Hamlet (1996)

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If you want an informed and wiser look at this adaptation of the classic Shakespeare work then please read the review by Tue here. If you want to delve even deeper into the material and the interpretation of it throughout the years then I’m sure that there are a number of experts who have covered the subject much better than I ever could. I can simply explain my relationship with the works of Shakespeare over the years and my thoughts on this version of the classic work.

When I was in high school my schoolmates and I were made to read both Macbeth and Romeo & Juliet. I disliked both. I thought they were dull, impenetrable, outdated works. I was young and stupid and the way that these works were taught to us wasn’t, in my defence, the best. I have since decided to give Shakespeare another go, he certainly deserves it, and a few years ago I finally read Hamlet of my own volition. It was superb. Almost every line felt like a classic (indeed, almost every line IS a classic) and I loved taking my time to explore the double meanings, jokes, references and layers that Shakespeare managed to weave through the play. Fans of the bard will know that many of his works are on a par with this one, I apologise for being late to the party.

Yet when it comes to adaptations of his works I’m not really the biggest fan of Shakespeare on film. Personally, I prefer the adaptations that revise the plays (simply in the visual sense or in completely revisionist ways a la Titus or Forbidden Planet) or that keep many of the great lines of dialogue while conveying them with passion and energy.

Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Hamlet, in which he plays the title role, is like a note-perfect cover song. It’s technically proficient (in fact, it has one or two moments that are truly dazzling) but there’s something in the chemistry of it reminding you that it’s not the original work. Now this is MY problem and not the problem of the movie. I prefer to have my faithful renditions of Shakespeare in book form, allowing me to study and reread passages to get the most from each page. Branagh gets so much right here that it seems churlich to complain because he doesn’t twist the material into something that I’d prefer but that’s exactly my take on it – the tone and overall storyline is easy enough to follow but, at the risk of announcing my ignorance, I admit that there were plenty of moments when I was a bit confounded by the verbal playfulness and the longer speeches. My ears just aren’t as attuned to those words that my eyes and brain like to savour at leisure.

I’ve not actually covered the story here because you will already know of it in one form or another (even if it’s just in the Disneyfied guise of The Lion King) and I don’t even think a brief summary will do it justice. Like many Shakespeare works, it contains a number of themes, this time including sanity, living with grief, the danger of too much procrastination and the truth that can be held within any fiction. It’s a magnificent tale and Branagh treats it well. He’s matched by a cast that reads like a who’s who of great GREAT actors: Branagh himself, Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie, Kate Winslet, Brian Blessed, Nicholas Farrell, Michael Maloney, Richard Briers, Charlton Heston (one of the biggest surprises for me with his superb performance), Timothy Spall, Jack Lemmon and many, many others.

Sumptuous, intelligent, carefully crafted and presented, this remains one of the best  movies ever made from the works of Shakespeare.

It’s just that, well, I guess I’d have to end by saying “the play’s the thing”.

DIRECTOR: KENNETH BRANAGH
WRITER: WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE (ADAPTED FOR THE SCREEN BY KENNETH BRANAGH)
STARS: KENNETH BRANAGH, JULIE CHRISTIE, DEREK JACOBI, KATE WINSLET, NICHOLAS FARRELL, MICHAEL MALONEY, RICHARD BRIERS, CHARLTON HESTON, JACK LEMMON, TIMOTHY SPALL, REECE DINSDALE, RUFUS SEWELL
RUNTIME: 242 MINS APPROX
COUNTRY: UK, USA

Film Rating: ★★★★☆

2 Comments
  1. Tue Sorensen says

    Branagh was going for a traditional take on the play (only with more energy and action), and he set it in something like the 1800s instead of the 1600s so that it would continue to feel “traditional” (in a modern way) a long time into the future! I think he succeeded well.

  2. Kevin Matthews says

    There’s no doubt that he succeeded in what he set out to accomplish and it’s a stunning achievement. It’s just that my own preferred way of digesting the material has always been in revisionist takes full of verve or on the written page where I can dissect each phrase and get the full meaning from everything. 🙂

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