Sometimes you are fortunate to see something so special and
unusual that you have trouble writing about it. Kenneth Branagh's new
HAMLET affected me that way. Every time I picked up my notes to finish
writing about it, I would switch to some other review instead. (During
the Christmas season, there are so many films opening that I stay
behind. Sometimes I even have three press screenings at once. You can
see why the New York Times needs three film critics to cover all the
So why is there all this buzz about yet another adaptation of
William Shakespeare's "Hamlet"? Afterall, there have been twenty-eight
HAMLET movies already. Surely there is no longer anything new to say.
In two words, the answer is: four hours. Four hours plus a twenty
minute intermission to be precise. Granted, that for those who hate
Shakespeare, the idea of sticking around this long will sound like
masochism. Yet, even people not enamored with the Bard may be as blown
away by this film as was I.
Let me explain. Branagh chose the film's length for two reasons.
First, he wanted to break with tradition and do a full text version of
the play. This means that viewers would get to enjoy the many minor
scenes that directors eliminate because of time considerations.
Second, he wanted to allow enough time for the play to breathe.
This is the groundbreaking idea that makes the play so uniquely
accessible. Hamlet has more lines worth pondering than ten other
plays, but usually the listener can not pause to reflect on them
because the actors are flying through their lines so they can get the
movie completed within a traditional length. Never I have I understood
or appreciated HAMLET so completely, and I predict that others
fortunate enough to see the movie in its full four hour length will
feel the same way.
There is much history behind the running time. Let me summarize
what I heard about it. Branagh wanted a four hour version, but the
distributors and the theater owners thought it would be a financial
disaster for them. Normally they could fill the theater twice during
that period. Branagh was forced to create both a two and a four hour
version with the latter to be shown briefly in three cities in the
world. After a hue and cry, especially on the Internet, the strategy
was changed to releasing both versions widely. Moreover, the shorter
version will be a 35mm print, whereas the longer will be the original
70mm. Plans, of course, could still change before the nationwide
release next year.
I was privileged to see one of the selected members of the Bay
Area press that Castle Rock invited to a special screening in San
Francisco. We were supposed to see the 70mm four hour version, but the
print was "stuck in London," so we saw a 35mm print of the four hour
version instead. Like Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA
(1984), which has both a truncated and a full length version, the
longer one is the one is see. I would drive hours to see the four hour
version of Hamlet. Given there was a massive storm the day I saw it,
that is exactly what I did and was it ever worth it.
The sets by Tim Harvey for Hamlet are stunning. This adaptation
of the play is set in the nineteenth century. The interior scenes in
Elsinore Castle have a long mirror lined gallery. They combined
adjoining sound stages at Shepperton to create the largest single set
ever constructed in the United Kingdom. The exterior scenes were shot
at Blenheim Palace where they used more artificial snow than any movie
in history. Yes, even more than DOCTOR ZHIVAGO. (The press kit
assures us that it is "environmentally friendly" fake snow so you
needn't be troubled by that while watching the picture.)
The music by Patrick Doyle (SENSE AND SENSIBILITY and HENRY V) has
a haunting and lovely theme as well as dramatic parts full of kettle
drums, horns, and wailing choirs. Beautifully sad and majestic music
so memorable that you may want to buy the CD,
The costumes by Alexandra Byrne (PERSUASION) are fashioned using a
lush color palette of royal reds and golds set off against dramatic
whites and blacks. The cinematography by Alex Thomson makes you feel
the warmth of the interior and the cold of the exterior. Branagh said
he did not want "gloomy castles and dour costumes," and his crew
delivered. The sets are as inviting as the text is compelling.
Branagh is my favorite Shakespearean actor and director. Anyone
doubting his abilities should see his brilliant HENRY V, which remains
his best acting ever. (As a director, HENRY V is not his best film;
HAMLET is.) Branagh brings an intensity and a focused approach that
illuminates every word he speaks. Early on, Hamlet tells his mother,
Queen Gertrude (Julie Christie), "Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not
'seems.'" His thin lips quiver as he delivers the lines, and he appears
as if he may explode at any moment.
Every actor puts his stamp on Shakespeare's most famous lines, "To
be, or not to be." Branagh decides to downplay them somewhat in favor
of other lines. He delivers the speech in a mirror with the camera
focused on the mirrored imaged rather than directly on him.
As is appropriate, Branagh is the star about which the other
performers revolve. Appropriate both because of his position in the
play and because of his talent. Nevertheless, the other luminaries in
this star studded sky are worth mention and perhaps some Oscar
Branagh says he purposely cast the film with a host of big names
to ensure the audience can "look and see and hear with greater clarity"
even the minor roles. I want to get the one exception to this rule out
of the way quickly since it is my only criticism of the film. Jack
Lemmon, as Marcellus, is a disaster and appears totally lost on how to
approach the role. Luckily, Lemmon has only a few minutes of screen
time. The rest of the actors range from quite good to exceptional.
Besides those already mentioned, Derek Jacobi gives a controlled
and effective reading of the malevolent Claudius. Interesting choice
since Jacobi's signature role was as Emperor Claudius in "I, Claudius."
Branagh said he first saw "Hamlet" at age fifteen with Jacobi in the
lead. That performance left an indelible mark on his memory of how the
play was so "exciting, sexy, dangerous, and violent."
Kate Winslet (HEAVENLY CREATURES, SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, and JUDE)
delivers the best performance of her short but talented career as the
fragile and vulnerable Ophelia. When Ophelia goes mad, you believe it.
Nicholas Farrell (Antonio in TWELFTH NIGHT) plays Horatio with
much passion. Charlton Heston and Rosemary Harris are perfectly cast
as the Player King and Queen. Timothy Spall (SECRETS AND LIES) is
Rosencrantz, and Reece Dinsdale is Guildenstern. Robin Williams is
quite funny in the small part of Osric, but Billy Crystal underplays
the comic role of the First Gravedigger. Michael Maloney (Dauphin in
HENRY V) as Laertes is explosively powerful.
An incredible motion picture experience. Movies this good remind
us of the power of the medium. See the four hour version. Accept no
substitutes. And try to see the 70mm version that I missed. 70mm
gives images a three dimensional realism that the smaller 35mm format
can never bring out. I have trouble imagining a more striking visual
that the 35mm print I saw. You could see something even better.
HAMLET runs 3:58 plus an intermission. It is rated PG-13. There
is brief sex, some nudity, and violence. The film would fine for kids
say nine or ten and up. I recommend this film to you in the strongest
terms whether you like Shakespeare or hate him, and I give it my top
rating of ****. Do NOT miss this film.
Copyright © 1996 Steve Rhodes