'Muse of Fire': SIFF Review

Courtesy of SIFF
Dozens of high-profile interviewees and a friendly tone compensate somewhat for doc's errors in emphasis.

Two young actors set out to understand the challenge and appeal of Shakespeare.

SEATTLE — Young British thespians Dan Poole and Giles Terera set out to connect with their dramatic heritage in Muse of Fire, a perky doc about the challenges and rewards of Shakespeare. Wrangling interviews with a list of actors that is mind-boggling given their lack of experience, the men don't always make the most of that access on screen. What they do offer is enjoyable, though, and would make diverting viewing in educational settings or on TV.

Hewing to the doc-as-personal-journey format, the men put far too much of their behind-the-scenes efforts into the film. We watch their road trip across America, see them grousing about non-theater day jobs, and suffer through automotive malfunctions that threaten to make them miss appointments. The approach does suit part of their agenda, though, enabling plenty of man-on-the-street encounters with strangers who offer their own experiences with Shakespeare. Not surprisingly, most express a degree of intimidation.

More surprising is the number of pros who share that feeling. Heroic Shakespearean Mark Rylance admits to having experienced "that familiar feeling of giving up at a Shakespeare play, [thinking] 'It's beyond me'"; Ewan McGregor jokes that he still doesn't understand loads of it. When they briefly get technical mid-film, asking about the mechanics of iambic pentameter, Christopher Eccleston admits "I don't get it." Here Ian McKellen enlightens us, showing how that famous "da-dum da-dum da-dum" lets actors know which words the author thought were most important in a line.

As for other difficulties modern audiences have with Shakespeare’s language, Steven Berkoff insists many would fall away if theatrical companies weren't so hung up on faithfulness to Elizabethan dress. "Shakespeare never put people in period costume," he insists, then gives a nice illustration of how a speech's meaning becomes can become obvious when delivered in a contemporary style.

The most famous exemplar of that strategy, at least for audiences of Terera and Poole's age, is Baz Luhrmann's Romeo & Juliet. The men cite this film as the source of their interest in the Bard, and treat the director as the Grail of interviewees. Unfortunately, they spend about as much time talking about him and demonstrating their enthusiasm as they do actually letting Luhrmann talk on camera -- a phenomenon that recurs elsewhere in the film. (At least Luhrmann gets to speak, which is more than can be said of seen-but-not-heard Alan Cumming.)

Closing credits indicate that viewers put off by the brevity of these interviews can visit the doc's website (www.shakespearefilm.com) to see them in full. That promise is unfulfilled so far, which is a shame: If a charming quasi-outtake of Judi Dench trying to remember all of Henry V's "O for a muse of fire..." speech is any indication, what didn't make the final cut may be better than what did.

Production company: Muse of Fire Film

Directors-Screenwriters: Dan Poole, Giles Terera

Executive producers: Richard Bradley, Dan Poole, Giles Terera

Editor: Jeremy Shaw, Ben Stark

Music: Giles Terera

No rating, 83 minutes