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Hamlet is massive. Done right (and without some editorial pruning), a full production can last well over four hours. Enter Branagh, who decided that no one had truly done the definitive version of the melancholy Dane. Dressing everything up in the best cinematic finery and fooling around with both casting (Robin Williams? Jack Lemmon?) and time (we are in a modified Victorian era here), we move away from the more mundane interpretations to a kind of saucy soap opera where…naturally, everyone dies at the end. While some questioned his commitment and need to better previous versions (including a 1990 take with Mel Gibson), the results are resplendent.
After Henry V, Branagh’s reputation was rendered untouchable via this star-studded adaptation of Shakespeare most conventional comedy. Centering around relationships, love, mistaken identity, and gender politics, the picture perfect locale (Italy) and flawless main performances more than make up for a few casting questions (Come on! Keanu Reeves is not that bad…). Rendered easy to follow by Branagh’s desire to turn the often flowery language of the Bard into something more colloquial, the entire experience feels fresh and new. If it weren’t for the unusual turns of phrase, this could easily be a modern and more sophisticated romantic romp.
Laurence Olivier was already a massive Hollywood star when he decided to bring his country’s best known literary export to the big screen. For many, his truncated Hamlet remains the authoritative cinematic statement on the play. Here, however, he takes a nod from his work in Tinseltown, bringing outside sources to the text in order to provide more conflict, and more commercial appeal. It worked, with the British Film Institute arguing that Richard III did more to bring the Bard to the people than any other title before. One look at the saturated Technicolor cinematography and fascinating lead performance by Olivier and you recognize a masterpiece in the making.
While considered by many to be one of the ultimate interpretations of King Lear ever, Kurosawa’s epic look at the downfall of the Inchimonji family was actually based on Japanese history, not the famed English author. In fact, the director claimed no direct knowledge of the play until his preproduction was well underway. Embracing and then allowing Lear to become an organic part of his presentation, the resulting mash-up made for a fascinating, near flawless film. Removing the more vulnerable aspects of main character and turning him into a despot only adds to the level of drama. Though in his mid-‘70s, Kurosawa crafted one of his very best.
Leave it to the man who literally redefined motion pictures to do the same with the English languages most celebrated scribe. Welles had worked within the Shakespeare canon before (his takes on Othello and Macbeth are indeed legend), but he had never done anything quite like this. Editing pieces out of five known plays—Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor—he took the character of Falstaff and turned him into the ultimate expression of the Bard’s aims. Though years away from his groundbreaking Citizen Kane, Welles argued for his continuing artistic integrity here… and time has done little to dampen said opinion. In fact, many believe this 1965 effort to be his true classic.