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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 Steve Rhodes
4 stars out of 4

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 movies.)

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 consideration.

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

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