directed by Kenneth Branagh
(Warner, 1996)

As someone who estimates Ken Branagh's films with no small regard, I was thrilled to hear about this full-length version of Hamlet. I thought that if anyone was capable of such a gargantuan task, it was Branagh ... and you know what? He almost pulled it off.

But while Branagh's Hamlet is excellent in many ways, it's not quite the classic it wants to be. It drags in the early goings (Polonius's lecture to Laertes is just murder to sit through), and falls short of its aims in others (some of the soliloquies don't have the heat that they should, while some are very overheated indeed). However, it's still quite good, and serves very well as a showcase for its director/star's every gift, idiosyncracy and limitation.

The cast is an example of all three. It's chock full of Royal Shakespeare Co. ringers like Derek Jacobi and John Gielgud, as well as Branagh's stable of usuals (Brian Blessed, Michael Maloney, Richard Briers). They're all keys to this film's success; Briers in particular brings a monstrous quality to Polonius I hadn't fully appreciated before. Then there are the performances that surprise you, either by how good they are or by who the actor is, or both. Kate Winslet makes some unusual acting choices here and turns in a daring interpretation of Ophelia. The late Jack Lemmon surprises by his very presence -- but is gone so fast, what he does here is more in line with an appearance than a performance. More's the pity. Charlton Heston fares better as the Chief of the Players; he seems here to be channeling all of his past glories (and that's a lot!) into this incandescent, heartstopping role.

Then there's (believe it or not) Billy Crystal as the Gravedigger, who I think is just wonderful. Crystal understands that in Shakespeare, the Fool always speaks wisdom and truth; here we see that Fool unguarded, wisdom laid bare, plain in his crafty smile and twinkling eye. Other bits of "Hollywood" guest-casting are less successful -- notably Robin Williams, who plays Osrick as some kind of weird, alien interior designer. (Well, maybe Osrick is from Van Nuys or something.)

Branagh's performance and direction also wander the spectrum, His "antic dispositions" are brilliant and funny; his "To be or not to be" soliloquy is eloquent if not particularly inspired; his "what a piece of work is a man" speech (one of my favorite moments in all of Shakespeare's plays) is just luminous. But he can also be shrill and overmannered (sometimes both at once, which isn't easy to do!), and it's my sad duty to report that some of Hamlet's best scenes are scenes that Hamlet isn't even in. Branagh is more successful as a director; his cinematography and art design are, as always, superb (love those mirrored doors). What trips him up here is the slow pace -- an odd thing to say about a four-hour film, but there you go. As I mentioned, some scenes in this film don't just drag, but dawdle. I can't help but think that Branagh could've cut this thing to 3 1/2 hours, and made a classic, if he'd just picked up the damned pace.

Ah well, perchance to dream and all that. I do like this version of Hamlet in spite of all its flaws -- though I will admit that it's one of my "rainy day" movies, meaning I put it on when I know I've got an afternoon to kill. Beats the heck out of golf, if you ask me. This may not be Branagh's best movie -- that's still Henry V in my estimation -- but it's still pretty good. So, to steal from the play itself: For this relief, much thanks.

review by
Jay Whelan

21 August 2010

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