Warner Bros. // 1996 // 242 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // August 17th, 2010
The biggest and best adaptation of one of Shakespeare's greatest plays.
"If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart, absent thee from felicity awhile and in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain to tell my story."
Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh, Much Ado About Nothing) has returned home upon hearing the news that his father (Brian Blessed, As You Like It) has passed away. When he arrives, he also discovers that his mother (Julie Christie, Finding Neverland) is marrying his uncle Claudius (Derek Jacobi, Dead Again). After receiving a visit from his father's ghost, Hamlet discovers that Claudius was responsible for his father's death. As a result, Hamlet plots a very complex and complicated revenge, engaging in a romance with the innocent young Ophelia (Kate Winslet, Titanic) along the way. Obviously this is quite an oversimplification of one of Shakespeare's most complex plays, but I'll leave it to the film to unfold the endless specific details.
I'm a big fan of William Shakespeare and a big fan of Kenneth Branagh. As such, I'm always happy to see Branagh adapting Shakespeare, but it just so happens that Hamlet is my favorite Shakespeare play and Hamlet is my favorite Branagh film. The film is not a perfect adaptation of the Bard's work (and its four-hour running time will undoubtedly prove intimidating for many viewers), but Hamlet is nonetheless a grand, ambitious piece of work that boldly adapts Shakespeare's complete text on a huge cinematic scale.
Branagh is often criticized for his theatricality (I'm a defender of his much-maligned Mary Shelley's Frankenstein), but that flair for large-scale drama has rarely been better-suited to the material than in Hamlet. It's an extremely long play, so some may be surprised to note that Branagh's four-hour adaptation actually charges forward at considerable speed. Most of their actors deliver their lines in a frantic, feverish, snappy manner; bringing a sense of excitement and urgency to the tale. One might raise an eyebrow at the presence of actors like Robin Williams and Billy Crystal in a Shakespeare adaptation, but their quick-witted instincts fit comfortably into the tone Branagh establishes.
Many Shakespeare adaptations inevitably start to feel rather stage-y after a while, but Branagh has always had a gift for drawing out the cinematic elements of the Bard's works. Tim Harvey's production design is stunningly lavish (it's hard to believe that this huge film was made for the relatively minimal sum of 18 million dollars; it looks vastly more expensive), while Alex Thomson's cinematography is both elegant and striking (for my money, it's the finest effort of Thomson's career, though his moody work on Alien3 deserves recognition). There's an old-fashioned splendor to the proceedings, as the film often feels like a Technicolor epic that's been injected with steroids (that bland stateliness that often infects such epics never harms Hamlet). The early scene between Hamlet and his father's ghost is staged like a piece of gothic horror, while the final-act duel has the tense excitement of an action/adventure movie.
For the most part, Branagh's big-name cast is excellent. While there are individual moments where I wonder whether Branagh made the correct acting decision, he proves a very fine Hamlet overall and gives the part a sort of unpredictable madness that's just a notch loopier than Mel Gibson's take on the character in the 1990 film adaptation. Kate Winslet is an excellent Ophelia; she does a fine job of quietly foreshadowing the character's slip into insanity despite the play's failure to give her much of a transition period. Old pros like Brian Blessed, Richard Briers, and Derek Jacobi are reliably strong in key roles, while popular actors like Williams and Crystal prove surprisingly capable. One of the best surprises is Charlton Heston as The Player King, whose monologue is one of the most remarkable scenes of Heston's career. The later part of his career was dominated by politics and controversy, but in Hamlet we're reminded of what a superb actor he could be.
Hamlet arrives on Blu-ray with a 1080p/VC-1 2.20:1 transfers that's sure to stir up some heated debate. There's clearly some DNR at work, as the image is entirely free of grain and looks a little too scrubbed and clean for its own good. As you might expect, this leads to somewhat less-than-impressive detail, though the "plastic" look this often gives actors isn't too predominant this time around, but flesh tones are rather wobbly. It's by no means a horrible use of DNR, but I realize that for many viewers any form of DNR is a horrible use of DNR. The image does have some nice depth and the bright color palette is conveyed quite nicely, but this isn't the knockout it should have been. Audio is similarly so-so, as the track is just too passive for a movie this bombastic. While the dialogue is clear and bold (as it should be in a Shakespeare adaptation), the music isn't quite as powerful as it ought to be much of the time and the sound design is curiously suppressed. Despite these problems, the Hamlet Blu-ray presentation is noticeably superior to the recent DVD release.
The supplements are mostly borrowed from that recent DVD release, beginning with an audio commentary featuring Branagh and Shakespeare scholar Russell Jackson. Obviously it's a long haul (one might consider watching it in two or three chunks), but it's an active track throughout and a worthwhile listen. Branagh reveals a lot about the decisions he made and his filmmaking process while Jackson provides some sharp insights on the play itself. You also get a 25-minute making-of featurette (a nice choice if you want to hear from some of the key cast members and aren't up for the entire commentary), an 8-minute introduction to the film from Branagh, a vintage Cannes Film Festival promo (12 minutes) and a trailer. Also, this is another one of Warner Bros. digibook packages, meaning you get a handsome hardcover case and a 36-bage booklet containing lots of nice pictures and tidbits of info on the film.
Okay, so not all of the casting works. The biggest problem for me is Julie Christie's rather unimaginative take on Gertrude, which isn't bad but just...ordinary. "Ordinary" isn't good enough for one of the play's best characters. Perhaps the problem is that Glenn Close provided a brilliant take on the character just six years earlier; it's hard to imagine anyone nailing the role so well. Christie is a fine actress but she just doesn't bring enough to the table. Less impressive but less problematic due to minimal screen time are Jack Lemmon and Gerard Depardieu. Neither really manages to get a handle on what to do with the dialogue, and they prove distracting as a result.
Hamlet is a superb achievement that deserves to belong in the collection of any Shakespeare fan. Its overwhelming length makes it a slightly less accessible starting point than Zeffirelli's 1990 Hamlet, but in this case bigger is better. The Blu-ray is a mixed bag but still worth an upgrade.
Review content copyright © 2010 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.20:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 242 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13