This is a revised version of a review I posted on another blog in the summer of 2010
When one reads a play of Shakespeare, there is usually one defining element that resonates in our consciousnesses. In the case of Julius Caesar, for me it's the theme of distrust and envy of those in power. Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1953 film version of Julius Caesar stays true to this theme and communicates it powerfully and precisely. The film is well acted and while it has a modest visual scale, the art and set design (which won an Oscar) immerses us in the world of ancient Rome. The film is a straightforward take on the play yet it never feels dated, rather the film feels quite modern.
One reason for this sense of modernity is the performance of Marlon Brando as Marc Antony. His performance in A Streetcar Named Desire established him as new, more "realistic" actor. Seeing him in that film, I don't think audiences would think Brando, especially with his signature “mumble,” would be well suited to speaking Shakespearean verse; yet Brando gives what is arguably the best performance in the film. He is naturalistic yet also poetic. I think the oration speech is my favourite scene in the film and the big scene for any actor playing Marc Antony. Brando is skilful in this scene in how he builds upon each repetition of “ambitious” and “honourable men.” He brings genuine emotion, the loss of a friend and disgust at the ones who condone his assassination, into the speech. Even if the movie falls flat for you, this is a scene to admire.
The acting is very strong all around. Similar to Brando’s performance, while the acting is formal, it's not strained. John Gielgud, who would go on to play Julius Caesar in Stuart Barges’ 1970 film version, is suitably bitter as the envious Cassius. Edmond O’Brien gives the role of Casca some personality, and James Mason, who had one of the best voices in movies, is eloquent as Brutus.
Now, I want to discuss a problem with the genre of the play itself and how it relates to this film. Julius Caesar, if taken as a tragedy, has a case of "whose tragedy is it anyway?" Brutus can be seen as the tragic hero of Julius Caesar. At the same he seems a more modestly drawn character compared to Hamlet or Othello. He does not dominate the play like those characters, which makes his death less powerful than Hamlet or Othello. If Julius Caesar is taken as a political/historical play, then this isn't such a drawback. I think this film version of Julius Caesar is a historical/political tale. It puts focus on the ensemble rather than trying to be Brutus centric.
Another problem I have with the play, and this film version as well, is how the female characters are given little to do. I wished this film would have given us a visual aftermath of Caesar’s death in regard to Calpurnia, or Portia’s suicide. Two smaller visual quibbles I had: Cassius’ speech at the end of Act One, Scene Two is shot in close-up and pulls back as Cassius walks towards Caesar's statue. I would have just kept the camera on Cassius for the duration of the speech. I also did not like the way Caesar’s ghost was done. It is done as a special effect. I think just having Louis Calhern walk in to the tent would be creepier, more surreal.
I left out Calhern’s performance earlier, which I shouldn’t have. He is majestic as Caesar, able to convey the humanity of Caesar, which is important to the moral and political complexities of the play and the film.
As a performance piece. Mankiewicz was a very actor focused director, which shows in films like All About Eve and this film. Visually, as I mentioned, he is modest; yet this film never feels stagey. Rather, Mankiewicz knows how to move the story and the action forward and for Shakespeare this is absolutely essential.