Six favourite Shakespeare films

William Shakespeare was a phenomenon. A truly once-in-human-history kind of writer, I think. He transformed the English language – we quote him nearly every day without realising it. No writer before or since has captured the human condition so acutely, or impacted the society and culture around him so profoundly.

The big problem with Shakespeare’s work, though, is that too often we’re exposed only to the dry words on the pages of an annotated script which is inflicted upon us in the desert of a classroom. This is insane. Shakespeare’s work is meant to be experienced, lived, not studied at a dry distance. A great live production of a classic Shakespeare play is a joy. I’ll treasure for ever the memories of seeing David Tennant’s Hamlet and Richard Freeman’s Richard III. And I’ll forever regret not seeing other live performances, like James McAvoy’s Macbeth or Scott Wentworth’s Antony in Antony and Cleopatra.

Luckily, some really wonderful performances of Shakespeare’s plays have been created and captured on film … and I’d like to share some of my favourites with you.

Henry IV Part 1

This one isn’t a film, as such, it’s a digital recording of a live performance at the Globe Theatre in Southwark, London. It’s completely brilliant, not only because the cast is outstanding but because it’s a chance to see an Elizabethan era play staged in a genuine Elizabethan way. Also? Best curtain call ever!!!!

Henry IV Part 1 is one of Shakespeare’s History plays, often called part of his Hollow Crown series. It tells the story of Henry V’s dissolute youth, as he rowdies with a debauched minor nobleman, one Sir John Falstaff, even as his father struggles to prevent England’s destruction at the hands of  the north’s most powerful and disaffected noble family, the Percys.

The standout element of this wonderful production is Roger Allam’s Falstaff. It’s a sublime performance, full of wit and ribaldry and bravura and pain. Allam’s comic timing is impeccable, his stage presence effervescent. He owns every scene and yet never diminishes his fellow actors.

This is an absolute must-see for any fan of brilliant acting.


This amazing film is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s early tragedy Titus Andronicus. It stars Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange and Alan Cumming and was directed by Julie Taymor.

Julie Taymor is the theatre director who brought us the stage version of The Lion King. Anyone who’s seen the show is unlikely to forget it. She is an amazing creative artist, a true visionary, and she brings all her incredible visual imagination to the direction, staging and production design of Titus.

A word of warning: this is a deeply disturbing play, very dark and confronting. There’s a lot of violence, and it’s not for the faint-hearted. But the performances are fantastic. The entire film is a visual feast. So I think it’s worth the tough ride. Once seen, never forgotten.

Much Ado About Nothing – the Branagh version

And just in case anyone ever thought Shakespeare didn’t have a sense of humour, there’s Much Ado. A frothy romp of a play – with just a smidgin of shadow, for contrast – for me its best interpretation was captured by Kenneth Branagh in his film of the play.  As well as himself, it stars his then-wife Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington, Kate Beckinsale, Robert Sean Leonard, Michael Keaton and Keanu Reeves as the villain. Alas, this is one of those times when Reeves doesn’t shine. For me, he’s totally miscast. As much as I adore him in Speed and Constantine and The Matrix, I cringe at his turn in Much Ado.

So let’s focus on what’s great about this film. Basically, everything else! It’s lush, it’s voluptuous, it’s luminously photographed and superbly staged. Branagh and Thompson are magnificent as the brawling Benedikt and Beatrice, their (at the time) real life chemistry translating effortlessly to the screen. Branagh understands Shakespeare better than almost anyone – I defy anyone not to understand every moment in this wonderful film. Even actors not accustomed to the language and its challenges, like Denzel Washington, acquit themselves wonderfully. For me, Reeves’s failure speaks more to his emotional limitations as an actor, not any inherent inability to comprehend the text.

The humour in this play is spectacular. There’s so much funny ‘business’, so much understanding of how to bring the humour of the text to life. It’s a wonderful pick-me-up film, beautifully enhanced by composer Patrick Doyle’s score.

Richard II – the 2012 BBC version

This is another one of the Hollow Crown series, and this version was produced for the BBC. They’re currently doing a second series (with Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III – yippee!). I must confess, this one is the only one I really enjoyed of the first part. As much as I love Tom Hiddleston I thought he was woefully miscast as Henry V. Or else badly directed, more than once.  But that’s a different conversation …

In this production, Richard II is played by the amazing Ben Wishaw. Some of you will doubtless remember his great turn as Q in the last Bond film Skyfall or in the British drama The Hour.

Any way you look at it, Richard II was a problematical king. Grandson of Edward III, son of the ill-fated and lauded Edward, the Black Prince, Richard came to the throne as a child. History’s verdict is that he had more issues than National Geographic and, sadly for his kingdom, that meant he was in no way fit to rule. But rule he did and because he was a nasty piece of work things did not end well for him … or, arguably, for England.

Ben Wishaw’s performance in this film is luminous. Truly amazing. I’ve done a lot research into this period of British history, but as much as I thought I understood this particular king it wasn’t until I saw Wishaw’s portrayal that I truly grasped him on an emotional level. It’s breathtaking work.

But he’s only one of a really terrific ensemble. Rory Kinnear, David Morrisey, James Purefoy and Patrick Stewart are also in the cast, and each actor is at the top of his game.

Mesmerising viewing, this one. And, as a matter of interest, I now have a dvd of David Tennant’s performance in this role. It’s on my teetering To Be Watched pile and I’m really looking forward to it.

Henry V – the Branagh version

This is the film that made the international film community – and audiences – really sit up and take notice of Kenneth Branagh. Prior to this version of Henry V he was primarily a stage Shakespearean thesp, part of the Royal Stratford Company of players. That all changed after this film. Given its confidence, polish and execution it’s almost hard to believe it’s the first film Branagh directed.

I think I’ve seen the Olivier version, once. A long time ago. What I remember of it I didn’t much like. I confess that I never was terribly impressed with Olivier. I have vivid memories of seeing his Othello in high school. He played the part like an out of control black-and-white minstrel, complete with black face makeup – which at one point rubbed off on a young Maggie Smith’s shoulder. Awful. (Praise the pigs for the wonderful Lawrence Fishburn version! With bonus Kenneth Branagh as the dastardly Iago!)

But I’m here to sing the praises of Branagh’s Henry V, and for me there is everything to like. This film is robust, it’s cleverly staged, and I absolutely believe Henry as a warlike monarch out to wrest his royal birthright from the French. Again, Branagh has assembled a stellar supporting cast: Emma Thompson, Derek Jacobi, Ian Holm, Judi Dench, Paul Scofield and the brilliant Brian Blessed. A truly beautiful score by Patrick Doyle adds emotional resonance to some of the biggest scenes.

I really really love this film. If you’ve never seen it, do yourself a favour. And bonus points if you can spot a very very young Christopher Bale!

Hamlet – the Branagh version

When it comes to favourite Shakespeare plays, for me Hamlet and Macbeth are tied. I cannot tell you how hard I’m hanging out for Michael Fassbender’s Macbeth film, due out in cinemas next year! As for Hamlet, I’ve been fortunate enough to see Jude Law’s performance in New York and, as mentioned,  David Tennant’s at Stratford. For me, Jude Law was … okay. He did the best he could, given the circumstances. Tennant, on the other hand, was a revelation. Until that performance I ranked Branagh’s film portrayal of the Danish prince as my favourite – but I think it was eclipsed by Tennant. (On the other hand, nobody is yet to surpass Derek Jacobi’s Claudius as seen in the same film. Not even Patrick Stewart in the Tennant production.)

I suppose it’s strange, then, that I haven’t picked the filmed version of Tennant’s Hamlet for one of my favourite films. I wish I could. But I really really don’t like the filmed version of that production at all. A lot of things were changed, and not for the better – for me, at least.

So. Back to Branagh. This film is the only uncut version of the play recorded for posterity. That makes it important, above and beyond any intrinsic artistic merit it might possess. The fact that Branagh got it made and released to the general public at cinemas is an astonishing feat.

I actually have lost count of how many times I went to see this film at the cinema. I went a lot. And my only regret – a huge regret – is that I’ll never be able to see it again for the first time.

There’s this moment in the Get thee to a nunnery scene between Hamlet and Ophelia, where Hamlet realises he and his lover aren’t alone after all. It’s breathtaking. I don’t want to say more because spoilers, but that moment? For me it’s sheer genius – and it breaks my heart I’ll never again experience it for the first time.

For me there’s only one sour note in this film, and that was the casting of Jack Lemon. I just can’t get past it. I have enough trouble getting past Robin Williams, Gerard Depardieu, Charlton Heston and Billy Crystal, because really, stunt casting. However …

The rest of the cast is uniformly superlative. Kate Winslet’s Ophelia is amazing. Michael Malone’s Laertes is heartbreaking. Richard Briers’ Polonius is deliciously appalling. Julie Christie’s Gertrude is wonderfully brittle and, as I said before, there will forever be only one Claudius for me – Derek Jacobi. Nicholas Farrell’s Horatio is perfect.  In fact, for me, this is the only time anyone ever really got the Hamlet/Horatio dynamic. These guys are best friends. Really, Horatio is Hamlet’s only friend. It’s one of the primal bromances! And this is the first time I’ve ever seen it properly addressed.

What I love about this Hamlet is that he isn’t a pathetic, wimpy drip. He’s a guy stuck between a rock and a hard place, doing his best to keep his head on straight as the hits keep coming.

However, I did say I preferred David Tennant’s interpretation – and that’s because Tennant showed me Hamlet’s bewildered, overwhelming grief. Branagh’s Hamlet is extremely muscular, he’s a tough guy fuelled by rage,  whereas Tennant’s  Hamlet was more fragile, more wounded, and as a result more emotionally affecting. Not that Branagh’s version isn’t legitimate, it totally is. But I was more moved by Tennant than I am by Branagh – even though I truly do love this film to pieces.

It’s a marathon watch, absolutely, but I think it’s totally worth it. I especially love the final face-off fight between Hamlet and Laertes. Wonderfully done, and Branagh has never looked so fine!

(As an aside, I remain forever scarred by a version of the play I saw in Sydney some years ago. The actor playing Hamlet also directed it, and what possessed him I’ll never know — but he restaged the climactic sword fight between Hamlet and Laertes as a darts match. Ponder that for a moment, and marvel, as do I, at why nobody beat the guy with a wet noodle until he saw the stupendous error of his ways.)

Anyhow … those are – to date – my favourite Shakespeare films. But I do hasted to add that I have quite a few more on my To Be Watched pile, which means things might change down the road.

Now it’s over to you! Are you a Shakespeare fan? Which versions do you love? Hate? And if you’ve seen any of the one’s I’ve mentioned, what do you think?

5 thoughts on “Six favourite Shakespeare films

  1. I had the opportunity to study both “Much Ado About Nothing” and “The Twelfth Night” while at school and, fortunately, with a teacher who was all-singing and all-dancing. They were joys to learn and I wish more teachers adopted her eccentric style (Rather than suck the life out of Students with the words of the plays).
    Our teacher at the time thought it a good idea to show us Cinematic reproductions of both plays so that we could get an idea how they were performed and, although Much Ado About Nothing was brilliantly enjoyable, The Twelfth Night was amazing.
    The version 1996 of The Twelfth Night we were shown, starring Helena Bonham Carter and Ben Kingsley, by Trevor Nunn was certainly close to the script, but managed to retain the humour about the relationship between a woman, dressed as a man, befriending the Lord she loves while courting the Noble Lady he loves for him. Admittedly it starts out a smidgen confusing, but as it goes on you begin to understand. Shakespeare and his humour may be a little bewildering at times, but it is equally amusing.
    Much Ado About Nothing by Branagh was, I thought anyway, a brilliant reproduction of the play. Although, it is worth admitting that you are right, Keeanu Reeves’ performance left allot to be desired.
    And, To finish, a little bit of trivia. Did you know that in David Tennant’s Hamlet, the skull used was a real human one? I always thought that was a mixture of fun and disgusting.

    • I think Trevor Nunn is one of the great stage directors. With Shakespearean humour, sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s a cultural in joke. The universal stuff is easy to spot, but I have to wonder whether other jokes slide byus because we’re not citizens of Elizabethan England. My favourite Twelfth Night, btw, is the BBC version. Alec Cowen as Malvolio was the inspiration for the character Darren in my Mage books! As for the skull thing, that’s a kind of tradition I believe. Personally I think it’s cool! But then I’m strange … *g*

  2. i’ve just finished watching the hollow crown series, and while ben whishaw was a revelation (I didn’t know who he was), tom hiddleston seriously underwhelmed as prince hal/henry v… I love tom hiddleston and i could live with him in henry iv, but when he was called upon to step up as the soldier king, he didn’t…. when there are bad acting choices (but not necessarily bad acting) I don’t know whether to blame the actor or the director; either way, hiddleston was miscast from the get-go… too effete, too cerebral, lacking in swagger and bravado…

    on the other hand, a bazillion years ago I wandered into a movie theater to see some irish guy I’d never heard of direct himself in henry v of all things… I was captivated in minutes! what a force of nature! even the silly Katherine scenes worked…

    I did enjoy the rest of the series, with ben whishaw and Richard ii being the standout… yes, my secret boyfriend benedict cumberbatch excelled, but I’ve been spoiled by seeing mark rylance’s Richard on broadway….

    • Phew, I thought it was just me. I mean, I love Hiddleston but I was so disappointed in that Henry V. IIRC the director is a pacifist, so possibly that wasn’t the play for her … So glad you enjoyed other parts of the series. Whishaw really is outstanding.

      • I’d like to add, I SO wish I could have seen David Tennant’s Hamlet… I haven’t seen much of his work, just Broadchurch and Harry Potter, but I’ll take your word for it… he was great in Broadchurch and, while it isn’t Shakespeare, his Barty Crouch has stayed with me for some reason – gives me shivers….

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