The Bard On Screen: Ten Best Recent Filmed Shakespeare Adaptations by Emma French

No attempt will be made to deny the subjectivity of this selection, based upon a desire to introduce viewers to modern achievements in the field of Shakespeare on film, as well as oft-acknowledged classics such as Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985), Grigori Kozintsev’s Hamlet (1964), Laurence
Olivier’s Henry V (1945), and Orson Welles’ Chimes At Midnight (1966).

Hamlet Goes Business (1987) director: Aki Kaurismäki
Non-English language filmed Shakespeare adaptations are always particularly fascinating, and have produced much of the most exceptional work in the genre.

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This eccentric black and white Finnish take on Shakespeare’s most famous hero manages to balance parody and bathos with genuine poignancy and a sense of thwarted idealism. Hamlet is a callow young executive who, in a twist on the usual story, turns out to have poisoned his father himself. The film also features a notably unglamorous Ophelia who drowns herself in the bath. A refreshing alternative to Hollywood heritage fodder, this film did very well at the Berlin Film Festival and merits a wider audience on video.

Hamlet (1990) director: Franco Zeffirelli
Generally placed below his 1968 Romeo And Juliet in terms of artistic accomplishment, Zeffirelli’s Hamlet actually represents a range of fine achievements. Helena Bonham-Carter’s fragile Ophelia, displaying a subtle foreshadowing of madness from her opening scenes, and Paul Scofield’s Ghost are amongst the best screen interpretations of these characters. Zeffirelli cleverly imported all the semiotic attributes connected with Mel Gibson’s celebrity persona to create a kind of anti-Hamlet: action rather than thinking, violence rather than passivity, humour and extrovert dynamism rather than introverted misery. Beautifully and atmospherically shot in a medieval castle, the film captures an essence of Hamlet whilst unashamedly updating it for a modern audience’s sensibility.

My Own Private Idaho (1991) director: Gus Van Sant
Generally praised for the strong lead performances of River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, the film intriguingly weaves in an updated Falstaff plot from the Henry IV plays. Oblique, dark and far more interesting than Van Sant’s later more mainstream movies, and perhaps the first film to simultaneously address Shakespeare and narcolepsy.

Much Ado About Nothing (1994) director: Kenneth Branagh
One of Branagh’s films has to be in here, and this unashamedly populist adaptation lacks the hubris of Branagh’s ill-advised four-hour Hamlet () vanity project and the strained jingoism of his first filmed Shakespeare adaptation, Henry V (1989). Branagh wisely excludes the darker elements of Shakespeare’s play in favour of broad humour, Tuscan sunshine and festivity. A meek young Kate Beckinsale and Emma Thompson at her earthy and sarcastic best are perfectly cast as Hero and Beatrice.

William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) director: Baz Luhrmann
The film that proved that religious imagery could be fused with John Woo-style balletic violence, and that extraordinary visual punning and a rock soundtrack could supplement Shakespeare’s verse. Part of Luhrmann’s Red Curtain trilogy along with the equally impressive Strictly Ballroom (1992) and Moulin Rouge, this film is perhaps the most original Shakespeare adaptation to retain the original language to date. This is also the film that made Leonardo DiCaprio a global heartthrob for his accomplished role as a soulful and vulnerable Romeo.

Richard III (1996) director: Richard Loncraine
Ian McKellen’s now-legendary stories of the problems he experienced finding funding for this picture in Hollywood may rest more upon the difficulty of selling such an antihero as Richard III to studio execs than on any broader anti-Bard prejudice in Tinseltown. The decision to place the action in 1930s Fascist Germany is inspired, a far cry from the lazy decision-making process which makes most directors look to an unspecified, picturesque ‘past’ setting for Shakespeare. Though McKellen’s tormented, sadistic lead performance inevitably dominates, Annette Bening and Robert Downey Jr have sufficient charisma to steal scenes.

Shakespeare in Love (1998) director: John Madden
Tom Stoppard’s dazzling pastiche on HamletRosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead (1990), left him well placed to co-write the screenplay for this Oscar-friendly romantic comedy. Though many of the showbiz jokes and riffs on Shakespeare’s authorship are well-worn, the witty script, subversive commentary on Hollywood moviemaking through the prism of Elizabethan popular entertainment, and Gwyneth Paltrow’s sexy star-making turn as the plausibly English Lady Viola de Lessups breathed new life into a tired costume drama genre.

10 Things I Hate About You (1999) director: Gil Junger
A sweet teen film lifted, like CluelessNever Been Kissed and Get Over It into a smarter, more self-referential frame by its literary conceit. Though the plot follows its source The Taming Of The Shrew fairly loosely, Shakespearean references abound, from Padua High School to the hero Patrick Verona. Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger display little hesitation making fools of themselves for love in increasingly elaborate ways. This is an unusually endearing teen flick with some genuine laugh out loud moments. Unsurprisingly the more out-there domestic violence episodes from Shakespeare’s play are replaced by improving, sanitised fun, but the movie is not just for kids.

Hamlet (2000) director: Michael Almereyda
Updating Hamlet to New York City had disaster potential but Almereyda’s low key, noir-ish remake successfully replanted the Dane in a nightmare modern landscape of advertising hoardings, glass and concrete. Diane Venora, also excellent as Lady Capulet in Luhrmann’s take on Shakespeare, makes a great, rather sleazy Gertrude, and Bill Murray as Polonius enjoys his first onscreen death after over 25 years in show business. Low key, moody and cool, this film does not allow itself to be intimidated into histrionics by its source material.

O (2001) director: Tim Blake Nelson
The release of this film at cinemas was delayed by two years in the wake of the Columbine high school shootings, and it is not difficult to see why its distributors treated this challenging and violent film with kid gloves. Filmed before they were famous and released after they had already pelted towards the Hollywood A-List, Julia Stiles as the latter day Desdemona Desi and Josh Hartnett as the manipulative Iago character both impress. Mekhi Phifer is electric as the deceived basketball-playing titular character, and this dark film proves that teen Shakespeare doesn’t have to be cute, with an impact that lasts long after the credits fade.