Perhaps no play is more celebrated in the English language than William Shakespeare’s Hamlet – certainly, none more easily or as readily quotable at a glance; “to be or not to be”, “something rotten in the state of Denmark”, “frailty, thy name is woman”, “to thine own self be true”, “neither a borrower nor a lender be”, “though this be madness, yet there is method in't”, “the lady doth protest too much, methinks” and so on and so forth. There is little to deny Hamlet as a perfect play; arguably, the greatest in all stagecraft. For it taps into virtually all aspects of the human condition and makes a social commentary on each that is as profound today, as it has long since lingered in the annals as an ageless touchstone of supreme dramatic artistry. Given its formidable impression and reputation – or ironically, perhaps, because of it – the movies have generally fallen under its spell, but just as readily bungled its virtues in their many attempts to bottle its greatness. There have been exceptions to this rule, beginning with Laurence Olivier’s 1948 Oscar-winning adaptation. Yet, even this beloved incarnation is not Hamlet as Shakespeare conceived it; foreshortened, however skillfully, to accommodate the constraints of a two hour run time.
Enter Kenneth Branagh; rightly championed as one of the most ardent and formidable artists toiling in picture making then, and for a brief and shining moment in the cinema firmament, between 1989 and 1996, seemingly the only man alive to will Shakespeare’s greatest masterwork into compelling motion picture entertainment. Beginning with Henry V (1989), Branagh set the screen afire, resurrecting the bard’s fiery muse, later to enjoy another sumptuous outing with the all-star, Much Ado About Nothing (1993), costarring his then wife, Emma Thompson. Alas, by 1996, the year Branagh chose to launch his complete cinematic version of Hamlet, this marriage of talents was at an end – both creatively and literally; Thompson, well into her affair with Sense and Sensibility (1995) costar, Greg Wise (whom she would later marry). Worse for Branagh, the fickleness of audience tastes for period costume drama and his own popularity had already begun to wane; perhaps partly due to the mid-1990’s oversaturation in highly literate adaptations of time-honored literary masterpieces; Alcott’s Little Women, Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, and, Emma, Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, and E.M. Forrester’s Howards End among them.
On several levels then, Hamlet would thus prove the beginning of the end for Branagh – the extraordinary thespian – and the beginning of Branagh – the easily exploitable movie star. At age 35, Branagh was five years his fictional alter ego’s senior, perhaps, perfectly ripened via his own amorous failings to will and express the poisonously afflicted inner torment of this fictionalized heir apparent to the Danish throne – his natural succession usurped by the corrupt, Claudius (superbly played by Branagh stock company alumni, Derek Jacobi). Determined at considerable expense to deliver the definitive movie adaptation of Hamlet, Branagh approached beleaguered Castlerock Entertainment (then an offshoot of parent company, Columbia Pictures) with the daunting prospect of shooting and releasing his grand epic, not only under the pretense of resurrecting the bygone elegant era of the 70mm roadshow epic, complete with intermission, but equally chocking his film with an impeccable international cast.
Branagh’s Hamlet is really a throwback to a more regal time in the picture-making biz, when such grandiose spectacles were not simply anticipated by audiences, but rather the standard bearers of a final flowering in Hollywood’s ersatz, if chic, good taste. Setting his movie in an undisclosed time period mimicking roughly the late 19th century – decidedly not the period in which Shakespeare had envisioned his story - nevertheless offered Branagh a particularly luxurious backdrop in which to stage his intrigues; the castle Elsinore reconstituted as the regally appointed Blenheim Palace, with Tim Harvey’s production design, Desmond Crowe’s art direction and Alexandra Byrne’s costume designs exquisitely photographed on lavishly appointed sets by cinematographer, Alex Thomson. Updating the setting also allowed Branagh a sublime virtue; to play Hamlet’s soliloquy while staring into a two-way mirror, even as a very nervous and threatened Claudius and his unsuspecting shill, Polonius (Richard Briers) quietly observe the kernel of Hamlet’s revenge hatching against the crown from the other side.
To suggest Hamlet is exquisitely mounted is a gross understatement, beginning with its monumental assemblage of talent to tell the ill-fated tale; the aforementioned Jacobi and Briers; along with Julie Christie (as Queen Gertrude), Kate Winslet (a heartbreaking Ophelia), Brian Blessed (the ghost), Richard Attenborough (the English Ambassador), Nicholas Farrell (as ever-devoted Horatio), Robin Williams (an effete Osric), Billy Crystal (a very glib grave digger), Charlton Heston (the player king), Gérard Depardieu (Reynaldo), Jack Lemmon (Marcellus), John Mills (Old Norway) Rufus Sewell (Fortinbras) and on and on. Yet, none rival Branagh’s bravura or eloquence as the ‘great Dane’ of the piece; blessed with showmanship a la a Michael Todd and the stagecraft presence of an Olivier or John Gielgud (the latter appearing as Priam in the play within a play flashback, along with Judi Dench as Hecuba), Branagh delivers a towering performance, registering a very bleak and vengeful ‘winter of discontent’ indeed – perhaps, better suited to a misshapen Richard III than the arrogant and emotionally stained, Hamlet.
Alas, too many have failed in the past to resurrect the Bard of Stratford on Avon for the movies, falling into the abyss of Shakespeare’s prolonged and wordy tomes, made to compel a live audience with an actor’s enigma, yet all too easily stifling the creative visual flair in a cameraman’s eye. Yet Branagh manages to straddle this chasm with unerring success; to give his spectators every last word as written in the first folio (even adding several brief incantations based on its second), without ever stifling the cinema’s conceit to constantly be ‘on the move’, reframing the action. Neil Farrell’s editorial prowess, buoyed by Patrick Doyle’s flawless underscore, discriminately and sparingly interpolated for maximum effect, ensure the mood, tempo and pacing of Branagh’s adaptation is fairly seamless and constantly evolving. Even when Branagh is briefly prone to ‘suffer the slings and arrows’, overcome by the sheer eloquence of these spoken words, the camera never surrenders to his insatiable need to pontificate, but rather, discovers subtler ways to make his lengthy expositions click as riveting high drama – and even more importantly, as movie land art.
In years yet to follow, Branagh's premiere contribution to Shakespeare at the movies will undoubtedly remain this adaptation of Hamlet, not so much for his management of the vast resources at his disposal, nor for his seamless ability to draw cohesion from this international cast, heralding from disparate schools and styles of acting; nor even as an opus magnum imbued with all the imaginative and viscerally impressive panache $18 million dollars can buy; but rather, because there is something instinctual about Branagh as an all-around entertainer - director/actor/interpreter and star-wrangler that breathes renewed life into this stagecraft – making it not only palpable, but arguably a superior entertainment as a major motion picture. At the start of his endeavor, Castlerock execs had hoped to convince Branagh to shoot two versions of Hamlet for the price of one; his four hour planned epic, agreed upon to play in all the best movie houses still capable of showing a 70mm roadshow to its best advantage, and, an ‘abridged version’ put out in the lesser markets and made to neatly fit into the standardized ‘just under two hour’ time slot, thus maximizing its release during peak hours of operation (7pm and 9pm respectively). Ultimately, Branagh refused to cut up his masterpiece. Only the deluxe roadshow reached theaters; with smaller venues, not equipped to show 70mm, receiving 35mm reduction prints instead.
Branagh may have won this creative battle of wills, but he ultimately lost the war; Castlerock giving Hamlet a very limited theatrical engagement. It garnered unanimous praise from the critics but, sadly, was infrequently seen and even less readily embraced, by the general public. Castlerock’s inability to perceive they had a real contender at the box office sealed the picture’s fate. Released in only 3 theaters for its opening weekend, Hamlet accrued a disappointing $148,321.00; its’ official U.S. gross coming in at $4,414,535.00; well below the $18 million it had cost to make. In the end, Hamlet did earn 4 Oscar nominations in relatively minor categories: for adaptation, sets, costumes and score. It won nothing! In retrospect, Hamlet is something of an albatross; a passion project kept under tight reigns by Branagh, who was perhaps still marginally enamored by his previous two successes with Shakespeare at the movies and naturally assumed the public would thrice follow him down this same rabbit hole. What Shakespearean dramas we might have had from Branagh if Hamlet had become the runaway success as his Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing we will never know; although I personally would have killed to see him tackle a cinematic incarnation of King Lear, Richard III or Macbeth.
However, Hamlet’s fiscal implosion should not be confused with some artistic failing or sacrifice in the play’s integrity. On the contrary, Branagh’s Hamlet may be the most articulate expression of Shakespeare by design at the movies in a very long while; Branagh’s zeal for the tang and aroma of a fancifully Ruritanian mishmash, reconstituted and repackaged as the Denmark of old, his savoring of the play’s set pieces, and his verve as a consummate thespian, having inherited the mantle of quality from the likes of both Olivier and Gielgud, at once defies conventional movie land wisdom, even as it elevates the business of making movies into its purest art form. Alas, to coin an old Hollywood maxim – “the trouble with movies as art is that they are a business. Although the trouble with movies as a business is that they are also an art!” But Hamlet really does play more as a movie willed into existence from another time, and not simply because of its period trappings. The picture is built like a tank, weighed (though never weighted down) in all the fashionable accoutrements a studio like MGM might have afforded such a production during its halcyon era of extravaganzas made throughout the 1930’s.
The performances endure as something queerly more and better than recreations of the stagecraft merely set before the camera. The revelations are plentiful; from Billy Crystal’s startlingly playful and astoundingly glib interpretation of the gravedigger’s soliloquy - an almost elfin expression of workable stand-up comedy - providing a seamless segue into Branagh’s more profoundly grounded, “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well…” to Charlton Heston’s lyrically minimalist insert as ‘the player King’ – ably acquitted in the ruse of the play within a play’s exposure of the ‘actual murder’ of Hamlet’s father, nobly buttressed by a guileless and poignant, Rosemary Harris (as the player Queen), Hamlet remains a movie of acting extremes, reigned in and given over to fuller form and subtler amusements. Setting aside Branagh’s virtuosity in the title role for the moment, the truly outstanding performance belongs to Kate Winslet’s winsome madness as the Dane’s spurned lover, Ophelia. Whether prone to bouts of crudely reenacted sexuality (she lies on a cold tile floor in the presence of Claudius and the Queen, gyrating in a straight-jacket) or curled into a ball in the corner of this stately ballroom, fetchingly chirping a love song with a sad faraway stare past her wounded brother’s disbelief, Winslet conveys all of the teenage mania of a love struck ingénue utterly destroyed by her own familial devotions.
Winslet’s interpretation of Ophelia is also a formidable love interest for Branagh’s angst-plagued would-be monarch; enduring his barbaric abuses as he violently drags her by the arm in confused reticence, presses her flushed cheeks against a pane of double-sided glass and bellows into her fragile ear the death knell for all amiable maidens seeking passion in their unschooled young lives, “get thee to a nunnery!” Branagh’s posturing, as an ardent young man increasingly spiraling out of control, even as he draws nearer his bosom the truth about his slain father, is frequently over the top. But it would appear much more so if not for Winslet’s underplayed counterpoint to his verboseness. One of the pitfalls of playing Shakespeare’s Dane is that he is quite unlike our contemporary proclivity for ‘action heroes’. Shakespeare’s star attraction is, in fact, a boy of indecision desperate to become a man, fraught with spite, abject humiliation and self-loathing, and, fairly oozing with a venomous distaste for revenge. Even as an antihero, Hamlet is a severe flawed creation. In fact, he murders three innocents to Claudius’ one; Polonius first, because he wrongfully mistakes him for his wicked uncle hiding behind a curtain; twice - the murder causing Ophelia to lose her already tenuous grip on reality and go mad, and finally, Laertes (Michael Maloney), who, as a devoted son to Polonius and brother to Ophelia, is thus consumed by grief over the loss of his family and unsuspectingly drawn into a web of royal deceptions; convinced by Claudius to seek an even unholier vengeance against Hamlet in the penultimate fixed duel of poisoned crossed swords.
Branagh’s star turn is a tour de force - mostly – and convincing – partly, save the briefest miscalculation he suffers when he momentarily turns into a quivering mass of jelly at the sight of his father’s ghost; brought to childish and wholly unpersuasive tears instead of manly shame trickled into abject fear. Branagh is far better playing to the titanic diatribes inflicted upon Hamlet’s emotional psyche by his crippling indecision to successfully avenge a beloved father’s murder; his majestic disillusionment, telescopically focused into daggered contempt for his mother’s betrayal, supreme disgust for Ophelia (whom he genuinely adored but incorrectly perceives as a pawn in their plot) and finally, his towering monument to blind rage, repeatedly aimed at Claudius’ head. One gains the distinct intuition Branagh’s personal frustrations are being rechanneled in his condemnations of female frailty in this story; the flashing eyes, railing against the women in his life; the deeply abiding wretchedness for their sex in general and each womanly usurper in particular – albeit, for very different reasons – translated into a sort of sublime pantomime of truer emotions stirring from beneath the flouncy collar and cuffs of this well-tailored performance.
We open with Hamlet (Branagh); the great Dane and rightful heir to the throne of Denmark. However, this paternal promise of succession has been cleverly usurped by Hamlet's Uncle Claudius (Derek Jacobi) who has married Hamlet's mother, Queen Gertrude (Julie Christie) barely three weeks after the elder Hamlet’s (Brian Blessed) funeral. ‘Thrift, Horatio’ – thrift, indeed! Yet, this is not what perplexes or haunts the very fibers of young Hamlet’s being. Rather, he suspects foul play in the death of his father – a suspicion confirmed when Hamlet Sr.’s ghost reveals to his son he was poisoned by Claudius. How best to avenge a murder most foul? How, indeed? While Hamlet skulks about Castle Elsinore plotting revenge, his mother suspects he is suffering from some malady – a depression perhaps, capable of pushing him to the brink of insanity. The ever-loyal Ophelia (Kate Winslet) makes valiant attempts to rid her lover of his inner demons. Alas, she is counselled incorrectly by her father, Claudius’ most trusted advisor, Polonius (Richard Briers), as well as her brother, Laertes (Michael Maloney) to deny Hamlet the pleasures of her flesh. Mistaking this sudden retreat for a betrayal greater than what it actually is, Hamlet’s heart is turned to stone; his thoughts made bloody with revenge.
Drawing upon the integrity of his most trusted confidant, Horatio (Nicholas Farrell), Hamlet hatches a plot to test Claudius. He hires a vagabond troop of actors fronted by the Player King (Charlton Heston) to enact a play he himself has written; in fact, a thinly disguised version of Hamlet Sr.'s murder. Claudius is incensed. He charges Hamlet's two boyhood friends, Rosencrantz (Timothy Spall) and Guildenstern (Reese Dinsdale) as spies and orders them to report back to him on Hamlet’s sanity, desperate to know whether his stepson is actually mad or merely toying at exposing his treacheries to the court and the Queen. Hamlet spurns Ophelia and later, in Gertrude's bed chamber, he accidentally murders Polonius who has been eavesdropping from behind a curtain. The murder of her father at the hands of her ex-lover sends Ophelia into the depths of an epic and irreversible madness, thus forcing Laertes to seek revenge on the royal house.
Presumably, to spare Hamlet his fate, Claudius endeavors to send him away by ship to England, accompanied by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Alas, Claudius has already plotted to have their ship ambushed at sea, thus ridding himself of his nephew once and for all. Again, fate intervenes; the friends boarding while unaware Hamlet has remained behind; now, in Horatio’s care to spy on the kingdom from a safe distance. Hamlet learns Ophelia, driven to madness, has taken her own life. At the burial, there is some debate over whether the suicide should be laid to rest in consecrated ground. Laertes is overcome with grief. For his sister was not willful in her self-destruction, but driven to it by external forces for which he now almost exclusively blames young Hamlet.
Claudius exploits Laertes blind rage to his own purpose, suggesting a publicly staged show of swordsmanship; the tip of his weapon coated with a toxic poison, designed to instantly strike down its victim, even via a superficial scratch. To ensure Hamlet’s death, Claudius also poisons the wine in Hamlet’s victory chalice. However, as fate would have it, the cup is tasted first by Gertrude, who later swoons. In the resulting duel, Laertes breaks the surface of skin on Hamlet’s shoulder, thus infecting him with the poison, but not before Hamlet fatally wounds Laertes with the same poison-tipped sword. Gertrude dies and Laertes confesses with his expiring breath all of Claudius’ treacheries to the court. Hamlet avenges his father by cutting down a chandelier that swings like a pendulum into the throne, thus trapping Claudius in his seat of power; Hamlet forcing the last drops of poisoned wine down his uncle’s throat before succumbing to its ill effects himself. In the resultant deluge on the kingdom, brought by Fortinbras’ (Rufus Sewell) advancing armies, Horatio endures to tell the tale; the English Ambassador arriving with fateful news: that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. Hamlet is given a stately funeral and the trappings of old Denmark, including a statue of Hamlet Sr., are torn down by Fortinbras’ soldiers.
Hamlet is so obviously Kenneth Branagh's passion project; the director/star having invested every ounce of his talent into its creation. There is a satisfying richness, both to its visual opulence and textured performances not even the celebrated Olivier version can rival, much less surpass. The spectacle Branagh has wrought is balanced by Branagh’s own superior pacing of the action, his uncanny ability to ‘open up’ the play without diluting its inherently wordy magnificence. The eloquence of this Shakespearean stagecraft winningly functions within the cinematic space as though it had been expressly designed by the Bard with the movie camera in mind. Of all the various adaptations gone before it - and those attempted since, Branagh's version taps into our sensory perceptions to extol the greed, lust, sex and violence of Shakespeare’s time – for all time – virtues often blunted when Shakespeare clashes on celluloid and is thus misjudged as inferiorly bloodless. But this Hamlet just feels very immediate, sensual and alive. Loosely situating the period somewhere in the latter half of the 19th century allows Branagh to luxuriate in a faux spectacle; Blenheim Palace for exteriors – its palatial lawns sprayed for miles with fake snow to simulate the inhospitable Danish winters, and, gargantuan sets built at Elsestree Studios in London.
Having made an invaluable study of the all-star roadshow a la the cheek and girth of Michael Todd’s Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), Branagh has equally made good on this investment in a trans-generational roster; the cameos as richly satisfying as the leads; the ‘look who’s here’ quality augmenting, rather than distracting from the performances. Because, after all ‘the play is the thing.’ The art direction, costuming, cinematography, et al are mere icing on an already well-frosted cake; multilayered by Shakespeare’s own inimitable brilliance as a wordsmith and Branagh’s contemporary sensibilities, made to embrace and immerse himself in a project so genuinely near and dear to his own heart. Branagh ought to have continued making Shakespeare palpable for the masses; a rare gift indeed for which he so unequivocally possessed the knack. Alas, Hamlet’s fiscal folly not only put a period to such lavishly appointed Shakespearean adventurisms on the big screen, it also wrecked the promising path to a great career that might have been. In the interim, Branagh has contented himself in other lucrative endeavors; his talents arguably squandered in movies of varying degrees in quality. To some extent, his reputation has made the inevitable mutation from ‘actor’ to ‘star’: a downgrade complete in such substandard fodder as The Wild Wild West (1999) and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014); movies unworthy of his formidable gifts. But Branagh’s Hamlet endures as a towering achievement, taking a universal masterwork from the Elizabethan period and breathing an eternal youth into its time-honored precepts. It really does put all others to shame. Without a doubt, Branagh’s Hamlet has remained the most cinematic Shakespearean entertainment of my lifetime. Will it stand the truer testament to become a time-honored classic for all time? Me thinks the chances are very good – very, very good, indeed!
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray modestly bests its DVD release from 2005, but is nevertheless a grand disappointment in hi-def. The Blu-ray's image tightens up. But Hamlet, originally photographed in 70mm for its roadshow engagement, has been transferred to Blu-ray using a reduction 35mm print. The results are an image harvest that is bright, colorful and richly varied. Alas, we lose much of the minute intricacies and detail that ought to have come from a scan of the superior 70mm film negative. As such, colors are, on occasion wildly inaccurate; most noticeable in flesh tones that veer dangerously toward ‘piggy pink’. Colors that should have leapt from the screen are merely gaudy and marginally vivid herein. Mercifully, we suffer through no artificial enhancements, edge effects or crushed blacks. Some minor softness occasionally creeps in, as does intermittent streaking, particularly during the scene where Branagh acknowledges the ghost while confronting Gertrude in her bed chamber. While close-ups do reveal more minute lines and wrinkles on the actors' faces and strands of hair, the overall impression in medium and long shots is merely competent rather than impressive – exactly the opposite of what a 70mm transfer ought to have yielded in 1080p.
When released to DVD in 2006, Hamlet was spread across two discs, divided at its intermission. The Blu-ray compresses the full four hours with Intermission onto one disc. I’ll simply go on record and state I am not a fan of this practice because bit rate is inevitably sacrificed. In addition to doing a scan of the original 70mm elements, Warner Home Video ought to have spread this movie across two Blu-rays divided at its intermission to max out the bit rate and take full advantage of the format’s capabilities. Hamlet’s audio has been remastered in 5.1 DTS and, predictably, reveals some exceptional clarity. Patrick Doyle’s music cues are the real benefactor, but dialogue is equally robust and subtly nuanced. Extras have all been ported over from the DVD release and include an audio commentary from Branagh and noted Shakespearean historian, Russell Jackson. The pair’s recollections are light, engaging and worthy of a listen. We also get a vintage junket prepared for the Cannes Film Festival and, better still, a ‘making of’ featurette with Branagh and his entourage discussing the play, the movie and their contributions in much greater detail. Finally, there is an anamorphic trailer advertising ‘the most celebrated play in the English language’ brought to life in ‘glorious 70mm’. Alas, the Blu-ray comes to us via less than this source material. Overall, it is a pleasant enough viewing experience. Tragically, it is not an exceptional one.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)