How Many Ages Hence Shall This Our Lofty Scene Be Acted O’er?

Posted: 07/06/2013 in 1953

Antony 4

So many lines and so many familiar phrases emanate from William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.  This is one of the more beloved plays of the Elizabethan bard, but why a film adaptation?  Why not?  This one works perfectly well on screen, so it was only a matter of time before this one was done again.  What does Joseph L. Mankiewicz bring that is new to the table?  Not a whole lot.  The script is unchanged (but wouldn’t it be sinful to do anything else with the beauty of Mr. Shakespeare’s words?), but it is the solid, and at times breakthrough, acting of the cast that makes this one of the best films of the year so far.

There’s little to be said here about the script.  What Mr. Mankiewicz gives us is a word for word rendition of the original Julius Caesar.  This is hardly an adaptation then, but the words flow from the actors beautifully.  Is this the work of a director then, or is the work of these amazing actors?  This review says that most of the credit for why this film works goes to the actors.  In the main cast, nearly everyone is great to utterly brilliant.  Even Deborah Kerr, who has a shamefully small role as Portia, lights up the screen in the limited amount of time that she has.  It is the actors that play Brutus, Cassius, and Mark Antony (James Mason, John Gielgud, and Marlon Brando respectively) that really grab the spotlight in this one.  Perhaps the most nuanced performance is that of John Gielgud as Cassius.  Say what you will about Cassius and his ambition, but the man is rarely wrong.  As much as many actors have villainized Cassius, Mr. Gielgud gives us a much more subtle and round character.  The line between protagonist and antagonist is very much blurred due to his acting chops.  While Brutus and Mark Antony are generally given this treatment, Gielgud gives us a fair treatment of Brutus too.  Largely though, Mr. Shakespeare gave us the Brutus and Antonius show to chew on and debate.  I believe that James Mason strikes the right notes with the clumsily noble Brutus.  One is never entirely sure what to make of this seemingly honorable man that cannot make a correct decision even if his life depends on it.

It is Marlon Brando, though, that really steals the show here, and that is actually good news and bad news for the viewer.  The good news is that Mr. Brando soars high above the rest of the cast with his method style.  He’s natural, he’s bold, he’s tenacious, he’s cunning, he’s a brilliant politician, and he’s everything that want to believe Mark Antony was.  His speech to the Roman people is absolutely the highlight of the film.  What he does here is absolutely astonishing.  Although he actually gets less screen time than Brutus and Cassius, the film belongs to Brando.  It is so much his film in fact that one begins to forget that the title of this film is Julius Caesar.  Therein lies the bad news, however.  After, perhaps, the most brilliant acting moment of the year is over, there is still 35 minutes left in the film, and it is mostly centered on Brutus and Cassius.  Unfortunately, the film can never find its footing after that.    It is almost as if Brando is so good in the best performance of the year so far that he sucks the life out of the rest of the piece.  As much as I respect the work of Gielgud and Mason, their weak point is they largely lose the viewer after we fall deeply in love with Brando’s Antony.

Overall, this is a film about how easily swayed the public is by the mere words of skillful politicians.  That is brilliantly demonstrated the the cinematic reality that after is Brando is finished wooing us, we largely forget as viewers that the rest of the cast does a wonderful job too.  No, there’s nothing new here.  The script is a non-point.  See the film though, however, for the acting that is bestowed upon us.  While Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s rendition of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is not without its flaws, overall it is one of the better Shakespearean films that one will see from this era and it gives us some memorable performances.

***1/2 ~AOS

Up next… our first jump into noir with Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street.

 

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