Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth recently debuted this weekend to strong reviews, which praised the performances of Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography and the screenplay. It is being hailed as another great contribution to the big-screen adaptations of Shakespeare.
The 2010s has seen several of these Shakespeare adaptations, from Joss Whedon’s contemporary indie Much Ado About Nothing, Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus and Julie Taymor’s eclectic The Tempest. It is clear that there is still an audience for Shakespeare, and that great adaptations are not a thing of the past. Amidst these movies, I cannot help but miss Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespearean films. His last Shakespeare adaptation (As You Like It) came out nine years ago, although it was a TV movie that premiered on HBO. He did perform Macbeth on stage a couple of years ago, however, Branagh seems to have quit Shakespeare for the time being.
Nevertheless, at the height of his career, Branagh made some truly inspiring and original contributions to film with his adaptations of Henry V, Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing. Not only did Branagh direct and write these films, but he also gave illustrious performances as the main characters.
When Henry V debuted in 1989, Branagh was thought of as the new Laurence Olivier. This film reminded audiences that Shakespeare films could be great again, and is considered one of the best Shakespeare films ever made. The film was not very true to the book, since Branagh made the decision to include flashbacks by utilizing parts from Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2. However, I applauded his decision to incorporate these scenes because they made the film more watchable, and allowed the audience to connect with the characters more deeply. Branagh received Oscar nods for both directing and acting for Henry V.
Much Ado About Nothing, one of Shakespeare’s best comedies, is dramatically different in tone compared to Henry V. Light, entertaining and eccentric, Much Ado About Nothing is the funniest Shakespeare movie I have ever seen. Branagh and Emma Thompson are the film’s standouts, bringing great comedic flair to Shakespeare’s sharp and witty lines. I will never forget Branagh’s amusing reaction after he discovers that Beatrice has feelings for him (see video above).
I consider Hamlet to be Branagh’s finest film to date. Running over four hours, Branagh included all notable editions and amendments to the play, including the First Folio and the Second Quarto. Essentially, every word that Shakespeare might have originally included in Hamlet appears in Branagh’s version. A true testament to Shakespeare and his most famous play, great performances, beautiful sets and dedicated directorial decisions all complete Branagh’s homage in a way that can never be rivalled.
Instead of working on his next Shakespeare film, Branagh has moved into the field of directing big budget adaptations. The 2010s are littered with his projects that were all well received, including Thor, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and 2015’s Cinderella. They are all entertaining movies in their own right, but none of them ever reached the heights that Hamlet or Henry V did. His next film will be the recently announced Artemis Fowl, a popular young adult fantasy novel series. Branagh is also attached to direct and star in a remake of the 1974 classic Murder on the Orient Express. It seems as though he has a good mix of popcorn flicks and highbrow films in the making, although nothing hints at his return to Shakespeare.
Branagh is, however, returning Shakespeare to the West End. His theatre company is producing The Winter’s Tale, a Shakespeare play that debuted only a few weeks ago in London featuring Judi Dench (Shakespeare in Love) and Kenneth Branagh himself. Hopefully, Branagh will regain the interest and drive needed to tackle the next great Shakespeare film of our time. Perhaps he will bring his stage version of Macbeth to the big screen or recharge a personal favorite, Julius Caesar. I think it would be interesting if to see if Branagh would place Julius Caesar in a different time period, similar to what he did with Hamlet.