Hamlet (1996)


Shockingly, it took more than a decade for Kenneth Branagh’s impressive and pompous Hamlet film adaptation from 1996 to come out on DVD. That happened in 2007, and in 2010 it also arrived on Blu-ray. This is cause for celebration, as this is one of the top movie versions ever done of a Shakespeare (or any other) play.

Is there still anyone who is not familiar with the story of Hamlet, prince of Denmark, whose uncle Claudius deviously kills Hamlet’s father, the king, in order to become king himself? If so, I urge you to acknowledge your error and immediately start learning about the greatest and most epic and epochal piece of literature and theatre ever written. Hamlet is visited by his father’s ghost, and thereupon launched on a long and arduous quest to be revenged on Claudius. For the time is out of joint, and Hamlet was born to set it right. Along the way, he undergoes a nearly impossibly wide range of passionate and universally human emotions, all of which he soliloquizes about in the most poetic phrases ever heard in the English language. He thinks, loves, fights and kills his way to a bloody climax that has in it an apocalyptic finality which is however softened by the promise that all will eventually be made clear by the orations of a surviving character that, being no passion’s slave, represents pure reason. The play comprises the wildest and most existentialistic roller-coaster ride in the entire world of art. And producing a version of Hamlet is not done lightly by anyone who has any sense of proportion and propriety.

Opinions vary about how well Branagh’s movie works. Like virtually every production of Shakespeare, it does indeed have problems and it has had to make hard choices, not all of which work out. None the less, this version is a magnificent, even unequalled, achievement, the faults of which pale in comparison to its virtues. Let me comment on the faults all the same, however.

One of the two significant problems with the movie is that it frequently approaches melodrama rather than drama, owing to the fact that Branagh apparently over-dramatized it for commercial reasons, focusing on the title character’s energetic rage rather than the intellectual pensiveness of the director’s powerful and critically acclaimed stage version. Hamlet should be a character that the audience finds sympathetic. If he’s angry and hysterical in too many places, he will not appear to be the hero of the play, who’s continually contemplating cunning plans and projects. It could be argued that he is indeed very confused and emotional throughout the first four acts, but it is also a fact that byzantine schemes were set in motion in his mind ever since he first spoke to his father’s ghost, and he could not carry out such schemes without a great deal of emotional self-restraint. This is, of course, another of the original play’s inherent/apparent contradictions, where sundry interpretations must compete to make the most convincing case. Arguably, a modern peformance of Hamlet must focus chiefly on the title character’s supreme (if flawed) cleverness, and to some extent Branagh’s movie misses its chance to do that, which is a shame. In retrospect, however, I think the melodrama of this version works very well, the only downside being that we don’t really get a proper sense of Hamlet being a very clever and intellectual person.

The other problem with the movie is that it is simply too bright. White walls; bright lights; rich colors everywhere. A few years ago I had a chance to mention this to Shakespeare scholar Dr. Russell Jackson – a text consultant on the movie – at a talk he gave at a Shakespeare society here in Denmark, and he pointed out that instead of a dark, moody atmosphere, the Elsinore castle had secret doors everywhere! Granted, that point is well taken, and it is not a bad idea, but watching the movie again with this in mind, this element still does not make up for the sense of the unknown that should permeate this play. The “secret doors” element never achieves the ominous feeling of metaphor or analogy that it attempts, which results in the play being too gaudy and losing its trademark sense of a thousand mysteries looming. This is the biggest problem with this production. But while it’s a significant problem, it is not fatal for the movie. Almost everything else works out absolutely beautifully. Is Branagh a mite too old for the title role? Perhaps, but this is by no means fatal, either. His acting carries the part.

Thus die my complaints. Even with the faults described above, grave as they are, the movie’s colorful cornucopia of action, and abundance of contemplation, set it apart as a seminal Hamlet, and even if it is possible to imagine an even grander production, this version is still superior to all others and has in it, I feel, a sense of the future. As we investigate the mysteries of this play ever further in the coming years, parts of its darkness will become illuminated, and when that happens Branagh’s big-screen adaptation will still have currency; will still feel right.

A good performance of a Shakespeare play should not simply be melancholy recital; it should be an uproarious gamut of structured emotionality, with every character being visibly surprised at the outrageous power and shocking beauty of the words he or she both hears and speaks. Branagh understands this, and thank Fortune for that.

The movie achieves perfection in many areas. We get the complete text of the longest version of the play, innovatively and expensively brought to the screen, mostly enunciated in perfect and modern and highly understandable voices—even if they sometimes do speak too quickly in order to get the massive text over with (a favorite line of mine, for instance, which speaks volumes about Shakespeare’s writing method: “O ‘tis most sweet, when in one line two crafts directly meet”, is spoken in so throw-away and rambling a voice that it is robbed of significance). But in any one staging of Shakespeare, it simply is not possible to do complete justice to every one of the play’s plethora of phraseological pearls, nor to speak slowly enough for the audience to really appreciate the full depths of the language. For that, one must delve into the print versions of the plays.

All the actors in this version are simply mesmerizing and utterly and instantly classic, including Jack Lemmon who plays the sentinel, Marcellus. Julie Christie as Gertrude is surely one of the best ever, and even the American actors are astounding, esp. Charlton Heston as the Player King—who would have thought? (A story is going around that Heston once played Hamlet on stage, and when a critic in the front row couldn’t stand his hammy acting and said out loud, “This is terrible!” Heston reportedly retorted right from the stage, “Well, I didn’t write this crap!” Of course it may not be true, but it’s a funny story, and if true, a bold and ironic choice for Branagh to include Heston here.) Robin Williams as “Young Ozric” is perhaps not young enough for the part, but he makes it a risible one, which is warranted.

Overall it is an exceedingly well-produced version, with most of the key scenes being supremely memorable. Kenneth Branagh is an expert interpreter and popularizer, with an attractively casual attitude to the words and a deep and appropriately and unashamedly enthusiastic appreciation of the text. In the world of Shakespeare acting, the two brightest luminaries remain Olivier and Branagh, and while Olivier is the superior actor, Branagh brings Shakespeare down from the pedestal of snobbery and artifice, and transforms it into churlish, easy-going, populistic worldliness while compromising none of its dignity. Branagh brings out a truer Shakespeare than the world has yet seen.

This is the definitive Hamlet film adaptation thus far; both intellectually joyous and intellectually intense, and despite its problems I rate it 10 stars out of 10. There is not a single scene in it that doesn’t stay long in the memory. The only Shakespeare movie I consider more perfect is Branagh’s brilliant 1993 Much Ado About Nothing. In my esteem, Branagh’s Hamlet shares the second-best spot with Julie Taymor’s 1999 Titus.

The DVD/Blu-ray extras
The DVD is a two-disc widescreen edition with half of the movie on each disc. The Blu-ray has it all on one disc, naturally with an exciting picture of increased crispness – if you have a Blu-ray player, this is the one to get. Both versions have the same extras. Along with the movie is presented a new Branagh introduction, and an interesting background promo piece done for the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, and a nice set of trailers for several other Shakespeare movies, old and new. The main point of interest, however, is of course the full four-hour audio commentary by Branagh and Russell Jackson, filled with both “daft anecdotes” (as Branagh puts it) and fascinating insights into the sets, the acting, and the finer points of the play. At one point, they almost start discussing the differences between the first and second quartos, but to the disappointment of the true Shakespeare aficionado this discussion is quickly cut short. They try to keep the comments on a layman’s level, and it is an entertaining and jovial commentary track with many behind-the-scenes details. In the final analysis, though, it must be said that the audio commentary doesn’t add much of serious interest to the film; for that I would suggest that you buy the book of the screenplay instead, which is informative, insightful, and entertaining.

But there’s one more extra feature. “To Be On Camera: A History With Hamlet” is a 24-minute behind-the-scenes feature about the making of the movie, filled with interviews with the actors while they were on the set and in costume – incl. Branagh’s acting double used in rehearsals – and coupled, of course, with copious comments from Branagh himself. This is a fun, lively and enlightening feature which to my mind is the best part of the extra material.

The DVD or Blu-ray of this grand Shakespearean spectacle is a rich experience and can only be recommended. It will certainly be a major gem in any collection of Shakespeare movies.

Director: Kenneth Branagh
Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Julie Christie, Derek Jacobi
Runtime: 242min
Country: UK, USA

Film Rating: ★★★★★

Disc Rating: ★★★★★

  1. Kevin Matthews says

    Yeahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, I kinda HAVE to buy this at some point.

  2. Tue Sorensen says

    You really do! 🙂

  3. Kevin Matthews says

    Just ordered the 2-disc DVD from Amazon for under £5. Bargain.

  4. Tue Sorensen says

    Badda-boom! 😀

  5. Miguel Rosa says

    I didn’t even know this was out in DVD/Blu-Ray already.

    I have a soft spot for Branagh’s Shakespeare. I consider his Henry V one of the best adaptations ever! I’m very curious to watch this Hamlet.

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