Shakespeare At The Movies

Shakespeare-at-the-moviesIf you have a chance to catch a Shakespeare play performed on a real stage with live actors, DO IT! That’s what he wrote the plays for: performance. Unfortunately theater tickets are expensive and amateur performances (like you might see at a local college) are sometimes . . . well . . . amateur. But Shakespeare well done is a thrill, even if you don’t catch what’s going on every minute. While waiting for the next Shakespeare touring company to present Romeo and Juliet in your town, the local library or video store may have some of the filmed versions of popular plays. Here’s what you might see if you check them out.
Hamlet (1990). Franco Zeffirelli directs, and Mel Gibson plays the melancholy Dane as a nut–Lethal hamlet2Weapon fans will see shades of Martin Riggs in his performance. But I call this a good “all purpose” version of the play. Mel’s Hamlet strikes you as somebody who might have turned out okay if his mother hadn’t remarried so soon after his dad died–he’s already upset about that, but then the ghost appears and everything gets rotten in Denmark really fast. Paul Scofield makes a great ghost, Glenn Close is a sensuous and oddly girlish queen and Alan Bates is a hearty king eventually hoist on his own petard. Helena Bonham-Carter’s Ophelia seems a bit too spunky for the type of girl who goes mad when things get rough, but her madness is touching, anyway.

HAMLET, US advance poster art, Kenneth Branagh, 1996, ©Columbia/courtesy

Hamlet (1997) Kenneth Branaugh directed and starred in this version that breaks with tradition in several ways. For one thing, it’s uncut, and therefore runs to almost four hours! Before settling in with a really big bowl of popcorn to watch it, I’d recommend reading a good synopsis first, so you’ll understand who is this Fortinbras character who keeps popping up. Some scenes (like the “To be or not to be” soliloquy) are outstanding, some are over the top (like the ghost’s appearance amid hellfire and brimstone), some go on a little too long (like the duel, that has Hamlet and Laertes chasing each other all over the palace). So, ultimately, does the movie, but it makes an interesting contrast with the 1990 version–notice especially the use of light. This version also includes a few nude bedroom scenes that I don’t think Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote the play.


Hamlet (1999), directed by Michael Alymeyda. Ethan Hawke plays the title role in a modern-day setting that pictures Hamlet brooding over his uncle’s takeover of Denmark Corporation. Image trumps word in this version: photos, video clips, televised interviews, closed circuit TV, news broadcasts, stock price crawlers, mirrors, computer monitors, fax machines. Both Hamlet and Ophelia are amateur photographers, and he’s an obsessive film editor. Both are alienated from their parents, their society, and eventually each other. No wonder: all the characters are so surrounded by multi-media that reacting to each other as human beings is impossible. Which may be the point: Hamlet’s inability to act is due to a society that blurs the distinction between image and reality. Or something like that. This is more Alymeyda than Shakespeare, but it’s still interesting.

Henry V (1989), directed by Kenneth Branaugh. This is the movie that brought Branaugh to worldwide attention (he also stars as Henry) and touched off a miniature Shakespeare boom. It’s helpful to have a little background in the historical setting, or the first few scenes may be puzzling. But stick with it–once it gets going, the movie gallops like a charging steed, and you almost have to clamp your jaw to keep from cheering at the St. Crispin’s Day speech.  Later scenes draw out the darker elements of Henry’s excellent French adventure–namely piles of corpses. He grandstands a bit over a pile of corpses on the battlefield (Please! Cut away from the heroic pose!), but redeems himself in the courtship scene with Princess Katharine that follows directly after.

henry v2

Henry V (1945), directed by Sir Laurence Olivier.  Shakespeare probably wrote the play in a spirit of gung-ho patriotism, and this movie version, released in the last year of World War II,  captures that spirit.  Some of the acting and staging will strike contemporary viewers as a little hokey, but Olivier does something really great in the opening scene (which you can find on Youtube–search for Henry V prologue 1944).  After a charming set-model view of 16th-century London, the camera zooms in on the Globe Theater, where audience, actors, and snack sellers are getting ready for a live performance of . . . Henry V.  It’s a lovely little snapshot of how the plays might have actually been performed, well worth seeing.

Julius Caesar (1971), directed by John Gielgud. This one might be hard to find, but I include it because it’s the most recent movie version of JC that I know of. The cast is made up mostly of Americans who were better known at that time than now. Jason Robards as Brutus seems to be sleepwalking through his performance, and since Brutus is the hero of the play, this is a large problem. Charleton Heston is a convincing Antony and Gielgud, grand old man of the British stage even then, appears as Caesar. There’s an older version (1953) with Marlon Brando as Antony and Gielgud as Brutus, which has some fine moments.

Love’s Labor’s Lost (2000), Directed by Kenneth Branaugh, who stars as Berone. Branaugh’s inspiration was to stage this play, one of Shakespeare’s earliest, as a 1930s musical–complete with classic love songs by Gershwin and Porter, fluffy costumes, lovestruck young men dancing on air, slapstick comedy, even a water ballet. All I can say is, it must have seemed like a good idea at the time . . . At the end, I suspect more viewers than not were wondering, “And what was that all about?”

Macbeth (1971), directed by Roman Polanski. Jon Finch is Macbeth. I haven’t seen it, but it’s supposed to be extremely violent (define “extremely”). Orson Welles directed and starred in an earlier Macbeth, (1948). I haven’t seen that one either.

The Merchant of Venice (2005). Directed by Michael Radford, with Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, and Joseph Fiennes. The story of a beautiful heiress, the man who loves her, a miserly Jew, and the man who owes him, never looked so lush. Or so watery, but that’s Venice for you. In a collection of good performances Jeremy Irons stands out as the Merchant, Antonio, who is willing to “risk and hazard all he hath” for the sake of friendship. The movie is worth watching just for the trial scene, which is as dramatic a presentation of grace vs. law as I’ve ever seen. But contemporary directors seem more interested in showing how Shylock is debased and brought down by mean Christians, and Mr. Radford is no exception. Shylock’s daughter Jessica, who converts for love, is depicted as regretting her choice at the end, though the play itself indicates no such thing. Still the movie would be good family viewing except for several scenes of Venetian ladies (of the night) strolling the streets with bosoms uncovered. This kind of thing was not unknown for the time, or so I’ve read, but I doubt that a passion for historical accuracy is what drove the filmmakers.

MNDA Midsummer Night’s Dream (2000). Kevin Klein (Bottom), Rupert Everett (Oberon), Michelle Pfeiffer (Titania), Calista Flockhart (Helena), Christian Bale (Demetrius) and on and on–a late-90’s starry cast that doesn’t quite mesh. MND is a light and bubbly play, but moments that should be magical come down a little flat-footed in this version. There are a few touching moments, my favorite in a scene that’s usually anything but touching. It comes when Flute the bellows-mender, playing “Thisbe” in that terrible play before the Duke, pulls off his ridiculous wig and speaks the lines with so much conviction that everyone has stop laughing. He saves the play and, for me, the movie. (Classic movie fans may want to check out the 1935 black and white version, for historical interest only. The best thing about it is James Cagney as Bottom; the worst thing is Mickey Rooney, whose Puck appears to have escaped from a mental institution.)

Much Ado About Nothing (1993). Kenneth Branaugh again, both directing and starring as Benedick. The story is exuberantly told in an Italian setting bathed in Mediterranean light. It’s one of Shakespeare’s great romantic comedies, and it’s played as a comedy, with broad touches. You may wonder why everyone strips off their clothes to take a bath in the first scene, and what IS all that with Dogberry and his imaginary horses. The play itself has its problems–I always thought Claudio was a hyper-jealous jerk and saw no reason for Hero to take him back. But the movie almost makes it work, and makes some nice, old-fashioned statements about love and marriage too.

muchadoMuch Ado about Nothing (2012).  Director Joss Whedon describes this modern-dress version as a “home movie,” and it’s literally true.  The entire film, except for a brief opening scene, was shot in black and white during 12 days at his home in Santa Monica, with a cast of alumni from Whedon’s TV projects (mostly Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D).   In spite of the presence of security cameras, jazz, cell phones, and lots of drinking,  the theme of how men and women are irrepressibly drawn together is a throwback to the great romantic comedies of the forties and fifties.  Benedict and Beatrice are shown to be lovers before they fell out, which comports with Beatrice’s observation, “I know thee of old.”  Some of their brief flashback scenes are slightly steamy.  Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry is much to be preferred to Michael Keaton’s in the Branaugh version.

Othello (1995), directed by Oliver Parker. Laurence Fishburne is Othello, with Kenneth Branaugh as aothello mesmerizing Iago. Moody, dark and intense–but this is tragedy, after all. Othello is usually portrayed as an honorable man with a fatal flaw, and Fishburne adds a touch of borderline epilepsy that helps explain his jealous rages. In this version, Iago feels a homoerotic attraction for the Moor, which helps explain . . . well, you decide. For the most part, this is a gripping production.

Richard III (1995), directed by Richard Loncraine. Ian McKellan (you know–Gandalf in Lord of the Rings) plays the king with the worst reputation in British history. Warning I: Shakespeare may have done a hatchet job on Richard’s personality–it’s never been established beyond doubt that he murdered the little princes in the tower. Warning II: this is a shocking and violent film, but it’s a shocking and violent play, too. The main problem with Richard III these days is that it’s hard to keep all the characters and politics straight. It takes place at the end of the Wars of the Roses, which I still haven’t figured out. The bottom line: Richard wants to be king, and will play any part and back-stab any relative to get there. This production updates the setting to a fictional Fascist takeover of England in the 1930s.


Romeo and Juliet (1968), directed by Franco Zeffirelli. This is a lush, Renaissance-era production notable for its use of teenage actors to play the leads. (Before that, it was more common to have the star-crossed lovers portrayed by adults). It’s all very romantic, but a little too romantic for me. Shakespeare’s point, I believe, was that these kids were in love with love and their youthful passion, running contrary to the other passionate hotheads in Verona, led to tragedy. Parents who haven’t seen it should be advised that there’s a small amount of nudity in the “morning lark” scene after the lovers’ wedding night.  Still, it’s a beautiful production and well-acted. You will need it to balance

Romeo+JulietRomeo + Juliet (1997), directed by Baz Luhrman. Leo diCaprio and Claire Danes are the star-crossed lovers in a story updated to the present time and set in Verona Beach, California. The Montague and Capulet gangs blaze away at each other with oversize sidearms (favorite line: “Put down your swords!”) to a heavy metal soundtrack, while Mercutio poses in drag and Romeo and Juliet play their balcony scene in a swimming pool. Some scenes are nice; others strike me as way overdone. Like Alymeyda’s Hamlet, it seems more like upstaging Shakespeare than working with him.

Romeo and Juliet (2013), directed by Julian Fellowes.  Though it looks very Shakespearean, with a Renaissance setting and beautiful staging, it’s actually an adaptation.  Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey, presents a set-piece version of the play that imitates the original but substitutes his own poetic dialogue for at least half the Bard’s.  It’s Shakespeare-esque, and all very pretty, but I can’t see the point. With slightly simplified speech and a few extra details thrown in, it may be a little easier for a novice to understand, but the play isn’t that hard to get in the first place.  The over-romanticism of the Zefirelli version  is in full flower with this one, and the acting isn’t as good.

The Taming of the Shrew (1967), directed by Franco Zefferelli. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor chew up the scenery as the feuding lovers Petruchio and Kate. There’s too much time given over to Kate’s yelling and Pete’s chortling in his beard–I would have liked more dialogue. But it’s fun, and the concluding scene is played straightforwardly. Sort of. Kate sounds sincere when she pledges loyalty and obedience to her lord, but you have the idea she’ll know how to get what she wants from him.12th night  If you can get it, the BBC version of the play starring John Cleese is outstanding.  It’s a filmed play–filmed on a stage–rather than a feature movie with big crowd scenes and artsy camera angles, but you get the whole enchilada and it’s a lot of fun besides.

Twelfth Night (1996), directed by Trevor Nunn. This is an enchanting production of an enchanting play, though newcomers to Shakespeare may have a hard time suspending their disbelief at first. But deal with it: just accept that Viola can be easily confused with her twin brother Sebastian, Olivia can fall in love with a girl thinking she’s a boy, and Orsino can switch his affections from Olivia to Viola at the drop of a soldier’s cap. Love is crazy, Shakespeare can be saying–who can figure it out? And who would want to?  This is one of my favorite Shakespeare movies ever.


Two movies reflecting Shakespeare and Elizabethan times may find their way into Eng. Lit. classrooms, but in my opinion they shouldn’t. They are

Shakespeare in Love (1998). A true history of young Will–NOT. Parts of this story are factual, but most of it bears no relation to the facts. Though an interesting idea, and very funny in places, SinL can’t make up its mind what kind of movie it is. It begins as an offbeat comedy with shades of Money Python, veers into bedroom farce, then shuttles between steamy romance and serious drama. Watching the first-ever performance of Romeo and Juliet come together against the background of “real” events is the best part of SinL, but the climax of the movie slides into the pattern of every feel-good ending since Rocky. Everyone, even the Puritan nay-sayer, is on his feet and applauding wildly at the end of the performance, while confetti rains from the sky and the Queen herself makes a surprise appearance. According to the story line, Shakespeare writes the play in order to prove that he can successfully portray the nature of true love on stage. But Romeo and Juliet doesn’t portray the nature of TRUE love at all, and I doubt that the real Shakespeare intended it to. What the play shows is the power of sexual attraction, which might have grown into true love if it had the chance. It didn’t have the chance, and that’s why R&J is a tragedy. The main plot of Shakespeare in Love likewise confuses sex and love, and they’re not the same. (Trust me on this.)

Elizabeth (1998). Shakespeare is not seen or mentioned, because he wasn’t born at the time it takes place. The story line extends from the last years of Mary Tudor’s reign to the first years of her sister Elizabeth’s, a time of turmoil and treachery, as the film shows so well. Actually, several years are telescoped into what seem like just a few: all the characters are historical, but dumped together into a stew of intrigue. That’s not my main problem with the movie. My main problem is the anachronistic character of Elizabeth herself. That is, she’s more like a modern young woman on the rise than a princess of the times. She claims to see no difference between Catholics and Protestants, carries on a torrid affair with Robert Dudley, and laughs at William Cecil, the old fuddy-duddy. But in reality, people of the time took religious differences very seriously, Elizabeth had good reason to fear sex (i.e., may have actually been the virgin she claimed to be), and William Cecil was her most trusted advisor. I know, I know–it’s only a movie. Still, it hacks me off (as we used to say in the sixties). Why do I go to all the trouble of learning about this stuff if the movie-maker aren’t going to pay attention?