The Best Shakespeare Movies

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My list is based on reviews and lists from multiple sites, not my impressions.  I’ve more or less taken the multiple lists and sort of averaged out what films finished where to come up with this top 8, in no particular order, along with alternate versions of the same plays contained within the list, and with an honorable mention list of another 5.  Finally, a final word too on another film one rarely hears of, but is highly regarded. Some on the films are pure send-ups, while others are unique adaptions.  There are of course many other good films that don’t make my list, some of which you may have preferred to see on my lists (please chime in with a comment).

Before I throw down the list, an interesting and important point I’d like to make is this:  Throne of Blood, based on Macbeth and directed by Akira Kurosawa, is frequently cited by cineastes and scholars as the medium’s finest rendering of any Shakespeare play.  Not easy to swallow, as it’s in subtitles, set in Feudal Japan, and is an older film made in 1957.  Here’s some of the reasons for making the case, as written by David Mermelstein on December 26, 2015 in The Wall Street Journal :   “…the most nuanced and unsettling screen version of Macbeth strays from the text, though not in its spirit.  Some actors display severe makeup and an almost immobile manner that lends a disturbing chill.  Minutely calibrated gestures and subtle inflections of language (apparent even to those who don’t speak Japanese) carry an insidious diabolical quality.  Besides superb acting, Kurosawa – always a stickler for details – took enormous care to create an environment at once grittily real and supernatural.  Beyond the considerable merits of the film, Throne of Blood demonstrates that Shakespeare’s concerns and moral lessons are not just timeless but universal.  How better to confirm them than to convey them through a different medium, grafted to a drama in another language, whose action takes place a world away?”

The List

Romeo & Juliet (1996), Dir: Baz Luhrmann’s updated vehicle starring the young Leonardo DiCaprio.  I think the 1968 version by Franco Zeffirelli still holds up well – some think it’s a better version for young students.

Throne of Blood (1957), with Toshiru Mifune, directed by Akira Kurosawa, who relocates the play in feudal Japan.  One critic writes:  “There’s no other Macbeth adaption that captures the play’s creeping doom.”

Macbeth (1971), Dir: Roman Polanski, with Jon Finch.  “Polanski’s unsettling squalid visuals (e.g. a gruesome decapitation) make for a brilliantly unsettling combination with the play’s poetry;  it’s high art as a primal scream.”

Henry V (1944), Laurence Olivier.  Many also liked Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 version -Branagh’s directorial debut with battlefield realism and chaos not possible in the hollywood days of Olivier’s version.

Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington.  A fun romp, so more of a broad favorite for the entertainment rather than the film quality and acting performances (well some).

Hamlet (1948) Director & Star Laurence Olivier’s turn in this Best Picture version. Many others also liked the Mel Gibson version (1990) or Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 version, all great efforts, naturally, of perhaps the best known and loved Shakespeare play after Romeo & Juliet.

Othello (1952), Directed by and starring Orson Welles.  One critic said:  “…despite its feverishly disjointed, patchwork quality, the final cut is riveting.  They don’t film Shakespeare like this anymore, and that’s a tragedy.” Othello, 1995, with Laurence Fishburne, Irene Jacob, and Kenneth Branagh as Iago is also respectfully regarded.

West Side Story (1961), is often seen as the best rendering of Romeo & Juliet

Honorable Mentions:  5 often mentioned and/or big on MY personal list:

Prospero’s Books (The Tempest) (1991) My 3rd favorite play after Rich’d III and Hamlet); Dir: Peter Greenaway, with John Gielgud, others.

The Merchant of Venice (2004), with Al Pacino’s Shylock.

Richard III (1995), Dir: Richard Loncraine, setting the malformed king as an English Hitler in an alternate 1930’s, starring Ian McKellen.  Dark fun & wit.

Tutus (1999) Bloody, disturbing, captivating take on Titus Andronicus with Anthony Hopkins’ fiery lead performance.

Ran (1985)  Akira Kurosawa’s famous film and take on King Lear.

Shakespeare in Love (1998) is not based on a play but rather a pseudo-biopic of Shakespeare, though it’s my favorite film associated with The Bard.  Best Picture Oscar too…

Also of Note: (multiple sources, one quoted here)

Chimes at Midnight (1965);  “Atop our list sits Orson Welles, further negating the perception that Citizen Kane was his only masterpiece. (Chimes was the director’s personal favorite of all his films—the one he hoped to “get into heaven” with.) The script comes from Welles’s own condensation of both parts of Henry IV, along with a few other Shakespeare works, which he first mounted onstage in 1939 to a disastrous reception. Ever confident of his own correctness, Welles tended the flame until an opportunity arose decades later to capture the play on celluloid. Though cash-poor, his production is incredibly vivid, featuring noir-ish camera angles and battle scenes that clearly influenced Braveheart. Enlivening the whole is Welles’s immortal portrayal of Falstaff, transposed from a vain buffoon to a perceptive central figure. Finding the movie on DVD is tricky (rights are still in dispute) but the effort is worth it.”

Roy Hovey

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