The best Shakespeare films – ranked!

Kenneth Branagh graduates from player to playwright this week for All is True, in which he plays an ailing Bard. But which big-screen Shakey is the greatest?

20. As You Like It (1992)

Despite its hey-nonny-nonny reputation, Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy, written during a time of immense social upheaval, has sharp edges. Or at least it does in this modern-dress version by director Christine Edzard, which makes it into a thinly veiled commentary on the inequalities of post-Thatcherite Britain. Arden becomes a cardboard city in London’s Docklands, while the “court” from which Rosalind (Emma Croft) and co are expelled is a glitzy bank. Heavy-handed but thought-provoking.

19. Julius Caesar (1953)

Marlon Brando as Mark Antony.

It may be a little too plush and self-satisfied, but Joseph L Mankiewicz’s golden-age Hollywood version of the tragedy some Americans regard as their own has stood the test of time. Perhaps its most impressive aspect is the cast: John Gielgud, James Mason, Deborah Kerr, Louis Calhern. Marlon Brando’s blazing turn as Antony (“Lend me your ears”) is so riveting that you almost forget Roland Barthes wrote an entire essay mocking the wigs.

18. Twelfth Night (1996)

Imogen Stubbs and Helena Bonham-Carter in Twelfth Night.
Imogen Stubbs and Helena Bonham-Carter in Twelfth Night. Photograph: United Archives/Alamy Stock Photo

The surprise success of Branagh’s Much Ado (see below) set off a minor Shakespearean gold rush during the mid-1990s. One movie that has dated better than most is Trevor Nunn’s Victorian country-house Twelfth Night, which captures the shadowy magic of the play well. Nunn may be a journeyman film-maker, but he’s a superlative director of actors: Imogen Stubbs and Helena Bonham-Carter have genuine chemistry as Viola and Olivia, and Nigel Hawthorne harrumphs well as Malvolio.

17. Angoor (1982)

Barely known outside India, Gulzar’s classic Hindi-language version of The Comedy of Errors is not merely the only feature movie adaptation of the play ever made – it’s a genuinely insightful one. Shakespeare’s good-natured romp about two sets of identical twins who are continually mistaken for each other is a great fit for broad-brush Bollywood comedy. Via some camera trickery, Sanjeev Kumar puts in a lugubrious, long-suffering performance as two of them.

16. Titus (1999)

Julie Taymor’s version of this gore-filled early tragedy – hand-lopping, people being baked in a pie, plus the rest – is both stylised and stylish, somewhere between Mad Max and The Craft. Anthony Hopkins’s embattled old soldier, Titus, and Alan Cumming’s high-camp Saturninus both command attention, but Taymor deserves full credit for making the experience both horrible and appallingly funny.

15. Othello (1989)

Not technically a movie, rather a TV recording of a stage production. But what a production: Janet Suzman’s version of Shakespeare’s tragedy of race, staged at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg during the apartheid era, caused a sensation, and with good cause. John Kani is youthful and surprisingly timorous in the lead, fatally outmanoeuvred by Richard Haines’s bullying Afrikaner Iago. Many productions strive to make the play “relevant”; this one hardly needed to, and is all the more potent for it.

14. The Bad Sleep Well (1960)

Daddy issues … The Bad Sleep Well
Daddy issues … The Bad Sleep Well. Photograph: Everett Collection / Rex Feature

Freer even than his avant-garde adaptation of Macbeth – see below – Akira Kurosawa’s riff on Hamlet brilliantly relocates Denmark to mid-century Tokyo and makes the angst-ridden prince into a downtrodden salaryman (Toshirô Mifune) frantic to find out who killed his father. A scathing excoriation of post-war Japanese corruption and a masterly demonstration of noir.

13. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935)

Soon after fleeing the Nazis and arriving in the US, theatre director Max Reinhardt started work on a movie of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s an odd collision of styles – German high romanticism meets Hollywood glitz – but Hal Mohr’s cinematography is astonishing, a surreal visual fantasy of dancing sprites and flying unicorns. Legend has it that the set used up some 600,000 yards of cellophane and 67 tonnes of trees.

12. Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh.
Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh. Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy Stock Photo

Kenneth Branagh’s devotion to putting Shakespeare on the silver screen has produced some so-so efforts (Hamlet, Love’s Labour’s Lost) as well as some genuine turnips (an inexplicably Japanese As You Like It). His earliest attempt at comedy is in some ways the best, full of sunny high spirits and still terrific fun to watch. The Tuscan setting is glorious, and Emma Thompson’s thoughtful Beatrice is more than a match for Branagh’s fusspot Benedick.

11. King Lear (1971)

The second of two masterly Shakespeare movies, Grigori Kozintsev’s Russian Lear was shot almost concurrently with Peter Brook’s version (see below). The two couldn’t be more different: where Brook’s is all harrowing domestic torment, Kozintsev goes for the wide angle, depicting how the insanity of one man (a wild-haired, shellshocked Jüri Järvet) brings an entire nation to the brink. The opening panorama – a painfully slow tracking shot of peasants trudging towards Lear’s castle – is one of the great set pieces of Shakespearean cinema.

10. Romeo + Juliet (1996)

Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet
Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. Photograph: Allstar/20 CENTURY FOX/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

Baz Luhrmann’s high-octane version of Romeo and Juliet is still an object lesson for film-makers attempting to do Shakespeare with style. Setting the action in “Verona Beach” – a futuristic cross between Miami and Mexico City, imaginatively designed by Catherine Martin – Luhrmann captures the play’s gangland violence as well as its raw sex appeal. Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes wouldn’t make it through an RSC audition, but that’s very much the point.

9. Hamlet (1921)

Taking her cue from an esoteric academic essay arguing that Hamlet was in fact a woman, the Danish star Asta Nielsen formed her own production company to get this silent version made. It’s a stunning piece, full of creeping expressionist shadow and centred in every way on Nielsen’s Prince – whip-smart, alluringly androgynous and more than a little loopy. His/her eye-rolling at Polonius deserves its own Tumblr account.8. The Tempest (1979)

Elisabeth Welch in Derek Jarman’s the Tempest.
Elisabeth Welch in Derek Jarman’s the Tempest. Photograph: Moviestore collection Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy Stock Photo

Shakespeare’s mystical late play has inspired several directors to live out wild cinematic fantasies, the wildest of which might be Fred MWilcox’s brilliantly strange sci-fi reboot, Forbidden Planet (1956). Derek Jarman’s rendering is perhaps a touch too art-school for its own good, but contains many beautiful things, among them a gruff Prospero from Heathcote Williams and a roistering turn by the performance artist Jack Birkett as Caliban. The deliciously camp finale features the jazz diva Elisabeth Welch warbling Stormy Weather to a chorus of sailors. Even Shakespeare might applauded that.

7. Richard III (1955)

An Olivier that has aged well. At first glance, this mid-1950s version of the early historical thriller looks every one of its 60-plus years, down to the over-saturated Technicolor and hey-nonny-nonny musical score by William Walton. What makes it gloriously watchable, now as then, is Olivier’s effortlessly virtuosic performance as Richard: imperious, ironic, brutish, sometimes hysterical and never less than smirkingly seductive.

6. 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

Julia Stiles, Andrew Keegan and Heath Ledger in 10 Things I Hate About You
Julia Stiles, Andrew Keegan and Heath Ledger in 10 Things I Hate About You Photograph: Touchston/REX/Shutterstock

It isn’t quite as clever as Amy Heckerling’s take on Jane Austen in Clueless, but Gil Junger’s attempt to pull a similar trick with Shakespeare – what would happen if you made a boring old set text into a high-school romcom? – is smart and sassy. A brightly contemporary retelling of The Taming of the Shrew, it features Julia Stiles as a scowling tomboy refusing to play the dating game and a shaggy Heath Ledger trying to charm her into doing just that. The sexual politics are queasy, but somehow Junger makes you smile.

5. King Lear (1971)

Patrick Magee and Paul Scofield in King Lear.
Patrick Magee and Paul Scofield in King Lear. Photograph: PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy Stock Photo

When Peter Brook’s production of Lear opened at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1962, with a tormented Paul Scofield as the mad king, it was acclaimed for its Beckettian sense of despair. The version they put on screen nine years later is even bleaker. Guttural and rasping, with a face resembling a tree scorched by lightning, Scofield bristles with anger, but is in the end desperately lonely. The supporting cast (including Cyril Cusack and Patrick Magee) is superb, and the setting – it was mostly shot in the barren reaches of rural Denmark – looks like warmth has never touched it.

4. Maqbool (2003)

Indian cinema has a long history of imaginative Shakespeare adaptations, and this is one of the finest. A modern-day Macbeth relocated to the murky Mumbai crimeworld by director Vishal Bhardwaj, it’s like watching the Scottish play through a Francis Ford Coppola filter and city smog. The pouch-eyed Irrfan Khan is nicely shady as the hero, but the show is nearly stolen by a fire-breathing Lady Macbeth from Bollywood legend Tabu. Great tunes, too.

3. Chimes at Midnight (1966)

Orson Welles as Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight
Orson Welles as Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight Photograph: Cinetext/Allstar/Alpine Films

Orson Welles’s lifelong obsession with Shakespeare was best realised in his monumental version of the Henry IV plays. Centre-stage, naturally, is Welles’s own Falstaff, far more ruthless than you would guess from his Christmas pudding-like appearance. Yet there are a feast of other fine performances: a conniving Keith Baxter as the rapscallion Prince Hal, a glacially unimpressed John Gielgud as King Henry IV, and Jeanne Moreau on ardent, impassioned form as Falstaff’s sweetheart.

2. Hamlet (1964)

Soviet actors Anastasiya Vertinskaya and Innokenti Smoktunovsky in Hamlet.
Soviet actors Anastasiya Vertinskaya and Innokenti Smoktunovsky in Hamlet. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Forget your Oliviers and your Branaghs: the greatest cinematic Dane was Russian. As well as being the prince of Soviet actors, Innokenti Smoktunovsky was a Red Army hero who spent time in Stalin’s gulag, and his boyish, bewildered Hamlet knows only too well what it’s like to be crushed by the machine. Manoeuvring the camera around a warren of suffocating spaces, director Grigori Kozintsev makes the tragedy into a parable of power and powerlessness.

1. Throne of Blood (1957)

Little remains of Shakespeare’s script, but in Akira Kurosawa’s masterly interpretation of Macbeth the poetry is all visual: brooding castle gates, misty battlefields, empty rooms where only the worst will happen. Reimagining the story as a samurai epic, Kurosawa pares the tragedy down to its essentials and turns it into a thrilling cinematic experience –both utterly different from the play and wholly in its spirit. In the lead, Toshirô Mifune roars and bellows like a wild beast, and as his wife Isuzu Yamada journeys from venomous malevolence to terrified insanity.


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