One of the finest nonfiction series about art debuts on home video this week. Playing Shakespeare (Athena/Acord), a 1984 production written and presented by Royal Shakespeare Company founder John Barton and featuring featuring members of the company, is more than simply a master class in acting (as if that’s not enough in itself). Part master class presentation, part workshop, part Socratic dialogue, it plays out in the manner of an actor’s workshop, where exercises are staged with actors and the results discussed by all involved. But it’s also about theater today and in Shakespeare’s time, about conventions and ideas of realism, about language, about history and culture, about how actors try to bring them together, and finally it’s about getting to the heart of the words and characters of Shakespeare and illustrating how and why his work lends itself to multiple interpretations, each with its own insight to the art. It’s a remarkably approachable documentary with brilliant insights into the craft of acting from the likes of Ian McKellen, Ben Kingsley, Judy Dench, David Suchet, Patrick Stewart and Sinead Cusack (among many other equally fine if less famous performers), who don’t merely illustrate the lessons with performances but discuss their approach and their tools with Barton and with each other. Particularly insightful is episode four, focused on a single character – Shylock in The Merchant of Venice – with two actors who have played the role on stage and prepared their interpretations for this episode: David Suchet and Patrick Stewart. The entire show is Barton (who originally directed them both in the role) with the two actors, and it is riveting television and a brilliant discussion of art and theater as they address the five scenes in which Shylock appears in the play. And it’s serious without becoming self-serious; an episode on Shakespeare’s language, and his words, is introduced by way of a comedy sketch by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. As in the best of documentary presentations, it is both a brilliant study in its subject – theater and the work of Shakespeare – and an illustration of the power and importance of art. In the words of Shakespeare, it is as if a mirror held up to nature. Nine episodes on four discs in a box set of three thinpak cases, along with a 20-page study guide.
Speaking of the Royal Shakespeare Company, one of its most illustrious veterans returns to British TV with one of the best mystery series of the past decade: Henning Mankell’s Wallander (BBC). Kenneth Branagh plays Swedish police detective Kurt Wallander in a trio of mysteries made for British television and seen in the U.S. on Masterpiece Mystery! Wallander is close to burnout from corruption and cruelty he’s seen and the toll its taken on his personal life and Branagh gives his most restrained yet evocative performance in years: there is such loneliness and disillusionment in his Wallander, but he’s still roused to seek justice. The episodes are beautifully produced on location in Sweden (two of them shot by Oscar-winner Anthony Dod Mantle). Three feature-length telefilms on two discs, along with featurettes and interviews.
Joss Whedon’s self-produced musical superhero comedy Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (New Video) was an online sensation and a grass roots DVD (sold exclusively through Whedon’s own website). Neil Patrick Harris stars as the aspiring supervillain of the title, a romantic at heart with the motivation of a tormented geek in a world that has transposed high school politics into comic book terms. Nathan Fillion (of “Firefly”) is the musclebound, muscleheaded hero who basks in adoration as he repeatedly pummels Dr. Horrible like a high school bully picking on the skinny kid. The 40 minute program features Whedon’s brand of humor and better songs than you’ll hear in most new Broadway shows, and his cast is nails both the comedy and the song. Now the special edition DVD goes wide, complete with a traditional commentary track and a musical commentary that spoofs the entire practice. It’s hilarious, produced like a piece of radio theater for home theater: self aware and self reflexive, just the way we like Whedon.
Less whimsical and more culturally respectable is the home video debut of Jean-Luc Godard’s Une Femme Mariée (aka A Married Woman) (E1), his most coolly elegant film. And the new release of the week falls to Defiance (Paramount), director Edward Zwick’s labor of love drama about the real-life Bielski brothers, Polish Jews who escaped the Nazi roundups and created a sanctuary for thousands of Jews in the Bellarussia forests during World War II.
For the rest of the highlights (including new releases Revolutionary Road and He’s Just Not That Into You and Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt, which finally arrived long after street date), visit my weekly column, which goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment, or go directly to the various pages dedicated to New Releases, Special Releases, TV and Blu-ray.