The title of this list used to be BEST PERIOD SHAKESPEARE FILMS IN THE LAST 20 YEARS until I did math and realized how old I am 😖
  1. Henry V (Kenneth Branagh)
    This film gets first billing because it revitalized the Shakespearian epic on film. Branagh's production is gritty and dirty and emotional and somehow so much more real than Olivier's 1944 version. Henry V taught my generation that Shakespeare could not only be comprehensible, but also could have something to teach us in our modern context. Branagh's Henry inspires and fights, but he knows and feels the heavy human cost of war, and he makes the audience feel it too.
  2. Much Ado About Nothing (Branagh)
    This isn't technically set in the period in which Shakespeare wrote it, but it's ambiguous enough that I'm putting it here. It's also the first Shakespearian film I ever saw, so it holds a special place in my heart. The cast is mostly delightful, and the humor and drama of the play shine through equally. Bonus :: baby Kate Beckinsale and Sean Patrick Leonard! The only weak point is Keanu Reeves, who mostly just looks confused.
  3. Richard II (The Hollow Crown)
    This is probably the least often performed of the history plays, but that makes this film production all the more spectacular. Ben Whishaw delivers a performance unlike any I've ever seen in this role - his Richard seems lost in a dream that quickly turns into a nightmare. I know it seems like that wouldn't be interesting to watch, but I couldn't take my eyes off of him.
  4. Macbeth (Justin Kurzel)
    This film is somehow both achingly beautiful and horrifically violent (there were several scenes I watched from behind my hands). Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard both turn in performances for the books - Cotillard as Lady Macbeth gave me chills. The way that the play is abridged makes it feel strange and truncated somehow, but this is still an adaptation that shouldn't be missed.
  5. Henry V (The Hollow Crown)
    I love this version of Henry V. Hiddleston is a much quieter Henry than Branagh, but his performance is the more nuanced for it. I've watched Hiddleston's and Branagh's performances of the St. Crispin's Day speech back-to-back and I honestly can't decide which I prefer.
  6. Henry IV parts 1 and 2 (The Hollow Crown)
    These are the weaker links in the Hollow Crown series - I think they really suffered in the editing process. There are some wonderful individual performances though, most notably Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff. Even though the story through these two plays seems disjointed and unnecessarily busy at times, they are worth watching - they remind us that the king we see in Henry V sacrificed quite a bit to find his kingly authority.
  7. Hamlet (Franco Zeffirelli)
    I know, I know.. The Hamlet with Mel Gibson in it. Before he went off the deep end, though, I think this was probably one of Gibson's finer performances. He doesn't get overwhelmed by the challenge of the language or the role, and while he plays his Hamlet without the nuance of Branagh or Cumberbatch (just wait till we get to the non-period list!) he acquits himself well.