Top 5 Shakespeare Films (or Best of The Bard Onscreen)

1) Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

If there was just one word to describe this film, it would be “luminous.” Filmed during a Summer in Italy, the FAB cast includes Kenneth Branagh (who directed), Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, and Keanu Reeves (whose presence is odd, yet doesn’t spoil the movie). You have the innocent/fresh-faced lovers: Hero (Kate Beckinsale- SO adorable and young) and Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard- who ages quite slowly), In contrast to this hopeful pair, there is the sharp-tongued/witty older couple: Beatrice (Thompson) and Benedick (Branagh). Her father fears that her sharp tongue will render her single for life. Benedick declares that he’ll die a bachelor, BUT his jovial friend/lord Don Perdo (Denzel- looking esp. FAB in leather pants) has other plans. Who doesn’t LOVE Denzel doing light-hearted roles!? Almost everyone (aside from Keanu- DUH!) does well w/ the (complicated) words, incl. the newbie Beckinsale. The veterans (all Brits) in the cast add authenticity and Keaton brings in eccentric humor. Aside from the gorgeous scenery, the music (composed by Patrick Doyle) is amazing (I had the CD back in the day).

2) A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)

This is another visually gorgeous film (w/ a talented cast from BOTH sides of the pond), though NOT as seamless as Much Ado (also a popular comedy). There are several pairs of lovers, incl. fairies: Oberon (Rupert Everett) and Titania (Michelle Pfeiffer) and humans: Lysander (Dominic West- famed for The Wire) and Hermia (Anna Friel- Brit stage actress); Demetrius (the FAB Christian Bale) and Helena (American TV darling Calista Flockhart); Theseus (character actor David Strathairn) and Hippolyta (Frenchwoman Sophie Marceau). The naughty fairy, Puck, is played by the always great Stanley Tucci (FYI: he even published an Italian-American cookbook a few yrs back- WOW!) I really liked Kevin Kline’s portrayal of Bottom (the weaver who wants to play every part in the play- LOL). Kline is a theater pro, just like Denzel (and it shows). Pfeiffer admitted that she never understood Shakespeare, BUT hey, she does a good job (w/ the best costumes/hair).   

3) Titus (1999)

This movie is NOT for the faint of heart- it’s one of The Bard’s bloodiest tales come alive (thanks to Broadway’s Julie Taymor). Come for the spectacle, BUT stay for the (terrific) acting from a cast that includes Americans, Canadians, Brits, and Scots. Anthony Hopkins is in the title role of the war-weary Roman general, Titus Andronicus, who has captured the queen of the Goths, Tamora (Jessica Lange), her three sons, and her secret/Moorish lover, Aaron (Harry Lennix). Though Tamora begs for his life, her eldest son is slaughtered; Titus, who lost MANY sons of his own during years of battle, shows no mercy.

Tamora vows revenge against Titus and his kin, along w/ her other sons: Demetrius (Matthew Rhys) and Chiron (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Titus’ household includes his kind-hearted brother, Marcus (Colm Feore), his remaining sons: the grown-up/practical Lucius (Angus MacFadyen) and a pre-teen boy, and his only daughter-sweet/innocent- Lavinia (Laura Fraser). She is in love w/ Bassanius (James Frain), an honorable young man running to become ruler of this city against the vain Saturninus (Alan Cumming). Titus’ family become outcasts when Tamora (who is BOTH smart & gorgeous) convinces the new/gullible emperor, Saturninus (Alan Cumming), to marry and ally w/ her family. Who knew that Lange could be SO wonderfully evil!? I loved her chemistry w/ everyone, incl. Lennix (who worked as a teacher before getting into film). Fraser impressed me a LOT also; you hear NO hint of her (real-life) thick Scottish accent.

4) Romeo & Juliet (1996)

The actor who really sells this Baz Luhrmann adaptation is Claire Danes (great at ANY age)! Sure, Leo was the draw for the younger gen, BUT she is the one who raises the game w/ her interpretation of an innocent teen girl in love for the first time. Even is you’re NOT a fan of modernized Shakespeare, give this one a chance (IF you already haven’t). I know MANY high schools are using it to appeal to teens. 

5) Twelfth Night, or What You Will (1996)

Some of you may NOT have seen this film from Brit director Trevor Nunn (which is shot in Ireland and England), BUT it features two strong female performances. A young foreign noblewoman disguised as servant boy, Viola (Imogen Stubbs), unwittingly sparks the interest of a noblewoman from Illyria, Olivia (Helena Bonham Carter). Gender confusion is a common theme in Shakespeare; in The Merchant of Venice, a woman even disguises herself as a male lawyer and wins a court case for the man she wishes to marry. Viola finds herself falling for her boss, Duke Orsino (Tody Stephens- still looking cute w/ quirky facial hair) who pursues Olivia, though she spurns all men (b/c mourning her brother). Look out for Sir Ben Kingsley in the supporting role of Feste, the fool in Orsino’s court. 

Kiss Me Kate (1953)

KissMeKate_dressingrm
Lilli (Kathryn Grayson) and Fred (Howard Keel) talk about their past marriage and work in her dressing room.

[1] This is my favorite musical, not for the dancing alone, but it is the best. The dancers, not just Ann Miller and Rall, but Bob Fosse, Bobby Van, and Carol Haney!! What more could any dance fan want? There is always something new to see, no matter how many times you have watched it. The lyrics are magnificent, tricky and intriguing. I will admit that the music is great, but folks, catch the dancing!

[2] Keel, with his big big voice and untrained natural talent, fills the screen (and his tights!) with his masculine presence. He struts, swaggers, and yet shows his vulnerable side believably enough to make us *like* his character, ego or no ego. Grayson… really comes into her own here–she’s excellent as Lilli, swooning at the right moments, strident during the rest, and actually bites out ‘I Hate Men’ with conviction…  I’m also partial to Tommy Rall, whose soaring athletic ability just crackles off the screen. It’s such a thrill to see Miller get matched with someone who can dance circles around most everyone else alongside her. They make the cutest couple in their two numbers together, with the energetic, exuberant dance to ‘Why Can’t You Behave?’ definitely making one of my favourite film dance routines of all time.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

I became a fan of this musical after seeing a version of it on Great Performances (PBS) several years ago; it stars Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie, two VERY well-respected Broadway veterans. I bought the soundtrack (released in 2006). Seriously, WHO can resist Stokes’ voice!? 

KissMeKate_Bdwy_2006.jpg
Marin Mazzie (Lilli/Katharine) and Brian Stokes Mitchell (Fred/Petruchio)

I saw this movie on TCM two weeks ago; it was pretty fun, though NOT as fabulous as the Broadway version. Fred Graham (Howard Keel) and Lilli Vanessi (Kathryn Grayson) are a divorced pair of actors who are brought together by Cole Porter, who has written a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew. Lilli, recently engaged to a Texas oilman, is reluctant to act w/ Fred, who is involved w/ Lois Lane (Ann Miller). It’s obvious that the tap dancing ingenue (Lois) and more mature leading lady (Lilli) resent each other. 

KissMeKate_fight.jpg
Katharine (Kathryn Grayson) and Petruchio (Howard Keel) fighting during the play.

We soon seen that Fred and Lilli act a LOT like the mismatched lovers they play, Petruchio and Katharine. A fight between them on opening night threatens the production. Also, two thugs w/ thick New York accents (who are BIG fans of the theater) think that Fred owes their boss a LOT of money, so insist on staying next to him ALL night. Lois (who is cast as Bianca) is in love w/ another of her co-stars, Bill Calhoun (Tommy Rall), who forged that IOU. 

KissMeKate_Bianca_suitors
Three suitors woo Bianca (Ann Miller) during the Tom, Dick, or Harry number.
KissMeKate_Bianca_bf
Bianca/Lois (Ann Miller) and Bill (Tommy Rall) talk in the theater’s alley.

…Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore, who get into the play and later get to sing one of Cole Porter’s best satirical numbers and a personal favorite of mine, ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare.’ It’s their own ode to their theatrical experience and also advice to the lovelorn that if you want to win the mate of your choice, learn the classics so you can wow them with rhetoric. Wynn and Whitmore are priceless.

Excerpt from IMDB review

If you’re a big fan of The Bard, you will definitely enjoy the thugs’ song (Brush Up Your Shakespeare); it’s a combo of high culture and naughty wordplay.

I esp. like Lois’ signature song Always True To You (In My Fashion). Here is the (updated) song from the 2006 Broadway play, sung by Amy Spanger.

 

 

“Hamlet” (2009)

A hit, a hit, a palpable hit!  The Bard’s most popular, and arguably best-written, play springs to life w/ a fresh, modern adaptation by the RSC.  (It is now available on DVD in the US.)  This one is a must-see for all Shakespeare fans!  Tall, wiry Scotsman David Tennant (Dr. Who) tackles the title role and theater veteran Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: The Next Generation) portrays the ghost of Hamlet’s departed father and Claudius (Hamlet’s “uncle-father”).  They played these roles on stage, so are well prepared for the screen version.

Hamlet (sometimes in a single scene) must be able to convey much- anger, intelligence, melancholy, and wit.  Tennant creates a Hamlet for our time;  he shows us Hamlet’s isolation, emotional torment, confusion, and self-awareness.  I feel Tennant does a GREAT job in showing us Hamlet’s muti-faceted personality.

Unlike in the theater, here we get close-ups of the actors.  Hamlet can connect more deeply with the audience (a glance into the camera, a side joke).  The use of a pistol in a pivotal scene rendered the scene less dramatic in my opinion.  The dark main set didn’t appeal to me, but the use of the large broken mirror was a good directorial choice.  The use of surveillance cameras was interesting; Hamlet is always under watch.

On to the supporting cast…  Claudius is played with grace and subtlety by Stewart; often villains pretend to be just like ordinary people.   I thought he was VERY effective as the ghost as well.  Polonius and Gertrude did a fine job, as did Horatio (who had a sense of gravitas and a marvelous speaking voice).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xYZHb2xo0OI