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HAMLET

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Kenneth Branagh, Julie Christie, Billy Crystal, Gerard Depardieu, Charlton Heston, Derek Jacobi, Jack Lemmon, Rufus Sewell, Robin Williams, Kate Winslet
Director:  Kenneth Branagh
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.20:1
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  See Review
Length:  242 Minutes
Release Date:  August 14, 2007

“What a piece of work is a man.”

Film ****

And what a piece of work is Hamlet.  William Shakespeare’s tragedy of madness, treachery, war and the human condition has been rightly called the apex of English literature, and as such, it’s been fit for many adaptations to the big screen by the likes of Laurence Olivier, Franco Zeffirelli and more.  But for my money, Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 effort is, and will likely always remain, the definitive movie version.

That’s partly owing to Branagh’s decision to film the work in its entirety, which was a Herculean labor never before undertaken.  The resulting film is the second longest Hollywood production in history, barely missing the mark set by Cleopatra.  But don’t let the length distract you…this is dynamic, lively, and engaging entertainment from start to finish.

By not excising the text, Branagh brings full scope to the Bard’s work.  Claudius (Jacobi) becomes more than just a scheming villain, but a fully weighted and dimensional character.  We get more of a sense of the obsequiousness of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  Ophelia (Winslet) becomes a truly tragic figure instead of a sadly ornamental one.  And Hamlet himself (Branagh) is a soul completely laid bare for all to examine.

If you sat through high school English, you already know the story:  the Danish prince Hamlet is set on a course by the ghost of his father, who informs his son that his death was no accident, but a murder executed by his own brother Claudius, who now sits on the throne and has wedded his wife Gertrude (Christie).  Hamlet is entreated to seek revenge, which he does methodically by first making himself appear mad.  The story progresses toward its tragic ending, in which half of the main cast ends up dead and the future of the nation greatly in question.

The tale is well known.  What Branagh brings, as both actor and director, is a large sense of vision and style, but one that never overwhelms the characters.  I dare say, thinking back on the great cinematic directors of Shakespeare from Laurence Olivier to Orson Welles, to even Akira Kurosawa’s loose adaptations, Branagh succeeds for me in being the best at making the text accessible to modern audiences.  He’s been doing that since his debut with Henry V, and Hamlet is his unqualified masterpiece.

Under his eye, the castle of Elsinore becomes more than just a backdrop…it is a character in and of itself, with its expansive halls, mirrored rooms, eerie forests and secret chambers.  Branagh’s vision explodes dynamically from the screen, filling every corner with information and with a willingness to take a theatrical text and make it burst forth with an energy and vitality that never could have been confined to a stage.

Shakespeare’s works seem to invite artistic interpretation, whether it’s taking Romeo and Juliet into a modern setting with classic text still intact, or Akira Kurosawa using the Bard’s works as the foundation for incredible tales of Japanese feudal societies.  In a stage rendition of Othello, Patrick Stewart played the title character in a reversal of race roles against an otherwise all black cast.  Here, Branagh updated his setting slightly, making Hamlet look more 19th century than 15th, but it works because he understood his vision and remained faithful to it throughout.

Even his mix of British and American actors doesn’t detract; Yanks like Charlton Heston, Jack Lemmon and Robin Williams hold their own against their counterparts Jacobi, Christie and Winslet.  Billy Crystal delves into the role of the gravedigger with such vigor that it calls to mind the old joke about the actor who got cast as the gravedigger in a stage production.  When his wife asks what Hamlet is about, he says it’s about a gravedigger who meets a prince.

But it really all comes down to Branagh’s fortitude as an actor and a director.  His style is sumptuous and confident, and while he plays Hamlet as indecisive, his job in the director’s chair feels anything but.  Hamlet is one of the 90s greatest films, and enthusiasts and casual observers will find themselves much rewarded by surrendering to the vision.  “The play’s the thing”…but the movie isn’t far behind.

Video ***

The decision to split the movie at the intermission and put it on two discs was the right one…it avoided a lot of undue compression.  That being said, there were still a few noticeable moments of artifacts in one or two darker scenes.  Colors and images are generally bright and crisp overall, though there may be a stretch or two where the screen seems more filled with information than can be effectively handled for a home theatre system.  Overall, though, very pleasing.

Audio **1/2

The audio mix is a little curious…it’s mostly good overall, but in the first reel, there seems to be obvious fluctuation, making a few pieces of dialogue drop down noticeably.  I’m not sure how that escaped quality control.  Though a dialogue oriented work, there are large scenes of action and activity that keep the front and rear stages in play, and the always-excellent Patrick Doyle provides a striking musical score.

Features ***

There are some good extras with this two disc set, starting with an engaging introduction by Kenneth Branagh, a little longer than you might be used to, but all the better for it.  There is a running commentary by Branagh and Shakespeare scholar Russel Jackson.

The remaining features are on the second disc, and they include a history of Hamlet on film, a promo for the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, and a gallery of trailers for Shakespeare films.

Summary:

Simply put, Shakespearean adaptations don’t get any bigger or bolder than Hamlet.  An unexcised version was a gamble, but it was one that paid off beautifully.  Branagh’s film instantly became the definitive screen version of the Bard’s most famous play, and for my money, remains one of the single greatest treatments of Shakespeare on film.

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