When sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions.
One might call this the Spinal Tap adaptation of Shakespeare’s greatest play, because everything about it most definitely goes to eleven. The first film of the unabridged text of Hamlet and the last film shot in seventy millimeter as of today, Kenneth Branagh’s brazenly, foolishly ambitious project will be the shortest four hours you ever spent in front of one movie. A broad cast of both veteran Shakespearean actors and many who you would not expect in this kind of film wring both drama and raw emotion out of words often calcified under the dreary mantle of “literature.”
If Prince Hamlet is the English theater’s most famous manic depressive, then Branagh the actor puts the emphasis on the manic. His Hamlet does not mope; he rages. The actor spends most of the film about one millimeter short of losing control and never does. Of course, in any other film, his performance would be over the top, excessive, but this project seems not only to allow such outsized emoting, but almost requires it.
This film also serves as almost a family tree of famous Hamlets. Branagh was inspired to pursue both acting and Shakespeare when he saw Derek Jacobi, who plays Claudius here, in the lead role. Jacobi, for his part, studied under the great John Gielgud, who many consider the greatest Hamlet in the history of English theater and has a cameo as a character in the Player King’s first speech.
As the royal usurper Claudius, Jacobi commands the screen, making the character less of a scheming villain and more of a formidable opponent. He’s aided by the appearance of many seldom-used scenes which flesh out the character far more than most of us get the chance to see. As Gertrude, Julie Christie wades into Shakespeare for the first time and makes her a heartbreakingly tragic character. She less of a faithless wanton sometimes portrayed in other adaptations and more the loving mother and wife reaping the consequences of bad choices.
And Hamlet’s vengeance toward his uncle/step-father is far less of the incestuous jealousy we see in other versions. He is less possessive toward his mother and more toward both Denmark and his father’s throne, which brings in one aspect of this film not found in other Hamlets, that being the political backdrop that underlines the action in the full text. The machinations of young Fortinbras, prince of Norway, to avenge his father’s defeat at the hands of old King Hamlet are often missing from most abridgements of the play and probably unfamiliar to most audiences.
Again, the cast of this film is overrun with familiar faces, many not usually associated with Shakespeare, although some are. As Polonius, the minister is often the target of Hamlet’s abuse and ultimately his misguide rage, Richard Briers brings depth and dignity to the role. Kate Winslet gained the role of Ophelia after losing out to Helena Bonham Carter for a role in Branagh’s Frankenstein. Ironically, Carter had recently played the role in the Franco Zeffirelli/Mel Gibson version several years earlier. As Hamlet’s doomed lover, Winslet is heartbreakingly vulnerable and completely believable.
Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?
Perhaps the greatest revelation of this film is Charleton Heston’s portrayal of the Player King, a role perfectly suited to the actor’s bigger-than-life style. Heston doesn’t often get the credit he deserves but it’s hard to deny that he really delivers the goods here.
The rest of the cast is full of scattered cameos by very recognizable actors. Oddly, I found myself feeling much more charitable toward these performances than I had when I first saw this movie ten years ago. As Marcellus, one of the first to see old Hamlet’s ghost, I had felt Jack Lemmon’s performance was flat and he seemed out of his depth. This time through, Lemmon felt much more organic to the scene. The same goes for Robin Williams’ role as Osric, the young nouveau riche noble who presides over the final duel. On DVD, his role seemed less comic and out-of-place than it had on the big screen. Alas, Gérard Depardieu still seems out-of-synch with Richard Briers during his one scene.
One actor who seemed surprisingly effective, both then and now, in his role as the first gravedigger, was Billy Crystal. The actor’s comic touches were perfectly integrated into a scene that gives him some nicely light-footed verbal fencing with Branagh.
Some less familiar faces are also quite effective in key roles. Nicholas Farrell is both likeable and strong in a vivid portrayal of Hamlet’s most loyal friend, Horatio. And as Laertes, the tragically loyal son of Polonius, Michael Maloney is every inch Branagh’s equal in a role just as fraught with the potential for emotional overreach.
I’d be remiss not to mention that, when I saw this movie in the theater, in all of its seventy millimeter glory, this was simply one of the most beautiful films I had seen, and remains so. The transfer on the new DVD is lovely, but standard-definition video is still inadequate for a movie like this one. Hamlet virtually demands a Blu-Ray or HD DVD release. Sadly, none has been announced, but I hope that will change before long. I’m spent eight years hoping for this movie on DVD. Now that I have it, I can spend a few more months waiting for its release on a format worthy of it.
Again, this is a long film, just around four hours, but it will not seem slow. The story moves at a deliberate but relentless clip. And even when the meaning of the words is less than clear, the performances carry you through. The combination of great source material, gorgeous photography and a talented, energetic cast, make this Hamlet impossible to miss for any fan of movies, Shakespeare or just of the English language.
Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.