Review: ‘Hamlet’

Continuing his successful run of Shakespearean screen adaptations, Kenneth Branagh has mounted a full-bodied, clear-headed, resplendently staged rendition of "Hamlet" that rewards the time required to experience it.

Continuing his successful run of Shakespearean screen adaptations, Kenneth Branagh has mounted a full-bodied, clear-headed, resplendently staged rendition of “Hamlet” that rewards the time required to experience it. A rare unedited, full-text version of the Bard’s lengthiest play, the result is the second-longest major American or British feature film of all time, only one minute shorter than the original roadshow cut of “Cleopatra.” But the commercial difficulties of this warranted indulgence have been uniquely anticipated, as the exclusive runs of the four-hour, 70mm version will be followed, and in some cases overlapped, by the wider release of a 2-1/2-hour edition. Commercial response to both versions should be solid from the public that has supported Branagh’s previous Shakespearean outings.

The sixth sound-era film adaptation of the celebrated tragedy, the first having been Laurence Olivier’s Oscar-winner in 1948 and the most recent the Mel Gibson-Franco Zeffirelli pairing only six years ago, this one gains immediate distinction as the first to present the work intact. Just as it creates the problem of length, this decision also yields significant artistic dividends through the revelation of normally excised or underemphasized aspects of the play, with the balance ultimately tipping in favor of increased meaning and richness over added dramatic longueurs.

Above all, the film strives for maximum clarity, for laying out the political, psychological and emotional dimensions of the complex work as fully as possible, and for making the language accessible and comprehensible to the widest audience. The director’s pragmatic approach, which includes brief illustrative flashbacks designed to fix characters and events in the viewer’s mind, will probably strike legit partisans and academic purists as lowbrow and coarse, but can be defended as well as a perfectly plausible cinematic device that both helps keep things straight and varies the visual texture.

Branagh, who has played Hamlet onstage close to 300 times, transplants the tale to an unspecified period of the mid-to-late 19th century, a time well suited to the issues of shifting European borders and interrelated royalty pertinent to the play. Pic gets off to a somewhat wobbly start with the appearance of the ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father on a wintry night, but clicks into gear with a lushly colorful ceremony, in a dazzling mirrored royal assembly hall, celebrating the marriage of the widowed Queen Gertrude (Julie Christie) to the late king’s brother Claudius (Derek Jacobi) a mere month after the monarch’s mysterious demise.

Both his father’s death and his mother’s hasty marriage have sent the brooding Hamlet into a deep funk, and it is the revelation by his father’s ghost (a glowingly blue-eyed Brian Blessed) that Claudius murdered him that spurs the remainder of the action as well as Hamlet’s deep look into his own, and human, nature that is the substance of the play.

For young viewers and audiences unfamiliar with the work, this is about as coherent and welcoming a presentation of the storyline as they are likely to see. But even for veterans of past Hamlets, there are significant bonuses on the textual level alone. The brewing military conflict and political forces at play have very rarely been broached so fully, the ultimate benefit being that Fortinbras is not just some stranger who shows up in the final scene to mop up after the bloodbath, but an intriguing, devious figure in his own right. The Player King, often reduced to little more than a mime, becomes a weighty presence when played out at full rein by an imposing Charlton Heston, and the sexual component is increased, not only by some hotsy cutaways to Hamlet and Ophelia in the sack, but through the lusty relationship obviously being enjoyed by Claudius and Gertrude.

The downside of Branagh’s style is a literal-mindedness that is most evident when he makes rather forlorn attempts at poetic visual flourishes; he is playing for the masses, and subtlety is the casualty. Making the earth roil and shake when Hamlet looks for his father’s ghost in the woods comes off as a half-hearted stab at a scary special effects sequence, and illustrations of an ancient story with the briefest of appearances by John Gielgud and Judi Dench seem gratuitously over-the-top. British audiences will get a hoot out of comedian Ken Dodd popping up in cutaways as Yorick, whose buck-toothed skull Hamlet examines and ponders.

But the film’s occasional missteps are greatly shadowed by its general strengths. In both performance and direction, Branagh displays an energy and forcefulness that is contagious to the huge and varied cast. His bleach-blond Hamlet is not as woundedly sensitive as some nor as indecisive, but an aggrieved, vigorous man of action, ever adjusting to the mounting scandals and shocks that mark his house. Branagh shouts and fulminates rather more than one might like and shows a willingness to try anything for effect, but it is a commanding, solid surface characterization, one that well articulates the meanings on the page but refrains from venturing into uncharted depths.

At least a couple of the other actors are altogether brilliant, specifically Derek Jacobi (who directed Branagh’s stage Hamlet) as a keenly tactical and shrewd Claudius, and Richard Briers, whose Polonius is a revelation; whereas the character is normally played as a foolish old buffoon, Briers approaches him much more seriously, persuasively making him a political man of tragically misguided motives.

For Shakespeare buffs, the film is worth seeing for these performances alone, but also weighing in impressively are Julie Christie, dazzlingly earthy as the ill-considered queen, Kate Winslet as the doomed Ophelia and even Billy Crystal, who gives some sly and impish twists to his line readings as the gravedigger.

Aside from him and Heston, however, the non-Brits on hand prove a mixed blessing, with Robin Williams passably amusing as a very fey Osric but Jack Lemmon just not equipped for the occasion as one of the palace guards who spots the ghost. Gerard Depardieu fortunately has few lines of any length to say in his one scene as Polonius’ servant Reynaldo.

This is the first feature film shot on 65mm stock and projected in 70mm since “Far And Away” in 1992, and the result is a stunningly handsome production with tremendous visual clarity and depth. Cinematographer Alex Thomson, who first worked in 70mm as a focus puller on “Lawrence of Arabia,” has collaborated very creatively with Branagh to keep the film visually stimulating for four hours, shooting the cascade of dialogue scenes in different ways, often circling the action and making good use of the mirrors that panel the principal set of Tim Harvey’s sumptuous production design. Location castle scenes were shot at the enormous Blenheim Palace, ancestral home of the Duke of Marlborough, and most exteriors are snowbound to excellent visual effect.

Costume designer Alex Byrne has taken advantage of the imprecise historical period to devise some exceedingly becoming gowns and outfits for the women and to dress the men in some of the most attractive military uniforms of the last century. Patrick Doyle’s musical score is generally helpful, although it does intrude on occasion, particularly on the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, which is otherwise superbly realized with Hamlet regarding himself in a full-length mirror.

As it will be presented in its exclusive runs, film’s first “half” runs 158 minutes, or longer than the entire reduced version promises to be. Post-intermission second part runs 84 minutes. Only American films since the 1960s to approach four hours in running time were “Heaven’s Gate,” at 219 minutes, in 1980, and “Once Upon a Time in America,” at 227 minutes, in 1984; ironically, both of those initially went out in the U.S. in shortened versions, only to surface later in their original, full-length cuts. This time, the filmmakers and distrib knew what they had and planned ahead for the reverse, and more logical, release




A Sony Pictures Entertainment release from Columbia Pictures of a Castle Rock Entertainment presentation. Produced by David Barron. Directed, adapted for the screen by Kenneth Branagh, based on the play by William Shakespeare.


Camera (Technicolor, Panavision Super 70), Alex Thomson; editor, Neil Farrell; music, Patrick Doyle; production design, Tim Harvey; art direction, Desmond Crowe; costume design, Alex Byrne; sound (SDDS/Dolby), Peter Glossop; assistant director, Simon Moseley; casting, Vanessa Pereira, Simone Ireland. Reviewed at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, Beverly Hills, Dec. 4, 1996. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 242 min. without intermission.


Hamlet - Kenneth Branagh
Gertrude - Julie Christie
First Gravedigger - Billy Crystal
Reynaldo - Gerard Depardieu
Player King - Charlton Heston
Claudius - Derek Jacobi
Marcellus - Jack Lemmon
Fortinbras - Rufus Sewell
Osric - Robin Williams
Ophelia - Kate Winslet
English Ambassador - Richard Attenborough
Ghost - Brian Blessed
Polonius - Richard Briers
Hecuba - Judi Dench
Guildenstern - Reece Dinsdale
Yorich - Ken Dodd
Horatio - Nicholas Farrell
Francisco - Ray Fearon
Priam - John Gielgud
Player Queen - Rosemary Harris
Barnardo - Ian McElhinney
Laertes - Michael Maloney
Old Norway - John Mills
Second Gravedigger - Simon Russell Beale
Rosencrantz - Timothy Spall

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