Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh) is Prince of Denmark. After his father (Richard Briers) dies, his uncle Claudius (Derek Jacobi) takes the throne and marries Hamlet's mother, Gertrude (Julie Christie). When the late king's ghost reveals he was murdered by Claudius, Hamlet must decide what course of action to take. Meanwhile, he has been courting Ophelia (Kate Winslet), daughter of ... oh, you've heard this one before? Sorry.
It does seem redundant to recount the plot of Hamlet, which is, after all, the best-known play in the English language and (excepting the King James Bible) the prime claimant to the title of central text of all English-language literature. The press material for Kenneth Branagh's new film version says that Shakespeare's play has been filmed five times before; the actual number is roughly ten times that. The 1980 edition of the Guinness Movie Facts and Feats lists 41 adaptations and nine parodies, and that list doesn't include loose adaptations and updatings such as Edgar G. Ulmer's 1945 Strange Illusion, Akira Kurosawa's 1960 The Bad Sleep Well, Aki Kaurismaki's brilliant 1987 deconstruction Hamlet Goes Business, Enzo Castellari's 1972 Western Johnny Hamlet and, if you were really paying attention, the 1983 Dave Thomas-Rick Moranis film Strange Brew ... as well as related backstage stories such as 1990's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, To Be or Not to Be (done brilliantly in 1942 and less well in 1983) and Branagh's own A Midwinter's Tale from two years ago. Nor is it recent enough to mention the 1990 Franco Zeffirelli version with Mel Gibson.
All of which suggests the obvious question: Did we really need another Hamlet?
The answer is yes -- and, perhaps sadly, we still do, despite Branagh's often estimable efforts.
The most famous film Hamlet is, of course, Laurence Olivier's multi-Oscar-winning 1948 version, which -- despite some competition from Nicol Williamson's late '60s outing and the Zeffirelli/Gibson take -- has remained the "official" version since its release.
Branagh has been cursed (or blessed) with comparisons to Olivier since the beginning of his career. He certainly encouraged the talk by directing and starring in Henry V, exactly as Olivier had 45 years earlier. Now he's following in Olivier's footsteps again. (Is a Branagh Richard III inevitable as well?)
On the face of it, Branagh's version has several advantages over its forerunners. For starters, it's complete -- which may be a first. Despite the play's revered status, it's almost never performed in its entirety. Branagh's unabridged version clocks in at three hours and 58 minutes, almost an hour and a half longer than Olivier's; there's also a ten-minute intermission. Be sure you've prepared the baby sitter.
While the longer speeches may sometimes bog down, Branagh has, if nothing else, provided an educational service by preparing this full-length work. Hamlet really does deserve such treatment: Some of the "less important" material that has been cut in other versions is in fact crucial. It is, for instance, common to remove or shorten much of the fourth act, when Hamlet himself is absent from the action, traveling to England with his turncoat buddies, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. While the story may seem on hold with Hamlet missing, his prolonged absence -- roughly a half-hour here -- is what gives his Act Five reappearance in the graveyard such power.
Branagh also has the advantage of shooting in an ultracrisp, panoramic 70 millimeter format and the clout to enlist the actors he wants. Further, as he displayed in Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing, he has a knack for staging Shakespeare in a manner that makes the meaning of the words take precedence over their often hypnotic sonority. In short, even benighted Americans can generally understand what the hell the characters are talking about.
So with all these advantages, why can't I be wholeheartedly enthusiastic about Hamlet? The film opens well, with a wide exterior view of Elsinore Castle. It's a beautiful shot ... one of the very few, unfortunately, in the next four hours. The setting has been changed to the 19th century, a move that has little effect on things (though one might be struck by the incongruity of guards in such uniforms carrying spears instead of rifles). But the first bit of business, while dramatic, hardly makes sense: Bernardo, arriving to relieve Francisco, attacks his comrade and wrestles him to the ground -- a fine how do you do. I mean, what the hell is that about?
Still, Hamlet has become so overplayed that it's better to risk new or offbeat interpretations, even if some of them don't quite compute. And, in general, Branagh scores well on these counts. But the immediate arrival of Horatio and Marcellus introduces a far more grave flaw. While Horatio is portrayed by the relatively anonymous British actor Nicholas Farrell, Marcellus is none other than ... Jack Lemmon! Branagh has chosen to cast many of the play's bit parts -- plus several wordless parts not in the text -- with famous actors. In general, this is distracting, though in some cases, notably Charlton Heston as the Player King, the performance overshadows the distraction.
In many cases, though, it's simply silly. Gerard Depardieu shows up as the obscure and incredibly minor Reynaldo to utter roughly 14 lines, most of them variations on, "Yes, my lord, I will do so." By the time you've gotten over giggling at this bulky, heavily accented French guy playing a Dane, Depardieu is gone, not to be seen again. In the world of inappropriate cameos, this one falls just short of John Wayne as the Centurion in The Greatest Story Ever Told.
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.
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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.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh. With Kenneth Branagh and Kate Winslet.