Hamlet (1996)

Screenplay : Kenneth Branagh (based on the play by William Shakespeare)

MPAA Rating : PG-13

Year of Release : 1996

Stars : Kenneth Branagh (Hamlet), Derek Jacobi (Claudius), Julie Christie (Gertrude), Richard Briers (Polonius), Brian Blessed (Ghost/Old Hamlet), Michael Maloney (Laertes), Nicholas Farrell (Horatio), Kate Winslet (Ophelia)

"Hamlet" has always been Shakespeare's longest and most complex play, so it is only fitting that when Kenneth Branaugh adapted it to the screen, he used the Bard's entire text, finishing with a film that runs just two minutes short of four hours (and a minute short of Cleopatra, the longest U.S. film ever made).

By filming the play in its entirety, Branaugh gives the film the kind of scope and arc that had been lacking in previous interpretations. The four-hour version makes earlier films look almost skimpy by comparison, even Sir Laurence Olivier's much lauded 1948 Academy Award winner. It's like the difference between listening to the full two-disc set of a Broadway musical, or the one-disc "Selections" version: with the one-disc you get the major production numbers, but you lack the smaller scenes that link them together and make them more coherent. Branaugh's "Hamlet" keeps those smaller scenes to great effect.

Branaugh has made several other successful screen adaptations of Shakespeare's plays ("Henry V," "Much Ado About Nothing"), but none of them can match the absolute splendor and dynamic force displayed in "Hamlet." Branaugh keeps the action in Denmark, but transfers the time period to the what appears to be the late nineteenth century. He matches the expansive scope of the play by filming at the huge Blenheim Palace in the English countryside. The interior set design is extraordinary, especially the huge mirrored hall where much of the action takes place. It gives the film a feel of openness and grandeur, something not felt in Franco Zeferrelli's version with Mel Gibson.

Branaugh infuses the film with a unique style that breathes new life into what some might complain is an overly adapted production (the Internet Movie Database lists 31 film versions since 1900, and Zeferelli's made his film a mere six years ago). Recent cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare (with the exception of last year's "Richard III") have taken a dark, dreary approach, including Branaugh's own "Henry V." With "Hamlet," he goes for something larger and brighter by giving it the deluxe treatment of being filmed in 70 mm.

One of the best scenes comes early in the film after the marriage of Hamlet's mother Gertrude (Julie Christie) and his uncle Claudius (Derek Jacobi). When the newly married couple leaves, a shower of flower petals comes down like rain over a cheering crowd that follows hastily after them. But Hamlet stands with his back to the camera, still removed from what is going on. It tells much about his character, and foreshadows what is to come later on.

If anything, Hamlet is always alone because of his inability to deal with what happens in his life. He is a solitary figure by his own devices, and even when his love Ophelia (Kate Winslet) tries to reach out to him, he ends up alienating her and eventually driving her mad. In this way "Hamlet" is a tragedy, but the film never once tries to convince us that Hamlet doesn't know what he's doing.

Claudius and Polonius (Richard Briers) benefit the most from the full text of the play. Claudius had previously been seen as only a power-hungry ogre, but the full version shows him in more scenes that add additional dimension to his character. Likewise, Polonius, who had previously been seen only as a dirty old schemer, is seen more as a father and a victim in Branaugh's version. When he is stabbed behind the curtain by Hamlet, we are not so inclined to be happy about it. After all, he is Laertes' father and, as Hamlet knows, the untimely loss a father is a terrible thing.

As I see it, the only real problem with this film is its penchant for putting in too many cameo roles. Actors as far reaching as Charlton Heston and Billy Crystal show up at inopportune times, throwing off some of the involvement. Charlton Heston's performance as the Player King is good enough to stand on its own, but all the others are merely distracting. When Billy Crystal shows up as the gravedigger, he basically plays the note he played so well in "When Harry Met Sally," only this time he's speaking Shakespeare's poetry. Robin Williams is downright goofy as Osric in the last act, and Jack Lemmon looks stiff and uncomfortable as Marcellus, one of the guards who first sees the ghost of Hamlet's father. Unfortunately, the effect of having these actors in bit roles breaks up the spell the rest of the film casts. Luckily, their screen time is short, and it doesn't take the film long to cast its spell once again.

Nevertheless, "Hamlet" is bold, powerhouse filmmaking, and Branaugh should be commended for having the strength and will to bring it to life. Not many filmmakers would dare to film and then market a four-hour film like this, but Branaugh pulls it off marvelously. "Hamlet" is well paced and visually scrumptious, and as a result, the time flies by and you don't even notice how long it is. To cut it down to two and a half hours, as had been previously suggested by nervous executives, would be a terrible compromise to an otherwise great film.

©1997 James Kendrick

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