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Julius Caesar review – ‘striking screen version of the Donmar’s all-female production’

Harriet Walter in the screen version of Julius Caesar Harriet Walter in the screen version of Julius Caesar
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The Donmar Warehouse’s film of their all-female Julius Caesar is a labour of love. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, it’s definitely a filmed performance rather than a feature film and, as such, has to make a monumental effort to overcome the challenges of capturing live performance – which it does.

Lloyd, ever inventive, goes a long way towards solving these problems with a guerrilla filming style, attaching Go-Pros to members of the cast and arming them with iPhones. There’s a drone shot too, a stern birds-eye view that surveils the in-the-square Kings Cross Theatre where the performances were filmed.

Alongside cameras working more traditional angles, the whole is edited into a fluent articulation of the live production, absolutely the chronicling of the project that it deserves. There’s a kind of reflexive curiosity to witnessing the onscreen audience react, but the filming style privileges the cinematic audience: we get to go where the theatre audience, fixed to their seats, never do.

The performances are calibrated for theatre rather than film, threatening to weigh things down in static sections, especially early on – but ultimately Lloyd is gifted with a great cast.  Close ups change the timbre of a performance in fascinating ways: Jade Anouka’s Mark Antony is nervier, more vulnerable onscreen, you can see repressed emotions rolling across her face like thunderclouds as she bites her tongue around Clare Dunne’s Octavius. The later scenes between Harriet Walter’s Brutus and Martina Laird’s Cassius are electrifyingly great – it’s a pleasure to share such intimate space with two such fiercely smart actors.

As the plays wears on, the number of wide shots diminishes – there’s a subtle directorial hand at work that nudges you towards the thing that makes this the most touching of Julius Caesars: the broken friendships, the personal heartaches.

Lloyd and company lean in to more filmic language as they go along, and the bits that embrace it most work best: “Friends, Romans, Countryman” – delivered by Anouka from face down on the floor surrounded by toy guns, framed from above by the birds-eye camera – is just as exhilarating as the live version, and there are moments where an obviously theatrical metaphor (those red rubber gloves snapped on for Caesar’s assassination, for example) finds a natural harmony with the filmed medium that tantalisingly suggests more radical, expressionistic possibilities for cinema.

Ultimately, the film is a record, a remembrance of a project, but it also transfigures enough of the production’s chutzpah, its compassion, its keen sense of injustice, to be worth watching anew. The emotional gut-punch of the play gets through: the final moment with Walter’s angry prisoner crying for change rings delivers its message just as clearly in one medium as the other.

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This intelligent, playful rendering of the Donmar Warehouse's all-female stage production makes for a striking cinematic experience