6 Of The Best Shakespeare Films

Shakespeare in Love 6 Of The Best Shakespeare Films

William Shakespeare. He may not be the easiest author to wrap your head around, but that doesn’t stop him from being one of the greatest writers who ever lived. In his lifetime, he wrote 38 plays (along with multiple poems) that are still performed around the world today. Over the years, there have also been several great filmmakers who have adapted many of them for the cinema, including Sir Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles, Sir Kenneth Branagh, Baz Luhrmann, and, most recently, Joss Whedon.

Now I know what you’re thinking. Joss Whedon? The guy who created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and directed the big-budget action film The Avengers… taking on Shakespeare? Apparently it had been a passion project of his for some time, and now its release is upon us this very Friday. To celebrate, we’ve assembled a list of 6 of the best Shakespeare films that you definitely should check out, whether you’re a fan of his or not.

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1) Hamlet (1996)

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There’s no better place to start than with the film I credit with starting me off on my lifelong love of Shakespeare’s work, Sir Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Hamlet. Considered by many to be the Bard’s greatest play, this is one that Branagh had a passion for for several years, leading him to do a full-length version of the film because no one else had done so before (Olivier’s and Zeffirelli’s were both substantially trimmed down from the original text).

For those unfamiliar with the story, I’ll try to give a brief summary. It tells the tale of Hamlet, the young prince of Denmark who returns home after his father’s death to find his mother marrying his uncle, who is now the King. Not long after his return, his friends alert him to a ghost, who is in the shape of his father, that has been walking the grounds at night. This prompts Hamlet to attempt to interact with it, and indeed he does, only to find out the horrifying truth of how his father was murdered… by his uncle. The rest of the play deals with Hamlet’s attempt to prove the Ghost’s word as well as his schemes of revenge.

When I first saw this opulent adaptation at the age of 11, I was mesmerized with the entire production. I didn’t fully understand what the characters were going on about, but my goodness was it glorious to watch. I was still able to follow the story at least and became a little obsessed with it myself, tracking down other versions over the years, but Branagh’s remains the king of all Hamlets.

The cast is absolutely amazing. Just look at who’s involved: Branagh, Derek Jacobi, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Charlton Heston, Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Timothy Spall, Brian Blessed, and Richard Briers (Ok, perhaps Briers isn’t as well known as the others, but he’s been a great and constant presence throughout Branagh’s other Shakespeare adaptations as well).

This is one that I keep coming back to over and over again over the years, and each and every time I find myself under its spell once more. Branagh’s interpretation of the doomed Dane has always been my favorite due to the stunning way in which he dances along the line between sanity and madness as though there’s no barrier in between.

I should probably note that it is about four hours long, but it’s the only complete theatrical version of the play, and as I mentioned, it’s the best one I’ve seen (and I’ve seen seven different films of it). If you haven’t had the pleasure, this is one you absolutely must track down and view as soon as possible.

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2) Henry V (1989)

Henry V 6 Of The Best Shakespeare Films

We’ve already seen the best that Branagh has to offer, but now let’s go back a few more years to how he got started. Branagh’s first film (and first Shakespeare film) was this thrilling, visceral adaptation of Henry V. The play tells the story of the young King who, through an ancient claim, decides to wage war against France in an attempt to gain the French throne.

Now there are two main versions of this play that have been released theatrically, one from Olivier and one from Branagh. Olivier’s 1944 adaptation is excellent as well, treating the play as though it really were a play at first, being performed upon a stage before moving along to actual sets, but the one that most people will have most likely heard of is Branagh’s version. It was so well-received in fact, that Branagh earned Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Actor, as well as the BAFTA for Best Director. Not bad for his first film.

Branagh takes the play and makes it a much more gritty adaptation than people saw with Olivier’s. In particular, his staging of the Battle of Agincourt (the major battle near the end of the play) is bloody, dirty, and doesn’t skimp on the horrors of war. This is shown exquisitely, not only in the battle scenes themselves, but in an amazing long tracking shot after the battle that shows us the aftermath.

Like his adaptation of Hamlet, this too has a stellar cast that includes Branagh, Ian Holm, Brian Blessed, Emma Thompson, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Briers, Paul Scofield, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, and Christian Bale (in one of his earlier roles). If there was one thing that Branagh knew how to do really well for these Shakespeare films, it was casting the right person for the right part… well, that’s true almost all the time, but more on that later on in the list.

This great adaptation of Henry V is not only worth seeing because of the cast, but because it is an exciting, patriotic story (just you try not to give a cheer during Harry’s infamous St. Crispin’s Day speech!) Hopefully this is one we’ll be seeing hit Blu-Ray soon. The DVDs are starting to look a little old and dark. With its 25th anniversary right around the corner, there’s no time like the present to give the film a much-deserved upgrade.

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3) Romeo + Juliet (1996)

Romeo + Juliet2 6 Of The Best Shakespeare Films

One of the hardest things to do with a Shakespeare play is uproot it from its established time period and setting and transplant it somewhere else. In the case of trying to contemporize a Shakespeare play, it doesn’t always turn out well. Personally, I’ve seen two attempts to modernize Macbeth, but neither of them worked out very well. Branagh’s Hamlet is moved up a couple of centuries, and yet it works brilliantly.

Another one that worked really well was Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 adaptation of Romeo + Juliet starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. I know not everybody was a big fan of it, but for me, it’s one of the best examples of how universal Shakespeare’s works can be, so much so that you can set it in modern times and have it take place in “Verona Beach” and still have it ring true.

Luhrmann is obviously known for throwing a lot of spectacle into his films, but this was only his second movie. Previously, he had only directed Strictly Ballroom (a film I was rather indifferent towards), so no one really knew what kind of director he was yet. After this however, he gave us the outstanding Moulin Rouge!, the underrated epic Australia, and most recently, his lush adaptation of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

For Romeo + Juliet, he mixes a modern aesthetic with a great cast and delivers a fantastic version of one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. The cast includes some some great names, as well as some very strange choices, such as DiCaprio, Danes, Paul Sorvino, Brian Dennehy, Diane Venora, Jamie Kennedy, and Paul Rudd.

If you can get past that strange feeling you get from the characters speaking Shakespeare in this setting, then it’s really quite an exhilarating experience, not only because it’s got Luhrmann’s trademark flare, but also because this story remains one of the greatest ever written.

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4) Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Much Ado About Nothing 6 Of The Best Shakespeare Films

Once again we return to Kenneth Branagh. What can I say, the guy directed some great Shakespeare films! His second outing with one of the Bard’s plays resulted in this fantastic adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, a light comedy mixed with a little drama and lots of romance.

The main plot has to do with lovers Claudio and Hero who determine to marry very early on in the play. However, they have also decided to play a game among themselves and their friends. Two of their friends, Beatrice and Benedick have sworn off marriage and always make a show of their hatred for each other, but what if these two could be brought together? This is the exact end result that Claudio, Hero and their friends strive for through some subtle, and some not so subtle, manipulation.

As with Branagh’s other adaptations, one of the things that makes Much Ado About Nothing work so well is the marvelous cast he assembled. This time we have Branagh, Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington, Robert Sean Leonard, Kate Beckinsale, Brian Blessed, Michael Keaton, and Richard Briers.

The chemistry here between the dueling Beatrice and Benedick is brought to life brilliantly through Branagh and Thompson, who execute the exact timing and comedic skill needed to make their japes work so well. It’s interesting to note that the pair was married during this production, which also makes it interesting to see how convincingly they were able to carry out an argument. Shockingly enough, they were divorced about two years later.

Remember how I said that Branagh almost always gets the right actor for the right part? Well, unfortunately, this film has one example where that didn’t happen. Somehow Keanu Reeves was cast in the part of Don John, the villainous role, and makes a very poor job of it, never coming off as convincing or conniving enough to be believable. Luckily the role is a small one, but it still baffles the mind as to why Branagh would allow such a thing to happen.

Aside from that one small misstep, this is an outstanding adaptation with several memorable performances, including Michael Keaton as the clownish constable Dogberry, Denzel Washington as the honorable Don Pedro, and Robert Sean Leonard as the dashing young lover Claudio. Actors like Branagh, Thompson, Blessed, and Briers we expect to see in a Shakespeare film, but for these others, it’s not so common, making it an unexpected surprise.

This is one I recently rewatched after not having seen it for a good ten years and found myself wrapped up in it all over again. Just about everything in this production is so delightful that you too will more than likely find yourself taken with it as you go on this hilarious and touching journey with these characters.

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5) The Merchant of Venice (2004)

The Merchant of Venice 6 Of The Best Shakespeare Films

Now we come to what is perhaps the least known adaptation on this list, the 2004 production of The Merchant of Venice, starring Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes, and Al Pacino. I’ve always found it bizarre that this is included among the Bard’s comedies given that there’s practically nothing funny about it except for the ending perhaps.

The plot involves a merchant named Antonio who takes a loan out from a rich man by the name of Shylock for his friend Bassanio, who needs the money in order to help him win the hand of Portia. Antonio and Shylock are not exactly the best of friends, so the money comes with a stipulation: if Antonio fails to pay back the money on time, Shylock gets a pound of his flesh. Disaster strikes as Antonio’s ships are lost at sea, and with them, any chance he has of paying back the debt. Shylock, overjoyed with the news, immediately demands his recompense. However, all is not lost as Antonio’s friends try their best to remedy the situation.

Sounds hilarious, right? Well, it isn’t. This is a dramatically powerful play that shows the very depth of friendship. The courtroom scenes are nothing short of riveting. I’ve read the play and seen the film several times, and yet, I’m still captivated by it each and every time. This is due in no small part to the incredible performances from the entire cast. Jeremy Irons can sometimes be quite dry, but is surprisingly effective here, while Joseph Fiennes shows once again that he can handle Shakespearean dialogue with the best of them.

However, the true show-stopping performance of the film comes from Al Pacino as Shylock. At first, he may seem like an odd choice for Shakespeare, but when he delivers the “Hath not a Jew hands?” speech with complete perfection in every beat, all doubts are laid to rest. His demanding of the bond in front of the court, and his refusal to be swayed by any other means of compensation, comes off as chilling at times. As it turns out, a better choice they could not have made.

I mentioned earlier that it is perhaps the ending that can be deemed the comical part of the play, but the ending is the only part of the play that I have a small issue with. The Merchant of Venice is one of those Shakespeare plays that keeps going even after the main plot has wrapped up. It’s a tactic he used in a few plays, and successfully too (A Midsummer Night’s Dream comes to mind), but for this play, it seems a little unnecessary to throw in a quick closing subplot about wives tricking their husbands into giving away their rings that they swore never to part with. It doesn’t really damage the play, it just seems like an odd coda to what has been a dramatically heavy tale.

Even with the strange ending, this is still a great production of a great play that is most certainly worth checking out. Like me, you just might find yourself with a new-found respect for Al Pacino as an actor after experiencing the emotional punch he delivers here.

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6) Shakespeare in Love (1998)

Shakespeare in Love1 6 Of The Best Shakespeare Films

Alright, this one might be cheating a bit, but it does contain a good portion of Romeo and Juliet, as well as a little bit of its plot. So you could say that it’s not so much based “on” a Shakespeare play, but more so that it’s based “around” a Shakespeare play.

Shakespeare in Love remains one of my favorite films of all time for many reasons: the seamless integration of one of the Bard’s most beloved plays, the brilliant performances, the gorgeous production design, its marvelous sense of humor, and simply because it is a delightful story that mixes drama, comedy, and romance perfectly.

Any fan of Shakespeare will find themselves absolutely enthralled with the film as it gives us a fictitious account of how Romeo and Juliet came to be written. They’ll also be the ones picking up the throwaway lines that appear in various plays (a preacher shouts “A plague on both their houses,” a reference to Romeo and Juliet, while another character tells a nurse to “Get you to my lady’s chamber,” a line from Hamlet).

Bringing up Shakespeare in Love can still be a somewhat touchy subject with people, as there are still those that are upset that it beat out Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture of 1998. However, as I’ve said over the years since, there is a reason they chose Shakespeare. It’s simply the better film and holds up much better on repeat viewings. That’s not to say Ryan isn’t a great film, it is, but more so because of its stunning opening scene featuring the Invasion of Normandy, after which, the film becomes somewhat standard.

Shakespeare in Love is one of those films that I could watch every single day and never get bored with it. The outstanding ensemble cast, featuring Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Geoffrey Rush, Ben Affleck, Colin Firth, Imelda Staunton, and Mark Williams, is one of the best ever assembled (it’s worth noting they also took the SAG award for Best Ensemble that year). As I’ve mentioned, the film was also a big hit at the Oscars, winning seven out of its 13 nominations (including Best Picture, Best Actress (Paltrow), Best Supporting Actress (Dench), and Best Original Screenplay (Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard)).

If for some reason you have yet to see it, do yourself one of the biggest cinematic favors you could possibly do and check it out immediately. You won’t be disappointed.

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Hamlet 6 Of The Best Shakespeare Films

Keep in mind that these are just a few of the great Shakespeare films out there, so don’t panic if you don’t see one of your favorites on here. I could have kept going with several other versions of Hamlet. Olivier’s version from 1948 is a more classically staged production, but is still outstanding (it won four Oscars including Best Picture and Best Actor). The two BBC productions, one from 1980 with Derek Jacobi and the other from 2009 with David Tennant (the tenth Doctor of Doctor Who), are both great as well.

I could have also included the 1995 contemporary version of Richard III with Ian McKellen as the scheming Englishman, or the delightful 1999 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer, Stanley Tucci, Christian Bale, and David Strathairn. However, I just wanted to give you a small taste of some of the very best versions that are out there without overloading the list with multiple plays (or multiple versions of the same play).

As we look to this weekend, we hope we can add another great adaptation to the list with Joss Whedon’s anticipated Much Ado About Nothing. It’s already been receiving great reviews and looks fascinating with its low-budget approach and no particularly big-name actors to speak of. I, for one, can’t wait to see how it turns out.

What do you think of the list of the 6 best shakespeare films? Are there any others you would include? Any you would throw out? Let us know in the comments!

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1325650167 Howard Schumann

    Some of my favorites: Peter Hall’s 1968 version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night (1996), and Prospero’s Books by Peter Greenaway (1991)

  • Salim Garami

    The lack of Kurosawa on this list is unforgivable… Here’s what I’d pick as the Best….

    6) Hamlet (Branagh, 1996)

    5) Chimes at Midnight (Welles, 1965)

    4) Ran (Kurosawa, 1985)

    3) Titus (Taymor, 1999)

    2) The Tragedy of MacBeth (Polanski, 1971)

    1) Throne of Blood (Kurosawa, 1957)

    • Jeff Beck

      I considered putting Throne of Blood, Ran, and Chimes at Midnight (all three are masterpieces) on here, but I figured I’d stick with more well-known adaptations. If I were to do a part two, those three would definitely be there. Couldn’t say the same for Polanski’s Macbeth (a decent adaptation, but far too much voice-over dialogue).

      • Salim Garami

        Really? Wow, I respect that opinion, but my own opinion contradicts that.

        I thought not only was it a very memorable adaptation, but it also was very evocative of the inner darkness Polanski was going through after the death of his wife at the hands of the Manson family. Every little shot seemed uncomfortable or clinging to the characters and the atmosphere.
        And the twist ending, deviating from Shakespeare’s script, was just a cherry on top.