With Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth and Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story remake both hitting cinemas last month, the long list of Shakespeare adaptations on film – direct, loosely inspired or otherwise – grew a little longer still. Yet despite a solid shared foundation, most Shakespeare on film is as easily forgotten as any old am-dram production: films with a vision to match that language and storytelling are rare and special.
The Tragedy of Macbeth, which landed on Apple TV+ this week, certainly has a vision, with its bare modernist design and high-contrast monochrome cinematography, though Coen’s rendering of the play itself is muted and overly composed. In the ranks of movie Macbeths, it lacks the visceral fury of Roman Polanski’s 1971 version (Amazon) or even Australian director Justin Kurzel’s recent, Michael Fassbender-starring adaptation (2015; BFI Player), which divided critics with its slash-happy approach to the text but enthralled me with its blood-and-grime vigour.
Anyone taking on Macbeth has to contend with the Japanese master Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957; BFI Player), which mightily moved proceedings to the samurai realm. Kurosawa’s liberties with the narrative shift and reignite familiar stakes, while there’s dreamy horror to its imagery. It isn’t just the most thrilling filmed version of the Scottish play, but possibly the best Shakespeare film, full stop. Challengers for the title include Kurosawa’s two other, very different stabs at Shakespeare: the ravishing epic sensibility of his King Lear adaptation, Ran (1985; BFI Player), couldn’t be further removed from the lean, noir-esque cruelty of his 1960 Hamlet spin, The Bad Sleep Well (BFI Player), but both prove how fluidly these tales translate to distant cultural contexts. Bollywood, too, returns to the Shakespearean well frequently: 2003’s Maqbool (Apple TV+) is yet another thrusting, vibrant redo of Macbeth.
Calling Kurosawa the Bard’s greatest screen interpreter might have rankled with Laurence Olivier, the stately classicist who sort of appointed himself Shakespeare’s official conduit in the 1940s. Decades on, the actor-director’s Shakespeare films are a mixed bag. The Oscar-laden Hamlet (1948; Apple TV+) is handsome but a bit stiff, though his Henry V (1944; Amazon) still leaps off the screen with iridescent colour and fury, while his Richard III (1955; Google Play) contains possibly his most vital, sinuous screen performance.
The less said about Olivier’s blackface Othello the better, particularly with Laurence Fishburne’s dynamite performance as the Moor available to view in Oliver Parker’s 1995 film (Google Play). Still, Orson Welles’s brooding, carved-in-marble film of Othello (1951; Amazon) remains the play’s best screen outing. Welles’s magnificent Chimes at Midnight (1965; Apple TV+), meanwhile, remains as academically adventurous as any film-maker has got with Shakespeare, weaving together elements from multiple plays, leading with Henry IV Parts I and II and Henry V. That trio also provides the very loose, wayward spine of Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991; Chili), the wonderful queer road movie that finds tender heartbreak in the tragedies.
Back on the traditionalist bent, Kenneth Branagh took Olivier’s mantle with wildly inconsistent results. His four-hour Hamlet (1996; Amazon) is his directorial masterpiece, textually complete and shot with mad kineticism. But the more novel achievement, perhaps, is 1993’s Much Ado About Nothing (Apple TV+). Far less frequently attempted than the tragedies, Shakespeare’s comedies have an odd tendency to wilt on screen, but this glintingly sunlit all-star romp is the very model of how to get it right: spry and sexy and actually funny, performed with palpable exuberance.
Only Gil Junger’s 10 Things I Hate About You (1999; Amazon) – in which The Taming of the Shrew is ideally relocated to the battleground of 90s high-school courtship, with irresistible results – comes close. Less hyped at the time, it’s now as essential and beguiling a Gen X artifact as Baz Luhrmann’s swirling, swooning Romeo + Juliet (1996; Disney+). Or Derek Jarman’s radical, radiant The Tempest (1979; BFI Player), a film perfectly suited to the category-resistant oddity of the play itself. Jarman treats it as equal parts romance, tragedy and comedy, and his film is a beautiful alien object in itself. All the world may be a stage, but the best Shakespeare films stray far from it. – The Guardian