Perchance a Shakespearean Movie Awaits Your Idle Hours

An audience, including a couple of cardboard cutouts, appears to be watching a stage performance

Jennifer Saunders and Joan Collins are members of the ensemble cast in Kenneth Branagh’s hilarious “A Midwinter’s Tale,” the story of an amateur theatrical production of “Hamlet” during the Christmas season in a provincial English village.

By Vanessa Zimmer

Lest I speak untruth, I shan’t vow I understand every word of Shakespeare. But I do admire much. To wit: “With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come” (The Merchant of Venice). 

After all, he who welcomes aging in good humor makes the best of life.

What I need say is this: April 23 has long been thought the birth day (and the death day) of William Shakespeare. So on the day that follows that notable occasion, we at Sundance Institute recall our works in honor of the Bard. 

In plain American English, we have sought out titles of Shakespearean-based independent films associated with the Sundance Film Festival or the Institute over the years. 

We hope they please thee.

Looking for Richard (1996 Sundance Film Festival) — Believing that Shakespeare has become a realm mostly for academics, Al Pacino aims to open up the experience with this unusual documentary. He incorporates a performance of Richard III with a dissection/exploration of the play. Pacino plays Richard, of course, with interviews from usual Shakespearean suspects such as Sir John Gielgud and Kenneth Branagh, but also performances from perhaps more surprising choices like Alec Baldwin and Winona Ryder. As Geoffrey Gilmore writes in the Festival Program Guide: “I doubt that anyone who ever hears ‘A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse’ will ever understand it quite the same way again.” Check viewing options here.

A Midwinter’s Tale (1996 Sundance Film Festival) — Kenneth Branagh diverges from his signature filmic takes on Shakespeare with this comic, even madcap, story of an amateur English production of Hamlet. First of all, with only six thespians available for the 24 roles, adjustments must be made, and that’s only one adjustment in this “sophisticated spoof.” “Alternately sweet, even poignant, and then wonderfully nasty and acerbic, A Midwinter’s Tale is a delicious romp that ‘debates’ theater, art, community, and, of course, life,” according to the Festival Program Guide. Check viewing options here

The Fifteen Minute Hamlet (1997 Sundance Film Festival) — Anyone who has relied heavily on CliffsNotes will appreciate this short film (actually 22, not 15, minutes — we’re not miracle workers, after all!), which capsulizes the entire play of Hamlet. Directed by Todd Louiso. Check viewing options here

Scotland, PA (2001 Sundance Film Festival) — Macbeth goes 1970s hip in writer-director Billy Morrissette’s tale of greed and murder at a fast-food restaurant. As Pat McBeth, Maura Tierney plays a scheming wife who becomes obsessed with a burn spot on her hand. Christopher Walken plays Lieutenant Ernie McDuff. Need we say more? The Festival Program Guide sums it up: “With the aid of an experienced cast that lend their wonderfully idiosyncratic talents to an ageless tale of desire, greed, and murder, [Morrissette] has created a film that is wickedly funny and incisive.” Check viewing options here.

Shakespeare Behind Bars (2005 Sundance Film Festival) — In a Kentucky prison, inmates cast themselves in roles in The Tempest that reflect their own history. Director Hank Rogerson shoots this documentary over the course of a year, as Shakespearean volunteer director Curt Tofteland leads the amateur actors and weaves their stories into the plot. In the process, the inmates confront their personal demons. Shakespeare Behind Bars is a tremendously moving film, where the protagonists are not merely defined by their crimes but are afforded dignity and a fresh chance to look truth in the eye, and embrace it,” Diane Weyerman writes in the Festival Program Guide. The film received a documentary film grant and went through a Documentary and Edit Lab and a Documentary Composers Lab, all through the Sundance Institute. Check viewing options here

Hamlet 2 (2008 Sundance Film Festival) — Steve Coogan plays a wannabe actor, now a high school teacher, who sets out to stage an original production of Hamlet 2, a sequel to the original. Uh-oh. “Irreverently zany and at times pushing the envelope of political correctness to its max, [director Andy] Fleming steers an all-star cast that ricochets easily between delicious dialogue and insane situations,” John Cooper writes in the Festival Program Guide. David Arquette, Marshall Bell, Catherine Keener, and Amy Poehler also star. Check viewing options here

Ophelia (2018 Sundance Film Festival) — Ophelia gets to tell her side of the story in this reimagination of Hamlet directed by Claire McCarthy. “Ophelia plucks its titular character from literary slumber and firmly places her center stage, where she belongs,” reads the Festival Program Guide. Daisy Ridley portrays Ophelia. The film is based on a book by Lisa Klein. Check viewing options here

R#J (2021 Sundance Film Festival) — Talk about updates: Director Carey Williams launches Shakespeare’s tragic love story into truly modern times. “Told entirely through social media and smartphone screens, this bold adaptation of Romeo and Juliet reinvents the world’s most enduring love story with style and lyricism, with black and brown youth at the heart of it all,” according to the Festival Program Guide. “Blending text messages and Shakespearean dialogue, R#J takes us into the subversive love language of the moment.” Not presently available for viewing.

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