Shakespeare films to watch online

Cinema takes on the bard

by Jennie Kermode

The Globe Theatre - where people used to go for entertainment in pre-cinema days
The Globe Theatre - where people used to go for entertainment in pre-cinema days Photo: Martin Pettitt

Had it not been for the Covid-19 pandemic, this past week would have seen theatres and cinemas all across the UK celebrating the work of William Shakespeare as part of the annual festivities focused on the master playwright's work. There are always other ways to do these things, however, so we're bringing you a taste of some of the best Shakespeare adaptations you can watch from home - and they might not be quite what you expect.

Henry V
Henry V

Henry V - Amazon Prime and BFI Player

Though Kenneth Branagh gave him a run for his money with his own take on this play in 1989, nobody has ever really done Shakespeare like Laurence Olivier, who worked on no fewer that eight adaptations of the bard’s work over the course of his career. It took all of his force as an actor to balance the action in this epic realisation of the young king’s conquest of France, and you don’t need to relate to the politics of it to be caught up by his passion. The special effects were remarkable for their time – even if the painted backdrops look a little dodgy now – and gorgeous costumes give it an immersive quality. By opening with a direct reference to the Globe Theatre where it was first performed, Olivier never lets us forget its theatrical nature, inviting us to recognise its properties as propaganda even as it works its seduction.

Ran
Ran

Ran - Amazon Prime and BFI Player

Taken out of its original context and reworked as a vision of feudal Japan, Akira Kurosawa’s masterful adaptation of King Lear leaves all the rest standing. Made 23 years after his take on Macbeth, Throne Of Blood, it was a work seven years in the making and ne that the great filmmaker obsessed over in a way that reflected the struggles of its central character, keeping going even through the death of his wife, building a castle and burning it down, painting a whole field gold for a scene that he later decided to cut. The result is an astonishing piece of cinema which unites Shakespeare’s work with Japanese folklore of create something that feels fresh, real and utterly compelling. Even the wind rippling the grass is hard to forget. The battle scenes are awesome, but it’s Tatsuya Nakadai’s performance as the doomed warlord that will haunt you.

Hamlet
Hamlet

Hamlet - Amazon Prime and DirecTV

Of all Shakespeare’s plays, Hamlet has perhaps enjoyed the greatest number of successful cinema adaptations, with Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 version also a standout, but few things surprised the critics as much as this version by Franco Zeffirelli. Casting Mel Gibson in the title role was a daring choice. The star was, at the time, known only for his genre work, and was seen very much as an action hero; nobody had realised that he was capable of serious acting. Although he was about ten years too old for the part, he really nailed it, especially in his scenes with Glenn Close, who might have been born to play Gertrude. Alan Bates gives Claudius more humanity and intelligence than many productions allow for an the actors’ skills are complemented by a rugged setting which keeps it real even during the story’s most unlikely moments.

Forbidden Planet
Forbidden Planet

Forbidden Planet - Amazon Prime and DirectTV

The Tempest is widely considered to be the most complex and mature of Shakespeare’s works, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that it has enjoyed some of the most unusual cinematic adaptations. Though Peter Greenaway’s experimental version, Prospero’s Books, is definitely worth a look, nothing else has had the lingering impact of Fred M Wilcox’s science fiction version, one of the best routes into Shakespeare for newcomers and something you can watch with the whole family – at least if you’re prepared to sit up at night reassuring young children that there are no monsters from the id lurking under the bed. The combined talents of Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis and Leslie Nielson (in an early, straight role) make this a must see, plus it’s beautifully designed and nobody has ever captured Ariel quite like Robbie the Robot.

A Caribbean Dream
A Caribbean Dream

A Caribbean Dream - Amazon Prime and FreeMovie7

Sometimes everybody likes to do things a little differently. Shakespeare never indulged in fantasy quite so freely as when he penned A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and this Barbadian take on the much loved comedy has a spirit that is all its own. Approaching the story with a light touch, it’s full of spectacular costumes and lively music, with no small degree of camp. Local jokes add character and the introduction of modern artefacts from mobile phones to limousines create a sense of the otherworld spanning time periods, making it seem even less trustworthy. A chopped-down story keeps it pacey but there’s still time for romance and that sense that out among the trees, underneath a swollen moon, all kinds of magic might happen.

Warm Bodies
Warm Bodies

Warm Bodies - Netflix and DirectTV

There is no genre of film out there that has not at some point been infiltrated by the living dead, and indeed Shakespeare’s doomed young lovers have found themselves in that situation more than once, but whilst Ryan Denmark’s cheap and cheerful Romeo & Juliet Vs. The Living Dead will delight fans of trash, it’s this little charmer from Jonathan Levine that will really stick with you. Following an attack by zombies in which one of them unexpectedly saves her, teenager Julie hides out with him and finds that their time together seems to make him more human. Their growing bond seems to hold the potential for a cure that could save both zombies and humans, but both factions try to tear them apart – sometimes literally. For all its sweet centre, this is Shakespeare with bite.

Tower Of London
Tower Of London

Tower Of London - Amazon Prime and Chili

There are better versions of Richard III out there but few actors have ever filled out the character like Vincent Price, and if you want to see Shakespeare’s greatest villain at his most fearsome, this is the film for you. Made in black and white on a very low budget, it doesn’t have quite as much striking imagery as director Roger Corman’s classics, but it sets the stage nicely for a performance that might remind viewers that Price had a promising stage career before he lost his heart to horror roles. Underneath the brooding and the equally frightening wig, there’s something sympathetic, just askew from normal thinking, as his Richard is haunted by more than just ghosts. From the rack to the raven, it’s packed with little treats for the fans.

Shakespeare Behind Bars
Shakespeare Behind Bars

Shakespeare Behind Bars - Amazon Prime and Kanopy

If you’ve ever doubted the importance of Shakespeare’s work, Hank Rogerson’s documentary will put it in perspective for you. Shot at Luther Luckett penitentiary in La Grange, Kentucky, it follows a group of prisoners whose study of the bard’s work leads them to look at life in new ways and to develop their own acting talents, learning empathy in the process. It’s not an overly sentimental piece of work, putting this process in the context of crimes that suggest no easy route to redemption, but as the work of volunteer Curt Tofteland gradually gets through to the prisoners, so their personal stories begin to take on new dimensions for the viewer. the performances may not be brilliant but it’s what happens when the men stop acting that really compels.

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