With mad kings, great battles and epic scenes of history and drama, the ghosts of Danish monarchs and the nefarious machinations of generals, witches and wives alike, bringing the work of William Shakespeare to the big screen is no small feat! Check out some of the most accomplished movies based on Shakespeare’s work as we celebrate the 400th anniversary of The Bard of Avon.
9. Romeo + Juliet (1996)
If you can forget the Academy’s injustices to Leo (yep, no Oscar for this one either) and don’t mind Baz Luhrmann’s Mad Hatter visuals and penchant for anachronisms, then get ready for a real treat. The embroiled Capulets and Montagues are relocated to a boho Verona Beach, NY here; converted into drawling gun-toting gangsters in place of swords and sabers. Riveting stuff!
8. Henry V (1989)
Branagh’s famous first foray into the world of the Bard is one long, bloody skirmish between England and France, culminating with plenty of destruction and death on the fields of Agincourt. The musical score brings about the mystery and tension of a Hitchcock thriller, and there’s plenty to love about King Henry’s haywire decision making; certainly without divine direction.
7. Hamlet (1996)
Kenneth Branagh broodingly retells a Shakespeare favorite in this thrilling Gothic revenge flick. Expect all the ghostly apparitions, specters of Danish kings, and existentialist questioning of the original script, not to mention a four-hour running time and the breathtaking backdrop of Oxfordshire’s Blenheim Palace!
6. Coriolanus (2012)
Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut is a rugged punch of masculinity and muscle. Modernizing the power struggles and political divides of ancient city into a re-imagined modern Rome, Coriolanus highlights the tragic nature of authoritarianism. Fiennes, also playing the title role, drives a flawless, commanding screen presence from the get-go. Expect full Spartan from Gerard Butler.
5. King Lear (1971)
Few renditions of the misled king have been quite as captivating as Paul Scofield’s expressive and intense show in Peter Brook’s black-and-white feature film. With all the purposeful action you’d expect of a Royal Shakespeare Company production, King Lear drags its viewers kicking and screaming into the tempestuous tale of loyalty and love, madness and blindness (both real and imagined).
4. Richard III (1995)
Taking up the mantle from Olivier’s 1955 Technicolor, Richard Loncraine’s version of Shakespeare’s monarchic critique is a curious intermingling of epochs. It’s the 1930s, but the House of York rules the land in a sort of fascist dystopia. Though the layers of plot adaptation might be a turn-off for some, it is salvaged by Ian McKellen’s masterful portrayal of the much-maligned king, transporting that winter of discontent right to pre-war England. You’ll also see a young Robert Downey Jr. in one of his early roles as Rivers.
3. The Merchant of Venice (2004)
There’s something of the Caravaggio in this excellent reproduction of Shakespeare’s dubious first folio comedy; a brooding chiaroscuro that does well to spur on the interplay between the themes of youthful love and dastardly revenge that are the plot’s iconic dynamo. Al Pacino is multifaceted to the hilt too, playing a vengeful Shylock whose machinations enthrall and enrage and enlighten.
2. Macbeth (2015)
‘Double, double, toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble!’ So rings the witches’ mantra. Goosebumps rise and spines tingle, and the conjurers’ words permeate every brooding scene and eerie moment of this masterful reworking of Shakespeare’s bone-chilling Scottish tragedy. Of course, Michael Fassbender is flawless, while Marion Cotillard strikes the perfect balance of sinister and sweetness in her role as Lady Macbeth.
1. Ran (1985)
Macbeth, The Tempest and King Lear entwined, Ran is a masterwork of Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa (of Seven Samurai fame). Raving warlords and mad plans to carve up kingdoms set the stage for masterful storytelling, rich with deep, philosophic characters, visceral power plays, political machinations and – in true Kurosawa style – colossal battle scenes to boot! A Provenance favorite.