Shakespeare and World Cinema
Mark Thornton Burnett
Cambridge: University Press, 2013
Hardback. xv + 272 p. ISBN 978-1107003316. £60.00
Reviewed by Sonia Massai
The London Shakespeare Centre, King’s College London
Mark Burnett’s Shakespeare and World Cinema is a timely contribution to the field of Shakespeare on film. As Burnett explains, ‘[i]f Shakespeare on film is now an established discipline, then the constituent parts of its necessary content have not been explored in any uniform or comprehensive fashion’ . Shakespeare and World Cinema redresses the current imbalance in the amount of critical attention devoted to English and non-English films inspired by Shakespeare. The book is ambitious in scope. Burnett discusses seventy-three films, ranging from the better-known and commercially available (including Vishal Bhardwaj’s 2006 Omkara [Othello] or Aki Kaurismäki’s 1987 Hamlet Goes Business) to the downright obscure or regrettably inaccessible (such as Dimitri Athanitis’s 1999 An Athens Summer Night’s Dream or Don Selwyn’s 2002 The Maori Merchant of Venice). Sustained critical analysis focuses on three auteurs in Part I (Alexander Abela, Vishal Bhardwaj and Jayaraaj Rajasekharan Nair), two broad regions in Part II (Latin America and Asia), and the two plays that have statistically been adapted to the big screen more often than any other in the Shakespeare canon, namely Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet, in Part III.
Burnett gives detailed accounts of several films and leaves his readers wishing that these films were more readily available. He also makes a concerted effort to consider a range of ‘local knowledges’ that, once activated, are bound to impact on how any of these films are read and interpreted, thus keeping his own approach ‘alive to the shaping role of context-specific modes of response’ . There are genuinely enlightening moments in Burnett’s exciting journey through world cinema films and the cultures and artists who have produced them. While discussing Abela’s Makibefo (Macbeth), for example, Burnett observes that ‘Malikomy/Malcolm, who at the close is flanked by warriors and a small fleet of ocean-confident boats, point[s] up both the Malagasy idea that “emergence [from water] signifies success” and the contemporary notion that “new communities ... are likely to be increasingly” non-local “in scope and power”’ . Burnett’s approach is consistently informed by this productive combination of secondary sources which shed light on ‘local knowledges’, in this case Madagascar’s history and society, and of critical studies on the impact of globalization on collective and personal identity formations in contemporary cultures across the globe.
However, there are aspects of Burnett’s work and methodology that seem problematic. While Burnett’s ‘thick descriptions’ of world cinema films do effectively activate local knowledges that are unlikely to be readily available to his target readers, local knowledges do not provide a viewpoint from which we can then ‘distinguish between what a film does and how we may wish to read it’ . One’s opinion of ‘what a film does’ will always be inflected by how one reads it. Burnett’s own viewpoint is palpably affected by his desire ‘to access what lies outside a UK-US axis … and [to] go where we have not been accustomed to explore, in the interest of developing a commonality of Shakespearean horizons’ [13, my emphasis]. By turning this type of seemingly democratic but fundamentally appropriative gaze towards ‘other Shakespeares’ or ‘others’ Shakespeare’, Burnett is led to conclude that ‘there are only idiosyncrasies and hallmarks that are fascinating in their variation from each other’ and ‘that what emerges from these various exchanges is a Bard who is more mobile, inflected and elusive than previously imagined’ .
The role of Shakespeare in world cinema is an important topic and Burnett does more than justice to it by covering a tremendous amount of new ground with a great deal of critical acumen and attention to cultural differences. However, Burnett ultimately offers his readers a singular, all-encompassing type of global Shakespeare that reinforces traditional assumptions about its malleability and neutrality as ‘a palimpsest for revision, a repository of meaning’ [153-154]. Besides, Burnett’s exclusive focus on non-mainstream, non-English Shakespeare films – which he calls ‘an account that eschews the domination of Hollywood – and the English language – … a political obligation’  – paradoxically re-inscribes these films as ‘peripheral’. As Ali Farka Touré memorably put it, ‘For some people, when you say “Timbuktu” it is like the end of the world, but that is not true. I am from Timbuktu, and I can tell you we are right at the heart of the world’ (quoted in Loomba, 1998). There are ways of overcoming such assumptions. One way is to present a book like Shakespeare and World Cinema as an attempt to establish not how Shakespeare signifies in Timbuktu (‘what a film does’), but how and why non-English Shakespeare films are now acquiring cultural capital among Shakespeare scholars like Burnett.
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