1) Hamlet (1996)
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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