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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Hamlet

Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 242 Minutes
Release Date: December 1996
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Billy Crystal, Brian Blessed, Simon Russell Beale, Timothy Spall, Ray Fearon, Robin Williams, Richard Attenborough, Reece Dinsdale, Jack Lemmon, Kate Winslet

Review by Jerry Saravia
No Rating Supplied

Leaving aside Orson Welles, nobody else has tackled Shakespeare in all its guts and glory, and in the beauty of the language. Kenneth Branagh's full-throttled, four-hour version of Hamlet is the exception, and a model for others to follow. Too often "Hamlet's" text is truncated, eschewing some of the relationships and complex themes for simple emotions. Mel Gibson looks like a wimp in the 1990 film version by Franco Zeffirelli; this new "Hamlet" will leave you cheering and weeping with delight at Kenneth Branagh's bravura performance.

Branagh ("Henry V") stars as the virile Prince Hamlet who is torn by the unexpectedly quick marriage of his mother, Gertrude (Julie Christie), to the callous, manipulative Claudius (a scene-stealing Derek Jacobi), who is stealing the throne of Denmark. What gets Hamlet to the boiling point of madness and despair is that he is told by his associates that Claudius murdered Hamlet's father - this is told in an eerie sequence by the ghost of Hamlet's father (Bard veteran Brian Blessed). When Hamlet becomes aware of this, he becomes anxious, jealous, manipulative, depressed, vengeful, and...yes, murderous. He also has a lost love whom he pines for, Ophelia (Kate Winslet), but he can never bring himself to admit his love to her, or do anything about his father's death - he's a coward in denial. His cowardice becomes more evident when he's continually walking through his palace becoming overbearing and obviously theatrical - this Hamlet thinks nothing of insulting everyone, including staging a play for Claudius where a prince's father is killed alarmingly the same way as Claudius had killed Hamlet's father! Hamlet gradually becomes more overbearing, and even cheerful, devilish. It is no wonder that Ophelia is understandably confused by Hamlet's behavior, she becomes crazy herself.

Kenneth Branagh is the perfect actor to play the bleached blonde, virile Hamlet - he successfully brings all the character's emotions to life in a performance I will never forget. It is outstanding how he makes us, the audience, unable to keep up with his fast-talking rhythms and plans, but it is clear that his madness and arrogance is leading to a path of doom - his lack of restraint within himself is his own undoing. Derek Jacobi is simply marvelous as the scheming Claudius - at times, he seems more dashing and in control than Hamlet, yet it is noteworthy how Jacobi manages to mask Claudius's villainy and bring a sense of sympathy. A round of applause must go to the return of Julie Christie to the big screen - her Gertrude is the maternal, emotional force who tries to heal Hamlet (I might add that Christie is at the appropriate age to play Gertrude when comparing to the youthful Glenn Close in the Zeffirelli version). Major pluses also go to Jack Lemmon as the doleful Marcellus, and the haunting expressiveness of Rufus Selwell as Prince Fortrinbas who eventually brings the throne to its knees. Kate Winslet ("Sense and Sensibility") is the ideal Ophelia; beautiful, sad, sexy, and madly insane.

Despite the great performances, there are some that are superfluous at best. I would have preferred other actors playing the First Gravedigger (Billy Crystal) and Osric (Robin Williams) - they distract us from the genuine power of the play and makes us feel as if we entered a Saturday Night Live special. Gerard Depardieu's walk-on bit as Reynaldo also feels unnecessary.

These are minor complaints for what is a superbly crafted work of art by Branagh. Serving as director as well, he makes the play into a visionary landscape of both the internal and external workings of Hamlet's mind. The vastness of the palace; the nocturnal bluish moors; the wintry scenery; the dazzling sword duels; Rufus's army marching symmetrically into the palace; and the moment when Hamlet tells his famous "To be or not to be" speech - these scenes, and many more, are beautifully realized by Branagh and cinematographer Alex Thomson. Branagh's first film was Shakespeare's "Henry V," a powerful, stirring film that made me want to join Henry in his battles. Since then, Branagh has fashioned a wonderful body of work ("Dead Again," "Peter's Friends," "Much Ado About Nothing"), and he continues to amaze. This vivid, breathtaking "Hamlet" finally gives Shakespeare and Branagh the respect they both deserve.

Copyright 1996 Jerry Saravia

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