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As He Likes It

Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet may be complete, but something's still a little rotten

None of the famous players, however, fares worse than Lemmon. What's shocking is just how awful his performance is. Even those who have had their ups and downs with his work will be stunned; he can be irritating and self-imitative, but he's always been an intelligent actor. Yet here his line readings are so flat, so devoid of any meaning, that it's hard to resist the conclusion that he was heavily medicated at the time. He's that bad.

Billy Crystal isn't my favorite Gravedigger by a long shot -- Stanley Holloway in Olivier's version still holds that honor -- but he's okay, and there's nothing inherently wrong with bringing a smidgen of the Catskills to the character. Robin Williams's performance as the foppish courtier Osric is also fine, but is ruined by the editing. Branagh, who seems to dote on Williams, chooses to cut to close-ups of him whenever possible ... even when the shots are utterly improbable. Osric is a minor character, yet during the film's final half-hour, we probably see his face more than anyone's save Hamlet's. It's just ... weird.

And then there are John Gielgud, John Mills and Judi Dench, whose roles barely qualify as cameos. Their casting was either the result of some kind of government senior-citizen make-work project or Branagh coveting the imprimatur granted by having the world's greatest living Shakespearean actors appear in his film, however briefly.

One of Branagh's worst decisions is to cut away during major speeches to show us stagings of what the speeches are describing. Some of these cutaways are passable: We get to see the Norwegian Fortinbras preparing his attack on Poland. Some of them are interesting, if dubious: When Ophelia talks of her time spent with Hamlet, we actually see a discreet shot of them in bed together, presumably post-coital. This flies in the face of the usual interpretations of their relationship, but at least it's provocative. And it could be taken simply as Ophelia's fantasy -- a consummation she devoutly wishes. But a final cutaway during the "Alas, poor Yorick!" speech provokes as much unintentional laughter as Lemmon's arrival: Branagh shows us a flashback of the clownish Yorick cavorting with an eight-year-old Hamlet, who's played by some kid in a hideous blond fright wig.

Others of Branagh's decisions work well. Scenes that are usually played for maximum laughs -- such as Hamlet's feigned madness before Ophelia -- are given far more emotional gravity. In his introduction of the Players' performance, Hamlet is like a slick emcee, driven increasingly manic by anxiety and anticipation. Jacobi is perfectly oily as Claudius, and Christie is excellent as Gertrude. But outside of Branagh, it's Winslet who leaves the strongest impression. Ophelia can sometimes come across as a pathetic wimp, but Winslet makes her deeply moving.

Given the care that went into the pro-duction design and the promise of the opening shot, the visual style is disappointing. In addition to the dubious cutaway strategy, there is some clunky, surprisingly amateurish editing. The wide 70 millimeter frame is rarely employed to the film's best advantage, and Branagh tiresomely repeats the one camera-movement trick in his repertoire: As in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, whenever in doubt, he covers the action with vertiginous circular tracking shots.

Patrick Doyle's score is memorable but not always appropriate. Its worst moment is right before the intermission: Branagh delivers the call to resolve -- "How do all occasions inform against me" -- as a grand monologue in the manner of his St. Crispin's Day speech in Henry V. The camera tracks away slowly as his voice rises, while Doyle's music swells in a manner that suggests patriotic fervor, rather than a commitment to revenge. It's rousing, it's effective and it's just stone wrong.

Hamlet.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh. With Kenneth Branagh and Kate Winslet.
Rated PG-13.
238 minutes.

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