Warner Bros. // 1996 // 242 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // August 20th, 2007
The Lawrence of Arabia of Shakespeare adaptations.
The most famous of Shakespeare's plays, Hamlet has been filmed numerous times, and has been in continual performance over the past 400 years. Many of its lines have become deeply embedded in popular culture and the English language itself. When Shakespeare wunderkind Kenneth Branagh (Much Ado About Nothing) set out to direct his own version of this most famous play, he decided to go all out. The industry was still reeling from the critical thrashing of a highly truncated Othello the year before, which had been cut by a full 50 percent.
Seeming in direct opposition, Branagh, who had appeared in but not directed Othello, set out to make the most gigantic film version of Hamlet in the history of cinema. He filmed the whole play uncut, which had never been done before; it lasts a buttocks-numbing four hours. He shot on 70mm film, which the studios never do anymore. He assembled a cast the likes of which had never been seen before in a Shakespearean play, with performers representing all corners of the English-speaking world. He filmed many of the scenes at Blenheim Palace, one of the most opulent locations possible. On a whole, this boldness has paid off in spades. This is a stunning portrait of a classic play, one sure to please the full range of Shakespeare fans.
Over the past few years, we have almost run out of films that still need to be released on DVD. The release of Hamlet is one of the last major holdouts, and it has been worth waiting for.
This is a story that most of us know already. The state of Denmark is in an uproar: the King has recently died, and his throne has gone to his brother, Claudius (Derek Jacobi, Dead Again). In the process of taking over the throne, Claudius has also married Gertrude (Julie Christie, Finding Neverland), his brother's widow. This does not impress Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh, Rabbit-Proof Fence), who is more upset about this quick marriage than he is with the fact that he is 30 years old and did not succeed his father to the throne.
But things are much worse than that. The ghost of Hamlet's father appears to him, claiming that Claudius killed him, and that Hamlet must avenge his murder. Hamlet must now discern whether the ghost is telling the truth, and he has a complicated plan to do it. Troubles with the plan arise, however, when the beautiful Ophelia (Kate Winslet, Little Children) lands in the middle of that plan. The conspiracies between the various characters run deep, leading up to a tragic set of events that will destroy them all.
Meanwhile, young Norwegian prince Fortinbras (Rufus Sewell, Dark City wants revenge for his own father's murder at the hands of Hamlet Senior. He has a large army at his command, and is carefully eyeing the domestic disputes in Denmark...
This version of Hamlet is, without a doubt, a stunning cinematic achievement as well as an impressive performance of the world's most popular play. Most importantly, we must acknowledge this set of extraordinary voices who bring life to Shakespeare's lines and language. This is one of Branagh's great strengths as an actor, and he has hand picked an international group of his peers that share the same quality. Derek Jacobi and Nicholas Farrell (Driving Lessons) are no strangers to Shakespeare, but many of his other choices are less conventional. All manner of accents are represented here, and each gives a different flavor to the bard's lush verse and tone. It's delightful to hear Gerard Depardieu (City of Ghosts) and Kate Winslet speak the dialogue, not to mention many other of our favorite actors. Charlton Heston, Julie Christie, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, and Jack Lemmon all ply their voices here. Each of these performers has become great at using their voices on screen, and Hamlet highlights the beauty of the words themselves. We can get lost in the words themselves. Then, we are treated with brief walk-on performances from the likes of Dame Judi Dench, John Gielgud (a legendary Hamlet in his own time) and Richard Attenborough. With so much talent stacked up, Branagh was at least guaranteed interesting and impressive performances.
Hamlet is also a rich visual spectacle. This version is placed in the 19th Century, which highlights the richness and majesty of the court. The on-location sequences are gorgeous on 70mm film, as the camera sweeps through a world of blacks, whites, reds, and glistening gold. I'll bet this is the most stunning stage that the play has ever been performed on. The movement of the camera is generally quite traditional, but it fits the material and the classic style of the film. And it's this setting that helps encourage the best quality of this adaptation: the reminder that Hamlet is a play of private issues played out in a public forum. Branagh's version has the best introduction to the character of Hamlet as well as the best play-within-a-play sequence because we see the reaction of the entire court as it happens. Everyone knows what's going on -- that Hamlet is acting inappropriately, that Claudius and Gertrude got married real quick after the old King's death. When we see dozens of others respond as these dramas play out, we can't help but respond as well. This is something that can't be done on stage -- at least easily -- and is magnified by the film format.
Alas, there are a few moments where Branagh fails to use the advantages of film to his benefit. While the invasion at the end is larger scale than can be handled on stage, we never get the proper sense of scope. We rarely get to see the truly massive army. This is a problem on stage as well: it's so easy to lose sight of the political intrigue because it's something we never properly visualize happening. Branagh uses a massive scope for the soliloquy just after witnessing the army marching, and we get to see that army tramping through Denmark. If we could visualize this at the end as well, the threat to the kingdom would be that much more apparent. But we don't -- we only see a small troop arrive at the end. The sequences with the ghost also fall a bit flat. Because these scenes are so wordy (the only way these feelings could be evoked on the Elizabethan stage), any suspense or horror is effectively destroyed. These soldiers are scared out of their minds when they see this ghost, but none of that fear is transferred over to us. A series of quick cuts to other images does little to enhance this feeling, unfortunately, and it ultimately stands as a wasted opportunity.
Any other complaints about the film aren't really Branagh's fault. He set out to film Hamlet in its entirety, and he has. It's a darn long play, though, and four hours of Hamlet is a lot to get through in one sitting. This is particularly apparent in the second half. A lot of time transpires between "my thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth" and the shedding of any actual blood. The play slows down right when it needs to speed up, and the best cast in the world can't suppress that truth. Most directors try to minimize the problem by cutting lines, but that would violate the film's mission. As a result, Branagh gets stuck with the flaws of the source material.
He also inherits the genius of the source material, though, and many of the film's sequences shine. He does a fantastic job with Ophelia's madness, aided by a fully transformed and straitjacketed Kate Winslet. She is a daring actor, approaching this role in a fresh way. We also get to visualize the first player's speech with the help of John Gielgud and Judi Dench. It's a stunning sequence that is fresh and exciting, a section of verse that's usually cut down significantly. Branagh also took a risk filming the "to be" speech in a hall of mirrors, but it pays off completely. It is, once again, a stunning blend of the public and private, embracing the ambiguity of the play's original text. This is also the best version for students, since it includes the entire text and does little to create its own interpretations (though it does more clearly outline the nature of Hamlet's and Ophelia's relationship).
Despite a few minor flaws, it's hard to observe Branagh's adaptation as any less than a triumph: a remarkable cinematic adaptation of the world's most celebrated and recognized stage play. In the special features, Branagh mentions how important it is to have a good reason to make yet another film version of Hamlet. He did have a good reason, I think, and has acquitted himself nicely.
Warner has also made good on the release of a film we've been waiting to see on DVD for a very long time. As expected, the transfer from the 70mm source is nothing short of spectacular. The film has been spread across two discs (thankfully split at the intermission), and is true reference quality. The only weaknesses in the picture are limitations of the DVD format, and I can't wait to see what it will look like in high definition. Since we have no idea how long we will have to wait for that, though, the DVD transfer will hold us until then. We also get a stirring Dolby 5.1 track that uses all channels for the regal score. The dialogue is not always as clear as it could be, though, and it should have been mixed a bit higher overall. As far as extras go, we get a commentary track with Branagh and Shakespearean scholar Russell Jackson. It's an impressively extensive commentary, covering the production of the film, the decisions that were made, and an exploration of the text at the same time. All fans of the play (and film) need to spend some time with these two men. The second disc has a few other special features, including an extensive production featurette (I believe the same one that came on the VHS edition) and the promo reel from Cannes.
Many DVD fans have been waiting for a long time for Branagh's Hamlet to arrive, and I don't think they will be disappointed by this release. Many more special features would have been nice, including a peek at some of the rehearsals and trial runs. Still, the film hasn't looked better since the original release, and can't look better until the film is released in high-def. It remains a film of spectacle and power, the likes of which has never before been produced from a Shakespearean play. Whether you are a fan of Shakespeare, classic cinema, or truly great screen drama, you can't go wrong with the (finally) released DVD of Branagh's Hamlet.
Lengthy delays aside, I have found it in my heart to forgive all involved. Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the screen.
Review content copyright © 2007 Joel Pearce; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.20:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 242 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Production Featurette
* Cannes Festival Promo Reel