Having been around more than four hundred years, the plays by William Shakespeare have been performed excessively. Not a complaint, of course, but it can be hard to distinguish the worthwhile interpretations from the not-so-much. Film adaptations are often riskier, fuelled by actors leaping at the chance to be ‘the one who got it right’. While every character portrayal has its merits, some actors exceed expectations with their originality. Here are some scene-stealers – the best of the best.
For this article, I only considered films that are direct renditions of the original text. Unfortunately, this eliminates loose interpretations such as She’s the Man, 10 Things I Hate About You and, most tragically, The Lion King (even though we all know it smokes them all).
Harold Perrineau as Mercutio | Romeo + Juliet (1996)
While some may not enjoy director Baz Luhrmann’s unconventionality, he undoubtedly revitalised one of the most overdone love stories. I can fill books with how much I adore this modern retelling, and my love comes from Harold Perrineau. Leo, who?
The play is full of characters making poor decisions, and Mercutio is no exception. Romeo’s righthand man, Mercutio is bold to a fault. He actively encourages confrontation and is quick to destroy someone with his casual wit. Luhrmann’s film is over-the-top, and Mercutio fits right in.
An extremely underrated actor, Perrineau depicts his character as a playful cross-dresser. DiCaprio may be the first billed actor and Romeo may be the lead, but Perrineau quickly establishes that his character is in control. Completely dominating the screen whenever he appears, Mercutio leaves a lasting impression long after his tragic death. Perrineau is the reason I took a liking to Shakespeare, and seeing him dance to disco, dressed in a leotard and feathers is undoubtedly why.
Emma Thompson as Beatrice | Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
I am very open about my dislike for Shakespeare’s comedies. Why do almost all of them take place in a forest? Why are the female leads so annoying? These are questions I, quite frankly, do not care enough about to find the answers (do not even get me started on As You Like It). With that said, I trust Kenneth Branagh, and his take on one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies is just too damn charming to ignore. Predominantly, the casting of (his wife at the time) Emma Thompson as the sarcastic yet loveable Beatrice was enough to convince me.
Thompson, a global treasure, makes the most of Shakespeare’s one dimensional view on women and in turn, strikes the balance between endearing and vulnerable. Her comedic timing is key, though, and she brings out the humour that I often miss in Shakespeare. Above all else, Thompson always outshines the rest of the cast, and Much Ado About Nothing is no exception. Although Thompson made this play tolerable, I still have no plans on ever taking that Shakespeare and Comedy module. No, thank you.
(Perhaps another reason I took a liking to Beatrice was because my first English tutor said I was reminiscent of her. I would like to think it is because I am witty and delightful. Or maybe she was subtly calling me a bitch. She offered no clarification, and the world may never know).
Ben Wishaw as Richard II | The Hollow Crown: Shakespeare’s Richard II (2012)
Second-year English students, gather ’round. It will not be long before you read Shakespeare’s historical play for semester two and take advantage of the faithful depiction from The Hollow Crown.
Richard II follows the titular, eccentric and hedonistic king that is not great at performing his royal duties. In comparison to his more violent plays, Shakespeare limits the action in this text to substitute it with plenty of critiques of Richard’s character. Each member of the supporting cast has an opinion of the king, both favourable and disapproving. Because of this, actors have more flexibility to portray Richard however villainous or innocent as they wish.
Why Ben Wishaw’s interpretation is noteworthy stems from his decision to present the king with a unique sensitivity and flamboyance. Richard’s materialistic behaviour becomes even more extreme when compared to Wishaw’s effeminate presence. The king acts as more of a victim to his poor decision than the country he governs. In turn, Richard becomes a character to pity rather than hate.
Look out for Act II when Richard returns from war; believing to be abandoned by his friends and followers, he cries out, cursing their names with defeat. Wishaw breaks up a long scene with his passionate depiction of a defeated king.
Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth | Macbeth (2015)
Having only been released on 2nd of October, this selection may not have garnered enough viewership to fully be appreciated. With that said, it’s Marion Cotillard. We all knew she would kill it (ba-dum-tiss).
Iconically brutal and goal-orientated (to say the least), Lady Macbeth is a role entirely contingent on its intensity. She is the ultimate queen, alluring and no-nonsense, yet only human and ultimately cannot cope with her drastic decisions. Flip-flopping between incredible strength and crippling guilt, she embodies complexity to the maximum. She is not a character for the faint heart.
It is common knowledge that Cotillard is incredibly talented, but she can often fall into the shadows of other actresses. However, her performance in Macbeth appears to come so naturally and effortless that it is mesmerising. Most noticeably is her monologue in the final act of the play, when Lady Macbeth fully succumbs to guilt. A dramatic speech in itself, the close-up camera angles and long takes leaves Cotillard entirely responsible for the emotionality. There are not cutaways for her to apply some tear-drops: the woman can beautifully cry on cue. No cry face to induce the tears, either. Cotillard becomes so immersed in the role that overacting and flashy movements are unnecessary. Audiences are left with a believable madness.
While her frantic scene may be the most captivating, viewers will also particularly get a kick out of how she easily emasculates Macbeth. It would be a pleasure to be murdered by Lady Macbeth, as long as she is played by Cotillard, of course.