Proving himself to be as ambitious as he is talented, if not more so, actor/director Kenneth Branagh (Henry V, Dead Again, and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein) once again sets his sights upon the world of Shakespearean drama. This time the classically trained stage and film actor brings to life William Shakespeare's most celebrated dramatic play in an opulent, epic, and truly memorable motion picture. For the first time the play is presented in a film version with all of Shakespeare's original text taken from the Second Quarto and the First Folio. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is reborn to live again in this shining adaptation. Utilizing the vastness and complexity of Shakespeare's full text, Branagh creates a grand movie treatment of the play, and in so doing has made a place for himself in the annals of cinematic history. Now it could be said that only a great egotist would ever attempt to adapt, direct, and star in a filmed version of one of the most beloved stories in the English language, but Branagh's unabashed passion for this material outweighs any "glory-seeking" on his part.
The film, which was shot primarily on 70mm film stock, is a sweeping, grandiose spectacle that rivals almost every other film version of Hamlet. This sense of scale and theatrical immensity is as much the work of the film's cinematographer, Alex Thomson, as it is of the director. Adding to the epic scale of the film is the production design, which was overseen by Tim Harvey, who, as per request of Kenneth Branagh, sets the story during the last days of a 19th century Danish court rather than in the typically gothic castles of medieval Denmark, where so often the tale unfolds.
Providing much of the film's needed sense of nobility, as well as the necessary ambience of impending doom and chaos, is the music of Patrick Doyle, whose score perfectly suits the film's psychologically complex characters, and captures the growing tension of the Danish monarchy's decline whilst madness, scandal, and vengeance take their toll upon the royal court.
"Something is rotten in the state of Denmark."
-Marcellus in Hamlet
When the damned apparition of his recently deceased father, the King, appears before Prince Hamlet appoints him the task of avenging his murder, Hamlet is thrust into a world of secret intrigues and personal vendettas. Hamlet learns that his father was poisoned by his own brother, Hamlet's villainous uncle, Claudius, who now sits upon the throne as king of Denmark and has taken Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, to be his bride and queen. Wracked with the grief and a newfound hatred for his traitorous uncle, Hamlet sets about planning his revenge. In all of this, he only trusts the ever-faithful, ever-loyal Horatio. Hamlet soon realizes that he must feign madness in order to achieve his vengeful goal, but his plans are intruded upon by Claudius' advisor, the aged and eccentric Polonius, who is the father of Hamlet's great love, Ophelia. Polonius, fearful for his daughter's safety (or more accurately her chastity), warns Claudius of Hamlet's mental decline. As a result Claudius calls upon Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of Hamlet's old friends, to spy on him.
Meanwhile, Hamlet devises a plan to expose Claudius as his father's murderer by using a play, in which the king's brother kills him in order to gain the queen's hand in marriage, but Claudius only becomes aware of hamlet's knowledge and in an agitated fit, he storms out of the play. That same night Hamlet confronts his mother, Gertrude, believing her to be alone and when the two become engaged in a violent argument, Polonius, whose presence was unknown to Hamlet, calls the guards for help. Hamlet slays the hidden Polonius, as he suspect that he may be Claudius. When Claudius learns of Hamlet's misdeed, he sends him to England with Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, who carry orders to have Hamlet executed once he reaches England. Fortuitously, a pirate ship attacks the ship that Hamlet is on and he escapes… however, Guildenstern and Rosencrantz are executed in his place when they arrive in England.
When Hamlet finally returns to Denmark, he is horrified to discover that in his absence things have only become worse in the royal court. Between her father's murder and Hamlet's exile Ophelia was driven into madness and, whether accidentally or intentionally, she drowned herself in the river. Her brother, the valiant if not hot tempered, Laertes is hell-bent on killing Hamlet, who he blames not only for Polonius' death, but also that of Ophelia. At the suggestion of the ever-scheming Claudius, hamlet and Laertes agree to have a duel, but Claudius has ensured that Hamlet will not survive. Claudius having poisoned Hamlet's goblet and Laertes having dipped the tip of his sword in a lethal concoction, Claudius is sure that Hamlet will be slain. But during the duel Gertrude drinks from the poisoned goblet and dies, Laertes is mortally wounded, as is Hamlet, though he manages to kill Claudius before his own death. Hamlet succeeds in avenging his father, but at the cost of his kingdom. In the end, only the ever-faithful, ever-loyal Horatio lives.
"Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!"
-Horatio in Hamlet
The film features an enormously star-studded cast, including Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet, Derek Jacobi as Claudius, Brian Blessed as The Ghost of the King, Julie Christie as Gertrude, Richard Briers as Polonius, Kate Winslet as Ophelia, Michael Maloney as Laertes, Nicholas Farrell as Horatio, Timothy Spall as Rosencrantz, and Reece Dinsdale as Guildenstern. The supporting cast includes Richard Attenborough as the English Ambassador, Billy Crystal as the First Gravedigger, Judi Dench as Hecuba, Gerard Depardieu as Reynaldo, Ken Dodd as Yorick, Ray Fearon as Francisco, John Gielgud as Priam, Rosemary Harris as the Player Queen, Charlton Heston as the Player King, Jack Lemmon as Marcellus, Ian McElhinney as Barnardo, John Mills as Old Norway, Rufus Sewell as Fortinbras, and Robin Williams as Osric.
Most members of the cast are spectacular and I have great respect for all, though a few feel rather miscast. Billy Crystal and Robin Williams, in particular, are perhaps too flamboyant in their respective roles, and much of the supporting cast is underutilized, which gives the appearance that Branagh simply wanted as many big names attached to this film for no other reason than to help promote it. Also there are times when Branagh, who for the most part is excellent as Hamlet, becomes frenzied in his role and recites his dialogue so feverishly and so quickly that it's hard to understand what he's saying.
It should come as no surprise to see Derek Jacobi as Claudius since it was his performance of Hamlet long ago that inspired Branagh to read Shakespeare in the first place. Jacobi is brilliantly subtle as the treacherous Claudius, as he puppeteers and manipulates those around him in his pursuit of power and passion.
Julie Christie is quite effective as Gertrude and makes her a far more sympathetic figure than most actresses have done in the past.
Nicholas Farrell is superb as Horatio, endowing the character with intellect and yet a trusting naïveté.
But of all the cast the standout is Kate Winslet, who gives a devastating portrayal of the heartbroken Ophelia. Clearly Branagh has earned the respect and admiration of his entire cast. As both an actor and director, he's able to bring their collective talents to the forefront and inspires them to give their most compelling performances.
One of the film's greatest strengths is that Kenneth Branagh, unlike many of his more effete contemporaries, understands that Shakespeare never grows old or becomes stale. Also, he is aware of the unique position that Shakespeare's plays hold, as they manage to transcend just about every genre, being a poetic amalgam of all genres. Hamlet, in particular, is a strange hybrid combination of political intrigue, revenge melodrama, psychological thriller, supernatural suspense, satire, romance, and tragedy. Contrary to what some may think, Branagh knows that Shakespeare is in essence a genre unto himself, being inimitable and incomparable to any other writer in history.
Now, when the film was first released in theatres, it was met with a varied response from critics, Naturally, most of the complaints were inconsequential diatribes about the film's running length of four hours and two minutes, but there were a few critics with legitimate reservations about the film. First of all there were quite a few who felt that removing the story from medieval Denmark to the latter half of the 19th century provided too many distractions from the text. Secondly, some thought that certain actors were far too over-the-top in their performances. And thirdly, there were those that criticized Branagh for casting too many top-notch stars without giving them a chance to exercise their acting abilities. I must admit that I do find some credence in these derogatory claims. I too felt that setting the story in the 19th century to be disjointing, though I admire Branagh for his originality in vision. Regarding the complaints that some actors were melodramatic, I can only point out that this is Kenneth Branagh's vision of Hamlet, and Branagh, having been a stage actor, naturally gravitates toward melodrama and theatrics. As far as the cast being underutilized, I must agree wholeheartedly. There's just not much point of hiring respected actors like Richard Attenborough, Judi Dench, and John Gielgud, if they're only going to appear on screen for a matter of seconds.
These issues aside, Kenneth Branagh has masterfully raised the bar on the quality of Shakespearean films, and he and his many collaborators should all receive the proper recognition that they deserve.
The 2-disc Special Edition DVD includes an introduction to the film by Kenneth Branagh, an audio commentary by Branagh and Shakespeare scholar Russell Jackson, "To Be on Camera: A History with Hamlet" featurette, 1996 Cannes Film Festival Promo, and a gallery of trailers for films based upon Shakespeare's plays.
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