on June 16, 2004
"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.
on May 7, 2004
I cannot add to the wonderful reviews for this film but I would like to tell of my personal experience with it.
I have a teen-age daughter who was struggling with English Lit. She hated reading (always had). She had to read various classics and was especially struggling with Hamlet. She could not understand it, but, plodded through it anyway. The cliff notes confused her. I came across this movie at the video rental place and decided to try it to see if it would help. After watching the video, she was so excited about the story of Hamlet that she immediately read it again, then watched the movie again. We both found the movie to be extremely true to the original writing. The greatest thing about this movie is that it gave my daughter the drive to read. FINALLY. I had given up on her ever being able to enjoy reading, now she would rather read than watch TV. I give all the credit to this movie. Now, if a movie comes out based on a book she always reads the book if she watches the movie.
The only criticism I have is that I WANT THIS ON DVD and it isn't available.
on November 2, 2009
I admire Branaugh's boldness in making a completely uncut version of Hamlet at four hours long. This may be too long for some viewers, but I am a bard addict, so it works for me! This seems to be a controversial version of the film in that people either seem to love it or hate it. Count me among one of those who loves it.
Branaugh captures the complexities of Hamlet's character. He acts melancholy, manic, angry, and witty at all the right moments (in my opinion).
Some have criticized Kate Winslet as Ophelia, but I think she does a suprisingly good job. She really looks and sounds emotionally broken in her "mad" scenes.
I also really liked the choice of a vibrant and beautiful Elsinore. I think it represents the hypocrisy of Claudius, charming and attractive on the outside but corrupt and rotten on the inside. Not everything that is corrupt and dark in this world necessarily looks that way in terms of appearences.
Most importantly, this movie moved me: it struck my emotional nerves. I was saddened when Gertrude reported Ophelia's drowning, I laughed at Hamlet and the gravedigger's witty jokes, and I was angered by Claudius' machinations. When a movie, through the actors, is able to move me on an emotional level, I definitely admire it.
on December 31, 2014
The chief virtue of Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 Hamlet is that it’s essentially complete, though this could be construed as a mixed blessing, given that Shakespeare is unlikely ever to have produced a complete production himself and that it may never have occurred to him that anyone would ever try to do so. Its key weakness, though, to my mind, is the other aspect of its ambition: Branagh has a tendency to focus on gorgeousness over interpretation (or faithfulness) in his Shakespeare films, and in this case, all the luxury and the focus on beauteous film-making distract both him and us from the substance of the play, and take the whole thing down several notches. The play, as written, has a heavy atmosphere of darkness and sickness and paranoia and claustrophobia, and this atmosphere is a key element of it; this film has too much glamour and glitz, too much space, and way, way too much light. It completely excises the flavouring that ought to overhang the play. (The film was shot at Blenheim Palace, which is, admittedly, gorgeous.)
I’m not sure that Branagh is all that strong an actor, either, and in this case his talent doesn’t match his ambition; though there’s nothing really wrong with his performance, there’s nothing particularly right about it either, and you never get the feeling that he’s really gotten to the heart of the character; he misses much of the nobility, as well as the existential angst; there’s nothing underlying his antic, and you lose sight of the method and the seriousness, the melancholy and the profundity of the character — and thus the point. Having said that, there are several good passages: he’s strong in the scene right after the play within the play, for example, if not so good during it.
Hamlet and his friends also seemed to me to be too old for their parts; they’re supposed to be university students (albeit oldish ones), and making Hamlet look older (not to mention Horatio, who looks like a prosperous accountant who should be at home with his very proper wife and his 2.7 lovely young children, not skulking around Elsinore with someone with issues like Hamlet’s) takes away from the whole philosophical-university-student-suffering-from-melancholy-and-idealism thing, which is a pretty important context of everything he says and does.
There are other misjudgements. The sex scenes between Ophelia and Hamlet seriously distort their relationship and her character, and they're simply gratuitous. The fight scene at the end starts off ridiculous, passes through ludicrous, and ends up just plain laughable (think balcony, rope, chandelier…). Fortinbras is made to take Denmark by force, which undermines the character’s role in the play, and seems to me to contradict the text explicitly. Music is frequently used poorly; it’s often sentimental and well beneath the tone of the play, and sometimes the mood of the music contradicts the spirit of the scene it’s in. Music is also sometimes used to add unnecessary emphasis to a scene, in keeping with Branagh’s tendency to point up key scenes too much; it doesn’t work, and just seems silly. The music in the Act 4 soliloquy struck me as ridiculous.
As for the other actors, Brian Blessed is absolutely fantastic in the role of the Ghost, once he starts talking in Act I (the film’s almost worth watching for those few minutes alone, though again, one might argue that it’s not quite the effect Shakespeare was going for); the initial appearances of the Ghost struck me as a little bizarre and incoherent, though. Derek Jacobi is fine as Claudius, though it doesn’t look like a very difficult role to me. Julie Christie could have been a little wispier as Gertrude. Kate Winslet is strong as Ophelia, though perhaps a bit too strong; the character could do with a little frailty. As usual, the Americans can’t quite hold up their end alongside the British actors. Billy Crystal seemed particularly weak to me as the Gravedigger; the fellow who plays his second fiddle would have been a better choice.
For all my carping, the film’s probably worth seeing — just — because of its completeness; but it’s certainly not a definitive performance, and I sometimes wonder how much Branagh really cares about Shakespeare; his Shakespeare films seem to be more about Branagh.
"Hamlet" doesn't need any introduction -- the tortured Dane, the ghost, meditations on suicide and a climax full of death.
And for many years, the definitive version has been Kenneth Branagh's sprawling four-hour movie, "William Shakespeare's Hamlet." Branagh -- who both directed and starred in it -- sometimes bombasts his way out of scenes that deserve more subtlety, but the richness of the acting, the beautiful cinematography and the wells of powerful emotion make this a rewarding experience.
Prince Hamlet of Denmark (Branagh and his peroxided hair) is understandably upset when, only a short time after his father's death, his mother Gertrude (Julie Christie) marries his uncle Claudius (Derek Jacobi), who is now the new king. But when Hamlet encounters the tormented ghost of his father (Brian Blessed), he learns that his dad was murdered by his uncle. But he's plagued by indecision, since he's unsure if the spirit was truly his dad.
Over the days that follow, Hamlet's behavior becomes more bizarre and erratic. He treats his girlfriend Ophelia (Kate Winslet) horribly, arranges a play that mimics real life a little too closely, and generally acts like a loon. But when an argument with Gertrude ends in tragedy, Claudius plots to have Hamlet killed upon his return to England. And as madness and death fester in Denmark's palace, Hamlet is drawn back to have his final vengeance -- but doing so may destroy him and everyone he knows.
"Hamlet" is one of those plays that only really comes out two ways -- either you have a passionate, intense tragedy full of very human characters, or you have two boring hours of some whiny guy talking to himself. While "William Shakespeare's Hamlet" has some draggy bits (which isn't surprising, considering the FOUR HOUR length), the sheer passion and verve keeps it energized.
And Branagh stages everything like a play, set on a very elaborate stage. The forests and expanses of Denmark look faintly artificial, and the palace is a great black-and-white checkerboard with mirrored doors and scarlet carpets. Branagh follows Shakespeare's immortal writing faithfully, but also adds some wild, vivid spins of his own -- the action-packed duel, Ophelia getting hosed down, Hamlet's fantasies of stabbing his uncle.
The biggest problem? Sometimes Branagh gets too bombastic and flashy when he should show more subtlety -- when he mentions hell, the ground splits open and spews flame. And the final clash with Claudius is marred by a falling chandelier that seems more Errol Flynn than Shakespeare.
Branagh (and his peroxided hair) play Hamlet as almost bipolar -- when he isn't roaring with manic energy (guess what happens during the play!), he whispers unblinkingly with wire-taut tension. He clearly has an intense love for the material, and it becomes almost exhausting to see him pour so much passion and emotion into every line that Hamlet utters.
And Kate Winslet gives the most perfect Ophelia performance ever, descending into glazed-eyed, giggling insanity halfway through the movie. Branagh also managed to get an all-star cast for this, with some mesmerizing performances by Christie, Jacobi, Rufus Sewell, Nicholas Farrell, Richard Briers and Blessed (why did he get Brian Blessed playing a character who only whispers?).
There are also some smaller performances by A-list actors, who all seem very delighted with roles that are barely more than cameos -- Sir John Gielgud, Judi Dench, a clearly enthusiastic Charlton Heston, Billy Crystal, Robin Williams and Gérard Depardieu.
"William Shakespeare's Hamlet" is a powerhouse. While it could use a little less bombast, the rich acting and passionate delivery make it far more intriguing than most four-hour movies can be.
on June 29, 2004
Kenneth Branagh's "Hamlet" works so well on the big screen because the guy has a knack for Shakespeare, acting, directing, and knowing what "modern" audiences wanted out of a Shakespearean play. He takes the tale of Hamlet, prince of Denmark, and transports it to more of a modern setting (well, more modern than the 16th century). He assembles an all-star cast that includes Kate Winslett, Charlton Heston, Derek Jacobi, Billy Crystal, Jack Lemmon, Robin Williams among others in this adaptation of Shakespeare's classic.
Although 4 hours in length (mainly because every word in the play is inserted in the script), the stunning effect of the play is extraordinary. The backdrop for the ghost of Hamlet in the opening scene, the mirror used when Hamlet (Branaugh) is making his "To be or not to be" soliloquy, the palace in which Hamlet and Laertes fight, and the snowy landscape in which Fortenbras and his men arrive are all instances of using scenery and directing to update this version of the play.
Although the setting and interpretation of what Shakespeare intended are left in doubt, the movie itself is visually stunning and the acting is great. Although Branaugh hired a few American actors to take on some of Shakespeare's characters (for instance, Robin Williams plays Osric and Billy Crystal plays one of the gravediggers), there "American" accents are hardly noticed in the film.
As an educator, I also think this is a fantastic version to use as a resource for a study of the play. Because the dialogue is accurate to the play, it works well. Also, this version seemingly makes the work of Shakespeare easier to understand. (Although, as a warning, there is one scene with Winslet (Ophelia) and Branaugh (Hamlet) that is definitely "adult" in nature).
Overall, a great gamble by Branaugh to update Shakespeare's work into his own insight. There is also a few extras on the VHS version: interviews with many of the cast members as well as a behind the scenes about the movie.
Also recommended: Hamlet (Mel Gibson version)
on March 3, 2004
I have "collected" Hamlets in the sense of seeing many stage and film versions for more than 30 years, from off-off-Broadway goofs to Laurence Olivier's and Branagh's so-called masterpieces. The fact is that the play is Shakespeare's most difficult in many respects. Most of the major characters are deluded, mad, or pretending to be deluded or mad. Even stating what the play is about has nearly exhausted the imagination of 20 generations.
There are things in this version I object to--most especially the handling of the duel and bloodbath at the end. It is over the top and physically unbelievable, detracting somewhat from the viewer's ability to feel for the characters involved. But having said that, all-in-all (and "all" of Hamlet is a lot!), this is the best production I have ever seen: complete,in the proper order, with excellent performances by Branagh and Winslet and ESPECIALLY Derek Jacobi as Claudius. When Claudius makes sense, the play makes sense, and while I have other favorite Hamlets and Ophelias and Polonius', there has NEVER been a Claudius so brilliantly portrayed. The production values are brilliant, the music fine, and the overall representation of Shakespeare's most haunting work unequaled.
So where is the DVD?!?!?
on December 24, 2003
I have long been a fan of Shakespeare, I had classes both as a undergrad and graduate student, but I never got as much out of it as I did while watching Kenneth Branagh's adaptations of the Bard's work. His desire to let Shakespeare's words ring out is truly magnificent and a joy to behold every time I watch them. His adaptation of Hamlet is by far no exception, the cast, the cinematography, the incredible beauty of every scene written and played just like Shakespeare wrote them hundreds of years ago. It's like William was there in the director's chair next to Branagh's guiding him all the way. This full-text adaptation, for the first time, gives the viewer ALL the scene that the Bard wrote, in the order he wrote them without any substitutions or omissions, thus giving the best, most splendid view of Hamlet's world and why he acted the way he did and why others acted the way they did as well. This is the only movie I own more than one of, I own the full screen and the widescreen version, I couldn't resist it. Anything Shakespeare that Branagh touches turns into gold in the hands of a master. RUN, RUN TO GET THIS MOVIE, YOU WON'T BE SORRY!!!
on November 22, 2003
I love Kenneth Branagh, and was especially hooked after watching Henry V. Here, with Hamlet, he doesn't succeed in creating the "definitive movie version" (as he did with Henry), but nevertheless creates a solid (and complete!) version that is easily the best out there thus far.
Anyways, as mentioned above, the movie has distinct flaws that may simply be quibbling. The death scene with Claudius is simply painful - Branagh throws a rapier like a dart and pegs Claudius in the back with it. Admittedly, the film is approached with an opera-like feel (suspension of disbelief is required), but dart-throwing rapier death is probably a bit much. Along the same lines, there is a bizarre blue screen moment that needed to be cut (Hamlet's decision to return to the castle). Also, the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia is made explicit through flashbacks, which while hot, is odd in relation to the play itself, which is filled with innuendo and ambiguity. Much more fun that way, I feel.
Okay, so they're quibbles. However, these are quibbles about key areas of the movie (such as the climax), so I think it merits pointing out. That aside, the acting is (mostly) brilliant, particularly on the part of Derek Jacobi. His Claudius is probably the best I've ever seen; almost outshines Hamlet.
This is a great movie. It's not everything I would have hoped for, but it's by far the best we have right now.
on October 19, 2003
(i kind of like the ethan hawke)
but Branagh's Hamlet is the best. He makes Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Mel Gibson and the rest look so shoddy. Simple things he does, like the way he says, "who" when Horatio tells him he's seen his father are gorgeous. I think they overdo the madness of Ophelia. I don't see that violence, though some of it is good. That's a hard part. Derek Jacobi's Claudius is great. He played a good Hamlet once, too. The scenery is great, doesn't try so hard, but ends up being timeless. Some of the flashbacks are a little annoying, a little bit too much dumbing down (showing the decrepit Norway for example), and the flashes to the sex between h+o are also... (I don't know the word), but weak.
Robin Williams sucks.
Charlton Heston ast the Player King is brillliant; the exchange between Hamlet and he are so good. The whole story of Pyrrhus is never done in films.
Keeping the whole text is great. I watched it over a few sittings. I keep wanting to go back to it.