Branagh / genre / Shakespeare : metanarrative functions of classical genre
Maerz, Jessica Marie
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Kenneth Branagh is the most important contemporary figure in the production of filmed Shakespeare. His four feature-length Shakespeare films, Henry V (1989), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Hamlet (1996) and Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000) created the explosion of filmed Shakespeare adaptations that began in the 1990s. Branagh’s conceptual approach to Shakespearean adaptation, however, as well as his style, differs substantially from that of even the filmmakers he has inspired. Where adapters like Baz Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet, 1996) and Julie Taymor (Titus, 1999) maintain a postmodern stance toward their source material, embracing the self-referentiality and mixing of styles that characterizes most postmodern work, Branagh’s approach to the Shakespearean source text is, contrarily, motivated by a reliance on genre styles derived from the Classical Hollywood mode. Branagh / Genre / Shakespeare demonstrates Branagh’s appeal to classical film genres in order to meta-narrate for a popular audience the unfamiliar terrain of the Shakespearean original; it examines the debts Branagh owes, stylistically and structurally, to classically-defined generic modes. The generic appeal in Branagh’s films is one that grows progressively, becoming incrementally more critical to his Shakespearean adaptations as Branagh’s career progresses. Thus, Branagh’s debut film, Henry V, is the least classically generic of all his films, relying primarily on intertextual and generic references to more contemporary styles, like the action genre and the Vietnam War film. Much Ado About Nothing represents a transitional moment in Branagh’s generic development; while the film closely accords to the norms of the screwball comedy, this generic correspondence derives primarily from the Shakespearean text. With Hamlet, Branagh begins to experiment with genre as a conceptual conceit: although the film owes much to classical domestic melodrama, particularly in Hamlet’s relationships with Gertrude and Ophelia, Branagh frames his domestic story with devices drawn from the classical Hollywood historical epic. Finally, Love’s Labour’s Lost reflects the pinnacle of Branagh’s conceptual and generic development, wholly subordinating the logic and authority of the Shakespearean source text to the demands of the classical musical form.