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Film reviews: Shakespeare on Smartphone and Soul

29 January 2021

Stephen Brown views films made on phones for a London festival

A still from the Intermission film Joy

A still from the Intermission film Joy

INTERMISSION Youth Theatre (IYT) began in 2008 to help to transform vulnerable young people. The Revd Rob Gillion, now a bishop, gave it a home in St Saviour’s, Walton Street, in London. Shakespeare’s plays became key texts for raising self-esteem and aspirations.

IYT also works extensively in schools, prisons, and other institutions. Young people of different nationalities and faiths have gone on to drama schools, performed professionally on stage, and worked in television, commercials, and films. When lockdown restrictions affected theatres, Intermission joined forces with the 2021 London Short Film Festival. As the Bard said, “Ill blows the wind that profits nobody” (Henry VI, Part III); for the result is the programme “Shakespeare on Smartphone”. Each five-minute film, shot entirely on mobiles and inspired by a Shakespeare quote, is a response from IYT graduates and members to recent events.

It is a remarkable demonstration of smartphones’ ability to deliver highly professional movies. Although encouraged by Steven Soderbergh’s 2018 full-length movie Unsane, filmed on iPhone, a greater influence was the indie comedy-drama Tangerine (2015). It showed what ordinary people could do with their phones.

The “Shakespeare on Smartphone” films predominantly feature situations affecting ethnic minorities. Crown, directed by Abigail Sewell, concerns three young women chilling out. Conversation turns to the obligations felt by one recently promoted to a position of authority. She’s apprehensive. I feel like I’m representing all black women, she says. If she fails in the new job, it will be seen as all people of colour not being up to it. When is a white woman, doing the same job, judged in racial terms?

A still from the Intermission film Crown

This is where “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” (Henry IV, Part II) fits in. The girls recognise that it’s Shakespeare, but know it better through Stormzy, who misquotes it in his song “Crown”, which ends the film with “heavy is the head that wears the crown/Amen, in Jesus’ name, yes I declare it.”

Several films refer clearly to faith. Mustard juxtaposes the sowing of seeds with someone reading the Parable of the Sower. It explores the true meaning of friendship, backing it up with Brutus’s line in Julius Caesar: “There are no tricks in plain and simple faith.” Sowing a tiny seed in good earth can reap a harvest of love.

The same play inspires Nigger Nigga, a documentary researching why the term is not only offensive, but, when used by black people themselves, a form of self-oppression. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

The director Natasha Kamanga draws on Romeo and Juliet to reinforce her film’s title Joy, an attitude constituting part of the black community’s resistance to stereotyping. The film 21:42 dispels another kind of false labelling. Instead of falling into gangster life, a young black male takes advice via Richard II from his older brother: “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.”

Other shorts handle duplicity, acceptable ways of being noticed, personal responsibility, being honest, etc. A frazzled front-line worker (Hey, A) is reassured of her value by repeating mantra-fashion “I do love thee: therefore, go with me” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream). This summarises every film: if we matter to one another, then the only future worth cherishing is one where “All’s Well That Ends Well” for everyone.



ONCE again, Pixar Animation Studios, the makers of Toy Story, get really spiritual. This time it’s Soul (Cert. PG, but classified by the Disney+ website as suitable for the over-sixes). Films such as Inside Out concern emotional development; and Coco seeks after truth among the faithful departed. In this film, Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx) is a music teacher whose pearl of great price is to become a professional jazz pianist. His big chance comes to play in Dorothea Williams’s renowned Quintet.

Dorothea Williams and Joe in the new Disney animation Soul

Unfortunately, shades of Coco, one misstep, and he falls down a hole into a wonderland, recently rebranded as The You Seminar. It is where new souls get their personalities before joining earth. So, what is Joe, already acquainted with the planet (New York City, specifically), doing here?

The film believes that existence isn’t just our interactions with the world, but discovering what we were made to be. There is more than a hint of Dante’s circles of descent in the piece. Like the poet’s Virgil, these souls in the making have mentors. One precocious entity, 22 (voice of Tina Fey), has had many auspicious guides — Archimedes, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln — all of whom failed to convince her to join the human race. It falls to Joe to show 22 what’s great about living. In the process, he is confronted with the same questions himself.

The movie is strong in differentiating between the spark waiting to alight in each of us and what gives us purpose. Joe’s passion for jazz — as expressive and fulfilling as that may be — needs putting into perspective. The seemingly small things round about us can carry greater significance. Soul reprises elements of the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life, in which Clarence the Second Class Angel can get his wings only by assuring George Bailey that life is worth living. A difference is that for Joe it’s no longer just a case of getting back to earth by whatever means possible. He, too, must become the person he is meant to be. Was the ladder that he had previously been climbing leaning against the wrong wall?

Nobody could fault the technical skills of the animators, but to leave it there would be the equivalent of coming away from a stage show unable to do anything other than admire the scenery.

It is not that Soul is peddling a cod-philosophy, but that at times it is near-unintelligible and, even worse, uninteresting. The film’s thesis owes more to Platonic notions of the soul as a pre-existent, immortal substance than to Christian understandings. It is true that St Paul makes reference to our souls (1 Thessalonians 5.23), as have theologians throughout the ages. But this is qualified by a belief that we have been made in the image of God. Could this divine potential in us be what Soul is implicitly pointing us towards?

Perhaps that is so; but the film makes no reference to how distorted and tarnished any likeness to God can become. Just being “you” isn’t enough, unless we’re also talking about being open to the Holy Spirit living and growing in us.

Digitally released on Disney+ (www.disneyplus.com).

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