Hamlet (1996)

*. The full text — meaning the First Folio text-plus, the so-called “eternity version” — done in four hours. And shot in Panavision Super 70. At Blenheim Palace and a giant stage at Shepperton. Which is great, on the one hand. On the other: is it all too much?
*. I don’t mean that it’s too long. Kenneth Branagh not only makes Shakespeare play as perfectly natural, he whips the action along at a lively pace that has this movie feeling much quicker than its running time. What I find too much is the spectacle.
*. This, the spectacle, was a conscious choice, and is defensible. Branagh didn’t want the usual gloomy, gothic Elsinore. He wanted light, and wide open spaces (which feel even wider in 70 mm). He also wanted something more political in a modern sense, more backroom and boardroom than Game of Thrones. But is all change good? Lloyd Rose called this version “the film equivalent of a lushly illustrated coffee-table book . . . the spacious, orderly palace isn’t used either atmospherically or ironically, and it’s awfully pretty for the story that unfolds.”
*. I mostly agree with Rose here. It’s a distinctive look, but I don’t know what the purpose of that look is aside from being different. It also made me wonder why it was being shot in the large format. It made me think of the other movies that have been done since in 70 mm in recent years: The Master, The Hateful Eight, and Branagh’s own Murder on the Orient Express. In which of these did 70 mm make any sense?

*. The plan was to cast big names in small parts and less well-known actors in the major roles (this was Kate Winslet at 17, just before she did Titanic). You have to shake your head at the theatrical release poster with all the stars listed: Julie Christie, Charlton Heston, Jack Lemmon, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal! No mention of Richard Briers (Polonius), Nicholas Farrell (Horatio), or Michael Maloney (Laertes), even though these are the third, fourth, and fifth biggest parts in the play respectively.
*. I don’t think the cameos have the same shock-and-awe effect as the sets. In fact, I enjoyed nearly all of them. Heston gets to out-Herod Herod as the Player King. Gérard Depardieu is a quietly slimy Reynaldo. Many people thought Lemmon miscast as Marcellus but I thought he was believable as a superannuated legionnaire. Not fit for the front line, but good enough to keep watch over the palace (or at least as good as anyone else they have doing that job). The only minor part I had trouble with was Billy Crystal as the First Gravedigger. I think he does well but still seems out of place.

*. The stars help take some of the attention away from Branagh, who I think comes close to going over the top. Or perhaps by this time I was getting to feel I knew his mannerisms too well, so that I’d become less patient with them. Or perhaps it was that ridiculous soul patch. I found that made it hard to take him seriously.
*. So it’s a movie where a lot of the big things were things I didn’t like. The bigger they went, the worse things got. Brian Blessed appearing not on the battlements but in a wood riven by earthquakes, and delivering his lines in a heavy whisper. I didn’t like that. And the finale is a total mess, beginning with the attack on Elsinore that seems taken directly from Launcelot charging the castle in Monty Python in the Holy Grail. The invaders appear out of nowhere and then take over the palace in mass stealth mode, at least until they come smashing through the windows like an army of ninjas. Perhaps Lemmon’s Marcellus was having a nap, but as Russell Jackson admits on the DVD commentary, Elsinor really is “a bit of a pushover.”

*. Then, to cap things off, there’s Hamlet using his sword as a javelin to spear Claudius at long range, pinning him to his throne with a chandelier (!), and swinging down on a rope to administer the coup de grâce. Yikes! This really puts the spectacle in spectacularly bad climaxes. Branagh says he wanted a “physical release” at the end, “a physical orgasm, a crescendo that is part of what Shakespeare is orchestrating.” What he got is a joke. I didn’t even understand the toppling of Hamlet Sr.’s statue at the end, like he was some Eastern European dictator. Is that what he was supposed to represent?
*. But when you look away from all the big things that are being done wrong (at least in my opinion) there’s a lot here to enjoy. Little things like the look Marcellus gives Horatio when Horatio describes him as being “distilled almost to jelly” in fear. Or Jacobi’s Claudius when Polonius asks if he’s ever known him to be false and he says “Not that I know,” or his response “no place should murder sanctuarize” when Laertes says he wants to cut Hamlet’s throat in the church.

*. Actually, Jacobi pretty much steals the show here. I think he plays the part, as imagined by Branagh, perfectly. Branagh thought of Claudius as “a good man gone wrong,” which is at least a fair reading, and Jacobi does full justice to the various ambiguities it involves. Was he motivated more by Gertrude or the crown? I guess it’s hard to separate the two.
*. Along with this attention to the smaller things I’d also mention Branagh’s use of close-ups. He wanted to pull in to more of these than Olivier would allow. Olivier thought they could be overwhelming, which they can be. But here, perhaps because the rest of the movie plays so large, Branagh gets away with them.

*. The best thing about such a production though is the fact that it is the full text. You get to see and hear parts of the play that are rarely performed, like Horatio explaining why there’s so much overtime in Denmark getting ready for war. In only one place (the performance of The Mousetrap, which I’ve always thought of as a painful redundancy after the dumbshow) this is a treat. As I’ve said, the extra length is not a problem, and playing the full text means it can develop the themes that the play obsesses on more completely, in particular the nesting boxes of situations that duplicate themselves (fathers and sons, revenge), and the idea of surveillance and spying.
*. So it’s very much a mixed bag. On balance though I have to rate it pretty highly. Despite its length it’s the film version of Hamlet that I’ve returned to the most often, if for no other reason than just to listen to it. Branagh really does the language well, with the long takes making the dialogue even easier to follow. When it goes wrong it goes disastrously, bombastically wrong, but it remains fundamentally right.

15 thoughts on “Hamlet (1996)

    1. Alex Good Post author

      It goes way over the top in a lot of places, but the performances are really pretty good and it’s impressive how he does the whole thing and makes it run so quickly.

  1. Bookstooge

    I’m trying to think what else Branaugh has been in that isn’t golden age detective or Shakespeare and I’m coming up blank. Was he a failed stage actor or something?

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Graduated from stage to screen, though I saw him on stage in a couple of things in Toronto (Midsummer Night’s Dream and Lear). He recently did Belfast which got a lot of good press.

      1. Bookstooge

        Thor was a travesty. Anyone and everyone associated with it should be ashamed of themselves and pretend it was a lookalike involved.

        Have not seen Tenet as I heard it made zero sense and while a good action film is great, I need “some” sense to prevail

        He was in Shadow Recruit? I actually enjoyed that and wished they’d made more. That kid was a decent actor.

      2. Alex Good Post author

        I didn’t mind the first Thor.

        He plays the evil Russian oligarch in Shadow Recruit. In Tenet he plays the evil Russian oligarch.

        He was born in Belfast and does not sound in the least bit Russian.

      3. Alex Good Post author

        I think the comrade stuff went out when the oligarchs took over. Now it’s all about being covered in tattoos and sitting in hot tubs full of hookers while you snort coke and drink vodka.

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