Best Shakespeare Movies

Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight
Orson Welles glued together bits of five plays to tell the story of Sir John Falstaff, the famously bad influence on the future King Henry The Fifth. The entire production almost fell apart five times, repeatedly ran out of money, and shot wherever and whenever it could. And it may be the best movie ever made from Shakespeare’s plays. It’s fast and exciting and very moving, and Orson Welles and John Gielgud are both outrageously good. See it as soon as you can.

The Hollow Crown: The Complete Series
The Hollow Crown tells the same story as Chimes at Midnight, but at an epic nine hours instead of the cut-down two of its predecessor. You get to watch the full careers of King Henry The Fourth and his son Hal, from seizing the throne through doubt and eventual triumph. It features an all-star cast and big-time production values.

Julie Taymor’s film adaptation of Titus Andronicus, a lesser-known and completely bonkers play, works for two reasons: her gorgeous production design, and an electric central performance from Anthony Hopkins.

Based on a famous 1976 Royal Shakespeare Company production, this is an interesting, small-scale take on Macbeth. But the main reason to see it is that Judi Dench gives an all-time-great Shakespeare performance. Maybe even the single best one.

Yeah, ok, it’s in Russian. But forget that part. This is one of the few movies of a Shakespeare play that remembers it’s a movie. Incredible images, some very dynamic performances, and a legitimately terrifying ghost. And if anything, the fact that it isn’t in English makes it easier to get past the famousness of the play. The same director also made an excellent King Lear.

The BBC Shakespeare
In the late 70s and early 80s, the BBC decided to commission new television productions of all 37 plays. And the results were, shall we say, uneven. But occasionally a performance or two makes the enterprise totally worthwhile. Derek Jacobi and Patrick Stewart (almost the same age!) facing off in Hamlet; Bob Hoskins as a furious Iago in Othello (pay no attention to a cringeworthy Anthony Hopkins in blackface); and an unexpectedly perfect John Cleese in The Taming of the Shrew.

Julius Caesar
It’s shot like a 1950s sword-and-sandal movie, but it somehow totally serves the play. John Gielgud is wonderfully snaky as Cassius, and Marlon Brando as Marc Antony is a casting gamble that pays off.

Twelfth Night
This production was taped live at the reconstructed Globe Theatre in London, and it follows the original performance practice of having men play the female parts. This allows Mark Rylance to give a semi-miraculous performance as the love-struck Olivia. His control of language and physicality at the same time makes him riveting to watch.

King Lear
Fine, this version is an audio recording, but I’m putting it here because it shows that you don’t always need images to make Shakespeare’s plays work. This radio production was created by Kenneth Branagh’s early Renaissance Theatre Company, and it pulls together ten or twelve of England’s best actors. John Gielgud might be one of the oldest people to play Lear (since you don’t have to pick up Cordelia on the radio!), and he makes what is usually a screamed part into something intimate and devastating. All the actors take advantage of the audio-only format to bring the tragedy down to human scale.