"Hamlet" is obviously the gold standard for actors -- pull off the melancholy Dane, and you've just about reached the top of your craft. Kenneth Branagh's turn as everyone's favorite soliloquist is an ambitious, bold, wonderful film that just misses the mark.
First, the high points (and there are many). By daring to film the entire (four hour!) production, Branagh has paid both Shakespeare and his audience the ultimate compliment. As Branagh's characters spelled out in his comic gem, "A Midwinter's Tale," cutting "Hamlet" from its full four-hour length to a two-plus hour length is one of the most difficult editorial processes you'll ever try, but everyone does it because nobody stays in their seats for four hours anymore. By telling the "whole story," Branagh fleshes out minor characters and provides more context for the story (for example, Claudius has a more precarious political position than many truncated versions depict, and his negotiations with Laertes become more important).
Branagh's Hamlet is a bright, dynamic individual, full of rage and yet stymied by his ability to see more than one side of the situation. (As has been pointed out by wiser folks than I, if Hamlet and Othello were transposed, there wouldn't be any plays! Othello would have murdered Claudius in the first act, and Hamlet would have seen through Iago's plotting and outsmarted him.) He's a product of his home, which is a surprisingly well-lit, semi-modern location -- most productions cast Elsinore as a fairly gloomy place.
Showing off a buffness that was not present in his earlier films (in "Henry V," Branagh is comparatively doughy), Branagh nails the part. From his sheepish realization that he is overcoaching the players to his anguish over his realized inaction to his manipulation of Ophelia (a suitably tortured Kate Winslet), Branagh hits all the right notes and even pulls off the difficult fencing scene with Laertes. The rest of the British cast (Branagh veterans for the most part, including Derek Jacobi as Claudius -- Jacobi was considered the leading "Hamlet" of his era) is excellent. Watch for a nice Ghost scene -- the Ghost's fury and torment and Hamlet's horrified recognition that the Ghost is confirming his worst fears more than makes up for some second-rate special effects.
The look of the film is tremendous. Shot in 70mm (giving a richer, wider picture), "Hamlet" gives us a sprawling Elsinore Castle filled with a wonderfully dressed royalty. The centerpiece of Elsinore is an ingenious throne room filled with mirrors, conveniently allowing for spying under plausible circumstances for key scenes. But other scenes also appropriately take place in back rooms and on the edges of the domain. This is definitely a kingdom worth killing for (as is Gertrude, played by the perpetually ravishing Julie Christie).
"Hamlet" forces the director to make choices. Branagh has chosen to make Hamlet confrontational -- many of his lines that could be whispered asides to the audience are instead full-fledged roars to all and sundry. Some might quibble -- it worked for me.
There are only two weaknesses in the film. First, is the general weakness of the American cast. It's a sad fact that not every great actor is a great Shakespearean actor, and in an apparent attempt to make "Hamlet" more accessible by bringing in well-known Americans, some jarring results occur. Jack Lemmon, God bless him, sounds completely out of his depth in his cameo. Robin Williams, who has the acting chops to play Shakespeare, inexplicably makes his brief role as Osric as mincing as one of his stand-up comic homosexuality riffs. Billy Crystal acquits himself fairly well as the First Gravedigger by showing the restraint Williams eschews. The only American who triumphs in a cameo performance is Charlton Heston, who inhabits the role of the Player King with a nice balance of pomposity and humility.
By comparison, the Brits who have minor roles (including Sir John Gielgud as Priam, Sir Richard Attenborough as the English Ambassador, and Rufus Sewell as Fortinbras) show how the Shakespearean game is played, even in small roles.
The only other problem I had with the film is Hamlet's exit -- the Christ imagery was just too darn over the top. We're several decades removed from such obvious imagery (it may have worked for Paul Newman in "The Left Handed Gun," but now it provokes only rolling eyeballs).
"Hamlet" is truly a magnificent attempt to tell Shakespeare's most famous tale. Standing ovations to Branagh and friends for even attempting this unabridged version -- this was truly daring. I have not seen a better film adaptation of "Hamlet." The fact that it doesn't quite work to 5-star level (unlike, say, Ian McKellen's "Richard III") is no criticism whatsoever.