Shakespeare’s Movie Magic
“What’s past is prologue,” Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest. And he sure was right—for the work of the playwright, who was born 450 years ago today, is still performed not only on stage, but also—to even bigger audiences—on film. To celebrate Big Will’s 450th, here is a list of standout big-screen Shakespeare performances.
Kenneth Branagh portrayed Henry V in the 1989 film adaptation, which he directed as well. The New York Times said his performance was “tight-lipped and steely but also immensely intelligent,” and has “psychological heft and intelligent weight.” The most memorable scene is the St. Crispin’s Day speech, in which Branagh gives a moving delivery of the speech that ultimately inspires his troops to carry on:
Ian McKellen took on the titular role in the 1995 film version of Richard III. According to Variety, “A vivid, finely honed characterization, it receives top-notch support…McKellen’s Richard is less the Machiavellian monster of some versions and more the craftiest of organization men, bent on pushing his power as far as the system will allow it to go and chillingly amused at the various ruses that permit him to murder his way to the top.”
In this clip, future king Richard celebrates his family’s fortune’s prosperous state in the famous “winter of our discontent” passage. However, his speech to his court doesn’t reflect his personal plight, which he elaborates during his soliloquy.
Richard Burton, Hamlet. This 1964 performance was a stage production of Hamlet, but filmed in front of a live audience. The passion of Burton’s “to be or not to be” is amplified due to the fact that there is only “one take” to the speech. Burton’s matter-of-fact interpretation of the famous words is pensive and mysterious, as he contemplates action vs. inaction. TIME called Burton as the troubled prince “self-critical, but he is never self-doubting…[a] master of the stage, master of Elsinore, and master of himself.”
Laurence Olivier took on the existential Hamlet in 1948. The New York Times called Olivier’s Hamlet “a solid and virile young man, plainly tormented by the anguish and the horror of a double shock.” The particular scene where Hamlet meets his father’s ghost early on in the play is grim. Olivier is scared yet intrigued, and goes forth to learn more about the ghost. Appearing in armor, the ghost instructs Hamlet to put on “an antic disposition,” thus giving his character directives for the play’s duration. The film won four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Olivier.
Laurence Fishburne is the titular character in the 1995 film of Othello. Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote, “With Mr. Fishburne as an unusually hot blooded Othello and the first black actor to play the role in a major film, the story’s sexual and racial tensions are frankly emphasized…Mr. Fishburne’s performance has a dangerous edge that ultimately works to its advantage, and he smolders movingly through the most anguished parts of the role.”
Emma Thompson portrayed the witty Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing in 1993 alongside Kenneth Branagh, when they were lovers also off screen. Variety stated that “Branagh and Thompson bring appealing intelligence and verbal snap to their ongoing sparring.” Beatrice is confident, possibly cocky, as she projects her negative views on marriage.
Maggie Smith was Desdemona, the victim of circumstance, in the 1965 Othello adaptation. According to The New York Times, “Maggie Smith’s red-haired Desdemona is a beautifully vibrant, sensitive lass who accepts the realization of her doom with pathetic submissiveness.” She is helplessly oblivious to what is going on between Iago and Othello. Smith speaks with perfect articulation and a vacuous undertone laces her words. The Academy nominated the film for four awards: Best Actor (Laurence Olivier), Best Supporting Actor (Frank Finlay), and two for Best Supporting Actress (Smith and Joyce Redman).
Jessica Lange was the seductive Tamora in the 1999 film Titus, which was adapted from the play Titus Andronicus. According to The San Francisco Chronicle, Lange “ sends a cold wind through the theater” as the ruthless Goth queen. In this particular clip, Tamora seduces Alarbus with her words and has no limit to what she will say or do.
Kate Winslet delivered a haunting performance as Ophelia in the 1996 Hamlet. The New York Times said Winslet “gives a fervent performance that takes on even more heat thanks to the extra directorial flourish of showing flashback scenes of Hamlet and Ophelia in bed.” The pretty-young-thing is a victim of circumstance, a girl lost in a man’s world whose heart is being played with by Hamlet, leading to her insanity and eventual suicide. The scene in which she appears to sing and dance to the court demonstrates the profound effect Hamlet had on her, as they root him to her madness. Winslet skips around the throne room wearing a straitjacket singing about St. Valentine’s Day.
Judi Dench takes on the role of Lady Macbeth in the 1979 film Macbeth. The use of dreary costumes and few props amplify the performances of her and co-star Ian McKellen, as they act out Shakespeare’s grimmest play. Dench trembles whilst uttering the words, “out damned spots!” as the guilt of murder overtakes her mind. Her body language reflects her all-consuming state of fear.
Orson Welles (1965) His Chimes at Midnight was a mash-up of the Shakespeare plays in which Sir John Falstaff appears. You could call it the Falstaff movie that Shakespeare never made, and Welles, the ultimate hambone, steps into the Elizabethan fat man’s shoes with such perfection that you’d swear the role was written just for him. But when Prince Hal turns on his old friend at the end, your blood will turn to ice at the lines “I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;/ How ill white hairs become a fool and a jester.” Tied up in battles over ownership for years, the film is currently available in its entirety on YouTube. Watch it and you’ll see why it was Welles’s favorite of his own work and why a considerable number of critics, including Pauline Kael and Joseph McBride, thought it was his best movie.
Mickey Rooney (1935) There are many good reasons to watch Max Reinhardt’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but none better than Mickey Rooney as Puck. Even if you can’t stand him in other movies, you’ll love him here as the world’s most obnoxiously charming sprite. If you need another excuse to watch this gorgeous film, there’s James Cagney as Bottom. (No, we’re really not making all this up.)