From his lauded stage version to this new cinematic vision he transposes the political discomfort and intense personal tragedy of Shakespeare’s play with ease and the film is definitely one to take the time to catch up with. Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Cox are on terrific form as is Jessica Chastain and Fiennes proves an intelligent director of actors allowing the dialogue to flow freely and with gravitas without ever distancing us from the modern parallels at play.
From the imagined discovery of The Bard’s muse in Shakespeare in Love and the recent history churning revelation of who actually wrote Shakespeare’s play in Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous there is much stock in the man as much as his works and though I will always enjoy the sight of Edmund Blackadder helping Colin Firth’s Shakespeare to a face-punching in his journey Back and Forth I particularly enjoy a good adaptation, and always in the original language.
Here are just a few of the myriad adaptations out there, and this isn’t taking into account those films inspired by the plays so My Own Private Idaho, Ran and West Side Story aren’t here but are equally worth checking out.
1. Henry V
(dir. Kenneth Brangh – 1989)
It’s hard to mention Shakespeare on film without thrusting the name of Kenneth Branagh into the conversation. His big screen adaptations of The Bard’s tales number among the most faithful and vibrant of their kind and each are worth seeking out, necessarily sidestepping In the Bleak Midwinter of course. His 1989 film of Henry V is a potent and thrilling evocation of Shakespeare’s play with the scene below being rightly famous for stirring the soul and quickening the blood. Expect to see more of Branagh on this list.
(dir. Franco Zeffirelli – 1990)
While not my favourite Hamlet (see below) the supporting cast and dour veneer painted by Franco Zeffirelli is enough to make me recommend this one. Mel Gibson’s madness does trip over the line of credulity more than once but it’s a fine take on the madness of inertia against seemingly overwhelming odds. Helena Bonham Carter makes for a great Ophelia too.
Also: I remember spending four hours alone in Winchester’s newly open arthouse cinema watching Kenneth Branagh’s stunning version of Hamlet and it’s not easy going, however the mirrored hall set design is unparalleled and if you have the time then no-one can match Branagh’s Prince of Denmark when he’s on his game.
3. Romeo & Juliet
(dir. Baz Luhrmann – 1996)
I’m unapologetic in my love for this version of the star crossed lovers, and there are elements of Fiennes’ Coriolanus which have direct correlations in Baz Luhrmann’s colourful explosion of Bardly love. Twirling guns from holsters and love at first sight through a fish tank may be the stuff cliché is made of but I defy you to find a more energetic adaptation of young love. It’s also very silly – watch this…
Also: Zeffirelli’s version which is incredibly twee compared to Luhrmann’s take, however Basil Exposition and Olivia Hussey are good fun.
4. Richard III
(dir. Richard Loncraine – 1995)
One of my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays retold as an alternate history of a fascist United Kingdom rent through by Civil War. Put it this way – it’s Ian McKellen being amazing.
Also: Looking for Richard, which has Al Pacino in search of the unattainable explanation of the magnetism of Shakespeare through one of his most enigmatic characters. Originally planned as a simple adaptation Pacino found his quest to produce the film told its own story, and he was right.
5. Much Ado about Nothing
(dir. Kenneth Branagh – 1993)
Another Branagh I know, but I’m including it here as very few people remember this one. It also has the odd couple of Ben Elton (as Baldrick) and Michel Keaton (as Beetlejuice’s human bastard child) as well as Brian Blessed laughing a lot. It’s indulgent and light but I love how much Branagh is in love with Shakespeare and through this playful adaptation of a midsummer’s sex comedy he illuminates the serious and stupid business of falling, and staying, in love. I find myself returning to this more and more in recent years and all it takes is this opening scene to get me in the mood.
Ideally you’d have the DVD to hand, but watch the first four minutes of the first clip (letting Emma Thompson’s voice melt you into the ground beneath your feet) and then skip to the second clip for horsey-hurrah action.
Also: Joss Whedon’s own version of Much Ado which features many familiar faces from Whedon’s big and small screen ventures, shot in secret and due out this year. Few people can get away with making the biggest Superhero movie in many years, stabbing the horror genre a new post-post-modern one with The Cabin in the Woods and then handing us a secret slice of Shakers in one year but by Will’s ghostly beard Whedon’s the man to do it.