence message ("Steve didn't kill your son! You did!"), it's difficult to shake the feeling that this is a film about football hooligans to be enjoyed by football hooligans*. That message is just stuck in so it can claim the moral high ground. Matt (the American student, played distractingly by Frodo Baggins) is undoubtedly shown to have come out of the experience a better man. Nevertheless, it is good fun, because who wouldn't enjoy watching a load of Cockneys knocking each other out?

So who wins in the battle of Hamlet vs Green Street? Well, I'm going to plump for Green Street in this round, simply because I like imagining how the critics and snooty cinemagoers who championed Hamlet back in the 40s would react to it. Hamlet fails because it would bore the tits off anyone who enjoyed Green Street. Green Street, on the other had, would shock the tits off the 1948 Hamlet fans. In this battle of moronic populism versus patronising elitism, the former floors the latter. Probably with a headbutt to the chest.

*DISCLAIMER: The people in my corridor are as far from football hooligans as you could care to get. They are friendly, smart people who cook fantastic meals. I imagine they enjoy the film for the reason outlined at the end of that paragraph.

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