Bard in the 90s
The 1990s were a Boom decade for the Bard, mostly thanks to the surprise critical and commercial success of Kenneth Branagh's Henry V (1989). A slew of film adaptations followed, many following the Branagh formula: stylish, accessible productions with glamorous sets and costumes and an appealing mix of movie stars and classically trained thespians. The year 1996 marked a high-water moment with the release of Hamlet, Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet and Al Pacino's Looking for Richard. The Bard Boom culminated with Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love (1998), which portrayed Shakespeare as a sexy young writer on-the-make. It was an appropriate end to a decade that saw a 400 year old playwright suddenly the hottest screenwriter in Hollywood.
Mel Gibson was in his Mad Max / Lethal Weapon heyday when he took an unexpected swerve towards the classical with Hamlet. Sporting a Caesar haircut and trim beard, Gibson channeled his manic energy and hair-trigger rage into a robust take on the iconic character. Director Franco Zeffirelli, who made Shakespeare sexy and youthful with his lusty Romeo and Juliet (1968), opted for a medieval look, filming on the stark northern coast of Scotland. The mist and mud make for an atmospheric film, with strong supporting turns from Glenn Close as Gertrude (the "closet" scene with Hamlet has incestuous overtones), Helena Bonham-Carter as a feisty Ophelia, and the great Paul Scofield as an ashen, purgatorial Ghost of Hamlet's father.
Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
Kenneth Branagh carried forward the momentum from Henry V (1989) and the Hitchcockian thriller Dead Again (1991) with a sun-splashed and exuberant adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. He cast then-wife, Emma Thompson (nonpareil), as his verbal sparring partner and love interest. It was the last time they would appear on screen together (in the same scenes, if not in the same movie -- both had small parts in the Harry Potter series), and this film is a bittersweet record of their incandescent chemistry. Much Ado also evinced Branagh's tendency to cast movie stars in supporting roles, with markedly uneven results: Denzel Washington is a noble Don Pedro, Michael Keaton a grubby and eccentric Dogberry, and Keanu Reeves (ill-at-ease with the language) a villainous Don Juan.
Richard III (1995)
In the wake of Silence of the Lambs, 90s audiences were treated to Shakespeare's spin on a charming, insidious, intelligent, murderous sociopath: Richard III. The "foul lump of deformity" remains one of the Bard's most memorable creations: the wily hunchback who schemes and murders his way to the crown (the template for the protagonists of the British and American versions of House of Cards). McKellen, arguably the greatest Shakespearean actor of his generation, plays the part with delicious relish, speaking directly to the camera in conspiratorial asides that enlist our intimacy and sympathy. Based on a celebrated London production, the film version (set in the 1930s) is stylish and seductive, with its fetishized fascist sets and costumes. Mckellen is ably supported by a cast of British and American actors including Jim Broadbent, Nigel Hawthorne, Annette Bening and a young Robert Downey Jr. Anyone familiar with Maggie Smith from Downtown Abbey fame will be unsurprised when she steals the show as Richard's mother, delivering a vicious curse that makes even the steely Richard blanch.
The infamous O.J. Simpson murder trial – an era-defining event –made a 400-year old play about a prominent Black man murdering his white wife suddenly relevant and topical in the mid-90s. With the passage of time, Othello holds up as a handsome and accessible, if somewhat lackluster, adaptation. The sets, costumes and cinematography are first-rate. Kenneth Branagh delivers an uncharacteristically subdued, even sullen performance as Iago, somewhat mystifying given the partcalls for more of Branagh’s manic charm. Fishburne brings command and gravity to a difficult role, convincingly carrying us from the heights of Othello’s love for Desdemona to the depths of his jealousy and despair. The scenes between Fishburne and Branagh are the best in the film, crackling with intensity. The supporting cast is strong: Nathaniel Parker is a proud and sensitive Cassio; Anna Patrick is memorable as a flinty, fiercely loyal Emilia.
The 90s may have reached "peak Shakespeare" with this uncut 4 hour adaptation of Hamlet, directed by and starring Bard wunderkind Kenneth Branagh. His unrivaled showmanship and self-indulgence were on full display, but the result is never less than riveting. Somehow the 4 hour running time makes the film more rather than less gripping, clarifying minor characters, fleshing out subplots, and generating a sense of the political as well as personal stakes in the Danish court. It's all filmed in glorious 70mm, brimming with a huge cast of seasoned British actors (a note-perfect Derek Jacobi as Claudius; Brian Blessed a terrifying, hellish Ghost) and movie star cameos (Billy Crystal as a hammy Gravedigger; Robin Williams as a simpering Osric; a remarkably affecting Charlton Heston as the Player King). Branagh centers the film as a vain, sensitive Prince with deep reserves of rage, bitterness and scorn. For all its flaws, Hamlet is a triumph of vision and ambition.
Twelfth Night (1996)
Twelfth Night is a delightfully absurd comedy, complete with shipwrecks, cross-dressing, identical twin siblings and love triangles. This adaptation from famed theater director Trevor Nunn tones down the silliness and opts for an autumnal, Pre-Raphaelite glow befitting the melancholy undercurrents of the story. The performances are the main attraction: standouts include Richard E. Grant, full of pathos and bathos as Olivia's slightly slow-witted suitor, Sir Andrew Aguecheek; Ben Kingsley as a feisty Feste, somewhat menacing; and a very fine Helena Bonham-Carter. Nigel Hawthorne, excellent as always, brings a shade of poignancy and wounded pride to the part of Malvolio, whose fifth act vow to be "reveng'd on the whole pack of you," casts a pall over the otherwise happy ending. But the film belongs to Imogen Stubbs as heroine Viola; she carries the movie on her padded shoulders with irrepressible charm and energy. (She was also the most moving and convincing Desdemona I've seen in Nunn's version of Othello from the late 80's.)
Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Guns, drugs, gangs, garish colors, hot young stars and a hip soundtrack: in 1996 Baz Luhrmann delivered R+J for the MTVgeneration. It worked. The film’s visceral energy, appealing cast and eye-popping visuals made Shakespeare not just palatable, butpassionate. Leonardo DiCaprio, at the height of his epicene beauty, capturedRomeo’s rage and hotheadedness in a star-making turn. Claire Danes, fresh fromMTV’s My So Called Life, lit up the screen as an angelic Juliet. The supporting cast is excellent: John Leguizamo’s Tybalt is a cocksure, gun-wielding dandy; Harold Perrineau is affecting as the gender-bending, drug-dealing misfit, Mercutio. Pete Posthlewaite as FriarLaurence shows the kids how it’s done with his ease and command of the language (plus a badass crucifix tattoo and a penchant for Hawaiian shirts). A play about teenagers became a movie for teenagers, full of sweat and passion, soundtracked by Radiohead, Garbage and the Cardigans.
A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999)
Midsummer is a lovely summer frolic, a fetching synergy of ancient and modern,Christian and pagan, Shakespearean and operatic. The setting is a turn-of-the-century Tuscan village called "Monte Athena" standing in place of Shakespeare's "Athens." Just outside the prosperous little village lies a numinous forest world ruled by those warring faerie-deitiesOberon (Rupert Everett) and Titania (Michelle Pfeiffer), whose jealousies and carryings-on sew first disorder -- "the course of true love never did run smooth"-- then ultimately an Edenic harmony in the love lives of a foolish pair of mortal duos, Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius. The cast is excellent, with special kudos going to Calista Flockhart as love-spited Helena, the Garbo-esque Pfeiffer, and scene-stealing Kevin Kline as the brief, misguided object of Titania's affection, Bottom the weaver. It was a pleasure to see the early blossoming of young stars like Christian Bale and Sam Rockwell in supporting turns -- their talent and charisma already on display.
Julie Taymor, hot off the success of her groundbreaking Broadway production of The Lion King, went full-tilt horrorshow with her unhinged version of Titus Andronicus, the only filmed version to date. Granted, the play itself (one of the Bard's earliest) is no picnic: it's a bloodthirsty, depraved cauldron of rape, mutilation and cannibalism. But Taymor, setting the scene in some futuristic collision of Mussolini-era fascism and ancient Roman gory spectacle, amped up the carnage to Grand Guignol levels. By the time Titus is serving meat pies made out of the sons of his enemy, Tamora, the casting of cinema's most famous cannibal, Anthony Hopkins, in the title role takes on a campy meta-absurdity. (Speaking of meta absurdities: Trump svengali Stephen Bannon tried to mount a sci-fi version of Titus back in his Hollywood days, and is credited as a producer on this film. The adaptation’s mix of crass decadence, grotesque depravity and post-apocalyptic fascism suits the Trump era all too well.)