No one does Shakespeare today as well as Kenneth Branagh does. Whether it is on stage or on film he seems to have an innate feel for the plays of The Bard. His films are among the best adaptations of the works of William Shakespeare.
Kenneth Branagh starred in and directed Henry V when he was 28 years old. It sparked many comparisons between him and Laurence Olivier. It also had some comparing him to Orson Welles, wunderkind of the 1940s. However, it also sparked some resentment among critics that one so young should be so successful so quickly. He has had a hard time with film critics, especially those in his native Great Britain. However, the tide has turned and just past his fiftieth birthday he is accepted as the great actor that he is by the majority of film critics.
No matter how you look at it, the fact that Branagh managed to put this film together at such a young age showed his incredible drive and passion for Shakespeare.
In the past 20 years he has never wavered in his dedication to making Shakespeare more acceptable to the movie going audiences of today. He has continued to make films based on the works of Shakespeare; either as director and actor or just as an actor.
I can’t wait to see which play he will choose as his next Shakespearean project.
The reviews of the films below are my personal views of each film from the standpoint of a fan. The films are in chronological order:
- Henry V (1989)
- Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
- Othello (1995)
- Hamlet (1996)
- Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000)
- As You Like It (2006)
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
- Kenneth Branagh - Henry V
- Derek Jacobi - The Chorus
- Emma Thompson - Princess Katherine
Henry V tells the story of the young king’s fight for the French throne and the Battle of Agincourt in particular.
The film starts out with the great Derek Jacobi as the Chorus setting the stage for the story. Throughout the film, The Chorus pops in once in a while to give us some background to what is going on.
The story of Henry V starts off in a dramatic way. Two clerics are deciding on how to convince the king to go to war with France. We see the king walking down the hallway and all of a sudden the doors open showing him in shadow, looking large and imposing and kingly. Branagh plays this part of the story with wonderfully understated grandeur, practically whispering at times.
Once the decision to go to war is made, Henry becomes a strong and powerful leader not the boy-king that everyone though he was.
For me, the most exciting part of the film is when Henry rouses his troops into battle while giving the St. Crispin’s Day speech; I would have followed him anywhere. The next extremely powerful part of the film for me is after the Battle of Agincourt has been fought and both sides walk over the battlefield to pick up their dead. Henry carries the body of a young boy (played by a young Christian Bale) through all the devastation and hurt while in the background we hear Patrick Doyle sing Non Nobis Nomine. It never fails to bring tears to my eyes.
Between the battle scenes we jump to a much lighter scene of the French princess trying to learn English with her maid. As the spoils of war, Henry will marry the princess when the French lose the battle.
This film really showed me how great a film based on Shakespeare could be. Yes, I had seen Romeo and Juliet in the ‘70s and enjoyed it. I don’t recall seeing any other Shakespeare films other than that when I was younger. Henry V made me a huge fan of Shakespeare on film; it did exactly what Kenneth Branagh had hoped it would.
Much Ado About Nothing
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
- Kenneth Branagh - Benedick
- Emma Thompson - Beatrice
- Kate Beckinsale - Hero
- Robert Sean Leonard - Claudio
- Denzel Washington - Don Pedro
Much Ado about Nothing is the story of the events surrounding the marriage of Hero and Claudio and all the problems and intrigue that ensue.
This film starts of so joyously and full of life that it is hard not to be deeply affected by it. We first see an idyllic picnic going on in the fields of Tuscany; we then cut away to soldiers on horseback hurrying through the countryside. Someone notices the soldiers coming and everyone gets very excited; the men are coming home from war! Immediately, all the women run back towards the house to get ready to greet their men. It is a scene filled with great positive energy.
My favorite parts of the film are the scenes between Beatrice and Benedick; we see the best of both Branagh and Emma Thompson during these scenes. The chemistry between these two cannot be denied. While it sometimes works as comic relief the wordplay and the bantering between them is pure gold. These two characters often overwhelm the story of the play which is the romance between Hero and Claudio and the problems surrounding it. Of course, it is Beatrice and Benedick who help to resolve everything at the end and who also end up together.
The whole film is such a joyous affair; even the wooden acting of Keanu Reeves does not spoil it. The film ends with everyone dancing around a maypole. I left the theatre with a smile on my face after seeing it.
Directed by Oliver Parker
- Laurence Fishbone - Othello
- Kenneth Branagh - Iago
- Irene Jacob - Desdemona
The story of Othello is one of deceit and jealousy. Iago convinces Othello that his wife is having an affair. It stems from his jealousy of the woman and his campaign to be the only one Othello will confide in and trust.
I don’t have as much to say about this film because I have only seen it once. Branagh’s portrayal of Iago is deliciously evil yet understated. The scenes between Branagh and Fishburne are electrifying and keep your eye on the screen.
It is probably to do with the times we live in that Branagh did not play Othello as both Olivier and Welles did before him. I don’t doubt that he would make a wonderful Othello if he had the chance. However, I feel that Iago was the perfect role for him in this film.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
- Kenneth Branagh - Hamlet
- Kate Winslet - Ophelia
- Julie Christie – Queen Gertrude
- Derek Jacobi - King Claudius
Hamlet is the story of the prince of Denmark. His father has been murdered and his mother has just married his uncle, who Hamlet is convinced murdered his father. The play starts off with the ghost of Hamlet’s father appearing and stating that he was murdered.
This is the most well-known and successful of Shakespeare’s plays and it has been filmed numerous times. Of all the versions, this is my favorite. Of course, it is also the only one I have made it all the way through.
Branagh plays Hamlet in an understated manner that seems to be exactly what Shakespeare had intended. He changed his appearance drastically by going for the blond look.
I can’t say enough good things about this performance. I did not notice any moments of weakness or over acting or over sentimentality. Branagh plays every scene he is in to perfection. He also surrounded himself with an amazing cast; Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie, Richard Briers, Michael Maloney. Everyone is at the top of their craft in this film.
After seeing Branagh’s version of this film, I understand exactly why Hamlet is the most produced Shakespeare play. There are so many levels in the story that you can study it for years. I read about it and discussed it with others for months afterwards.
This film runs over four hours and it is well worth every minute.
Love's Labour's Lost
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
- Kenneth Branagh - Berowne
- Alicia Silverstone - Princess
- Alessandro Nivola - King Ferdinand
Lost is the story of a king (King Ferdinand of Navarre) and his three friends
who give up women for three years in order to study. Of course, this does not
turn out as planned when the Princess of France shows up with her three ladies in waiting.
This is the film that had a lot of people asking if Kenneth Branagh had lost his mind. It is a musical version of the play that features the music of Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Irving Berlin, and others. It is played like a musical from the 1930s.
Personally, I love this fact that Branagh made this film a musical. I love the music of the ‘30s and this was a match made in heaven in my opinion. Many critics have pointed out that most of the actors cannot sing and dance all that well; but that is part of the charm of this film. Shakespeare’s best lines from the play are preserved and Branagh has perfectly cast himself as Berowne.
Don’t be put off by the premise, give this film a try to I am sure you will agree with me.
As You Like It
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
- Kevin Kline – Jacques
- Alfred Molina – Touchstone
- Brian Blessed – Duke Ferdinand
As You like It is the story of Duke Ferdinand and his brother Duke Frederick. Ferdinand was exiled by his brother and took refuge in the Forest of Arden while his daughter Rosalind remained living with Frederick. She is also exiled when she falls in love with Orlando. Orlando also flees to the Forest of Arden. Duke Frederick’s daughter Celia also comes to Arden to find her friend Rosalind.
This is another of Branagh’s Shakespeare films that I have only seen once. The fact that he wasn’t in it was a slight turn off for me. It was made for television and appeared on HBO.
However, this film features a great cast; Kevin Kline as Jacques (Duke Ferdinand’s courier) makes this film almost perfect. His performance is definitely a tour-de-force and he was well deserved of the SAG award that he won for Best Actor. Setting it in Japan was a strange idea to me at first but it really does work and makes for a beautiful looking film.
Glen Rix from UK on July 24, 2015:
I have just completed a Degree course with a final year on Shakespeare:Text and Performance and found your hub very interesting. I too love the Hamlet production - especially like the commentary provided by Ken. You have mentioned a couple of productions that I am not familiar with, so will be checking these out very soon. Thanks.
Adam Kullman from Texas on July 18, 2012:
Great reviews of KB's films. Nice to have the trailers there also. Great hub!
Charlotte on May 09, 2012:
He is superb. Great review!
Susan Keeping (author) from Kitchener, Ontario on February 27, 2012:
Lindsay, I was lucky enough to see the premiere of How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog at the Toronto Film festival sitting a few rows back from Kenneth Branagh, Lynn Redgrave and Robin Wright Penn. Got to meet them all later too, one of the best nights of my life :)
Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on February 21, 2012:
I love anything Shakespeare! I, too, love Branaugh playing Shakesspeare's characters. I have seen all his Shakespeare
films and I agree with your reviews. I like him very much as an actor.
lindsay on January 31, 2012:
i am watching Loves Labors lost right now. I love this movie. Much ado about nothing is my #1 movie however. I love kenneth branagh. I have never not liked a movie of his. the first movie i saw him in was how to kill your neighbors dog and i fell in love with him.
pjdscott from Durham, UK on June 08, 2011:
I didn't realise he had done so much Shakespeare. His Henry V is better than Olivier's, in my humble opinion. Super hub!
MMPG on April 02, 2011:
Great hub on Branagh's versions of Shakespeare. The St. Crispin's Day speech in Henry V is a tour-de-force. I also agree with your comments on his Hamlet. I think, by far, it's the best film performance. I don't think Olivier or Gibson (or other versions) manage to get all of the nuances--the humor, thoughtfulness, introspection, rage, etc. that is Hamlet. Branagh gets it all. An enjoyable read! :)
ralwus on June 13, 2010:
He is a great man in the industry, I truly enjoy his work and my favorite is Hamlet. I don't think he can really be compared to anyone, he is alone I do believe.
MidnightWolf on June 09, 2010:
I saw Hamlet recently. I had read it in high school and seen the Gibson and Hawke versions and didn't care for it much. In seeing Branagh's version, I felt for the first time like I understood the play. It was also the first time in three years that I saw a movie that I liked so much that I wanted to buy it.
I liked his Henry V too. I hope that sometime in the future, he adapts King Lear and Macbeth like he did Hamlet.
blake4d on May 02, 2010:
Thanx UW for writing this hub, I love the Kenneth B versions of Shakespeare. Much Ado and Henry V I am torn for which is my true fave. In fact Othello may be the best version ever put to film easily. And thank goodness Hamlet will not be remembered as another Mel Gibson classic thanks to Kenneth and the troupe he has assembled. I have seen ya on RedGage and it is always good to find familiar faces in other places.
Support the supportive, art for arts sake, etc etc...
Love this hub, look forward to reading more as time alots. But wanted to say hello - Blake4d =)
Kendall H. from Northern CA on February 07, 2010:
I loved Much Ado About Nothing! Wonderful film! Thanks for the great hub!
muzikchikee on August 13, 2009:
you are sooo right. I love Branagh!
GCMOSS on August 03, 2009:
SUPER CLIPS!!! I own all these movies and I watch them over and over. Ken Branagh is a joy to experience. He is truly brilliant. Thank you for this montage. :)
dohn121 from Hudson Valley, New York on August 03, 2009:
I'll tell you this, it was definitely a change of pace to see Branagh as kooky Gilderoy Lockeheart in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban! But it really doesn't matter what he plays as he does an amazing job with his character. I think that as British actor (or so it seems) playing in a Harry Potter announces to the world that you've arrived (or something like that). I really enjoyed his role in Hamlet. Top notch, as I gave the movie 4 stars out of possible 4. Thanks UW!
Nancy Hinchliff from Essex Junction, Vermont on August 03, 2009:
I loved this! I adore Branagh...saw him many times on stage in Stratford, Canada. For a while, I was going every October as a birthday gift to myself, but haven't gone lately because I'm so busy with my Inn (Oct is one of our busiest months). This was great, UW, thanks so much.
I didn't vote because I like all of the plays. Really can't choose, I'm such a Shakespeare fan. I was an English teacher before becoming an Innkeeper and was constantly immersed in Shakespeare. I have bookmarked this hub so I easily get a Shakespeare fix whenever I want.
EverythingMouse on August 03, 2009:
I didn't realize he was in quite so many of these movies. Great reviews. I was once lucky enough to see Sir Anthony Hopkins as King Lear at the National Theater. It was amazing
Susan Keeping (author) from Kitchener, Ontario on August 03, 2009:
Thanks Catlyn, glad you like it.
Catlyn from Somewhere in the OC on August 03, 2009:
WOW! What a great review of Branagh's works! Makes me want to go to Blockbuster and rent these movies right now! Thanks for writing this Hub!