Sunday, October 24, 2010

Favorite Shakespeare Films

Out of the overwhelming number of Shakespearean films and adaptations, which are the best? This is, of course, a highly personal and idiosyncratic list, but I hope it spurs discussion and additions to Netflicks cues!

1. Ran (adaptation of King Lear): Kurosawa also directed an adaptation of Macbeth (Throne of Blood) that is better known, but I'm choosing this one because of the staggeringly beautiful cinematography, the amazing battle scene and the depth of emotion Kurosawa creates.

2. Kenneth Branagh's Henry V, . As a Shakespeare scholar I'm supposed to prefer the Olivier version, but I absolutely think this one is better. I think Branagh's attempt to make a post-Vietnam, post-Falkland Islands, dark version of the play, and the fact that Henry still ends up admirable and heroic, exactly catches the complexity of Shakespeare's original (Norman's article "Rabbits, Ducks and Henry V" admirably explores how the play is both a heroic epic and a cynical expose, depending on where the viewer looks). Emma Thompson is adorable as Princess Katherine and Brian Blessed is having way too much fun. This is the film that rescued Shakespeare from the perception of being box office poison and created the 90s boom of Shakespeare films. Plus, it has the St. Crispian's Day speech.

3. Orson Welles' Othello. This highly personal, deeply interpretive view of the play does suffer from Welles playing Othello in blackface, but I still marvel at the surreal direction. This clip from the final scene demonstrates this--much of it is just Othello's face, emerging from the darkness, and there is no shot of him killing himself, just bodies falling. Mirror and reflections abound and this is one of the few films that I think finds a visual language as rich and complex as Shakespeare's textual one.

4. Michael Almereyda's Hamlet. Like Welles, Almeryda finds a visual language and symbolism that works with instead of against Shakespeare's text. The film is not just a modernized version of the play we all know too well; it's a thoughtful investigation on how media influences our reactions to events, even personal ones. Everyone is always watching, filming, reviewing and editing their experiences, unable to simply live them. Brilliant.

5. Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet. Okay, this is a sentimental pick! More than 50% of the verse is cut. It's hokey. It's got a ridiculous love song. No one can speak the lines. But it's so pretty! Everyone is beautiful, Italy is beautiful, the costumes are beautiful, and sometimes you just need to sit back and soak up some pure and unalloyed schmaltz. And if you're only up for five minutes of schmaltz, this Youtube video gives you all of the pretty and non of the mangling of Shakespeare's language.

So those are my top 5. Today at least. What are yours?

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