***½/**** Image A Sound B- Extras B-
starring Kenneth Branagh, Julie Christie, Billy Crystal, Gérard Depardieu
screenplay by Kenneth Branagh, based on the play by William Shakespeare
directed by Kenneth Branagh
by Jefferson Robbins You could tell it was an epic: it had an intermission. Kenneth Branagh's four-hour version of William Shakespeare's Hamlet may be the last mainstream film to feature an honest-to-goodness, seriously-I-gotta-pee-now pause-point in its theatrical release.1 How daring was that, in a period when studios demanded 90-minute runtimes to crowd more asses in seats? When just a year later, people would unironically say "epic" and mean Titanic?
Shooting in lucid 70mm and leaning on giallo techniques when the text (unexpurgated here for the first time on film) calls for a murder, director-star Branagh plays to the box seats as well as to the groundlings. One might have thought Hamlet would call for a bit of the drawing-room restraint he'd shown in his smaller films, like Peter's Friends and A Midwinter's Tale. One forgets that those closed-in movies were usually made in retreat from some grandiose fit like Dead Again or Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. No, Branagh's Hamlet bares his chest, wails, declaims, mocks, condescends, and rages. John Simon called Branagh's conception of the character "an active, brawny one," and indeed there are action beats aplenty to recapture any interest that possibly waned during the last soliloquy. But the soliloquies are highly mobile, too, and some charged, argumentative scenes have enough cuts to make Michael Bay start nodding along. In its best movements, Branagh's camera--expertly guided by Alex Thomson--paces the halls in long, uninterrupted takes. If it's not following a conversation from chamber to chamber, it's stalking individual characters like a slasher, or eyeing Blenheim Palace, stand-in for Elsinore, as an isolated and vulnerable garrison surmounting a wintry heath.
Must I warn of spoilers? Danish prince Hamlet (Branagh) mourns the loss of his namesake father and king (Brian Blessed), even as Old Hamlet's brother Claudius (Derek Jacobi) ascends the throne and takes the widowed queen Gertrude (Julie Christie) to wife. The young scion of Elsinore draws close to suicide before a visitation from his father's Ghost recalibrates him for revenge. Five acts later, you've got a corpse-laden throne room where Norwegian warlord Fortinbras (Rufus Sewell) can plant his flag unopposed. All good reinterpretations of Shakespeare present a new facet for the viewer, and here's the one from Branagh's that leaped out at me: the real tragedy is not that of Hamlet, but of the Ghost who so ill-uses him. Sure, good night, sweet prince, boo-hoo-hoo...but assuming he's not a figment of his son's madness, the murdered king, in death still girded for war, erases his own legacy, his lineage--even, in this film's Ozymandian epilogue, his name.
Entrances and exits are the rhythm of the play, and Tim Harvey's set design makes this a syncopated production indeed. Disguised doors and two-way mirrors validate the ridiculous arras-hiding and eavesdropping of the script. This Elsinore is a catacomb that seems to contain the whole world. Of course the asylum cell housing Ophelia (Kate Winslet) is an oubliette beneath the palace stair--how else to explain a madwoman escaping to wander among royalty? Hamlet's "to be or not to be" is delivered in a mirrored hall that reflects a chessboard floor. It runs the risk of looking like a prog-rock album cover, yet somehow, it works. Addressing one's own reflection in the midst of suicidal ideation is perhaps too on the nose, but let that pass: I'm more disappointed with the traditionalist fondling of Yorick's skull. It's one of the few points where the director yields to the historic awe in which the scene is held.
Branagh frustrates because while he can and does find the proper pitch of a Shakespearean scene and tunes it for cinematic effect, in one instance out of five he'll take it too far and lay a groaner. That still leaves four great ones, though, like the climactic swordfight: up the staircase, over the banister, with the chandelier employed as a weapon and the Norwegians closing in.2 And he pulls out fine performances, save for the cameos by Robin Williams as the sycophant Osric and Billy Crystal's '90s mullet as the First Gravedigger. They're either too distracting in their celebrity (in the case of the former) or simply unattuned to character and dialect (the latter). Gérard Depardieu offers his girthy presence in a scene Shakespeare drafted (one supposes) to highlight the oafishness of Polonius (Richard Briers), though it's played too straight, hobbling the French warhorse. Viewers familiar with Blessed, genre fans in particular, are used to a hearty, blustering vocal hurricane--in the Ghost's admonishments, Branagh dials him back to a near-whisper, and it's twice as forceful. As the Player King, Charlton Heston need only be Charlton Heston.
Finally, in the title role, Branagh makes Hamlet not a waffler but a shrewd yet vulnerable man buffeted by impossible circumstance. His humour is arch and modern (he does a great vaudevillian tiptoe away from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern)--and if he takes his time in the execution of his father's will, it's because he's both gleeful and frightened to discover how good he is at the art of the vendetta.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Hamlet earned back just a fourth of its $18M budget in theatres. That and its length condemned it to a weird home-video undeath the Ghost himself might recognize. Available only on VHS and LaserDisc until 2007, it arrives on Warner Blu-ray with its extras intact from that year's DVD--commentary, trailers, featurettes--but with no new supplements. The HiDef mastering is sharp: every hair in every beard and brush-cut stands distinct in this 2.20:1, 1080p transfer; the veins in Briers's forehead are road maps and the sets are done great justice, from the sky blue and oak of Claudius's confessional to the torchlit walls of Elsinore's armoury. Someone had a particular eye for complexion--I wish the whole world could be lit like Kate Winslet's cheeks. The BD conversion also shows up flaws. There's a terrible splice near the finale, in the exchange between Hamlet and Laertes (Michael Maloney); and when the Players are introduced in Thomson's most complex camera circuit, one brief failed focus-pull stands out like a pimple. I'm grateful for the video quality, because the 5.1 DTS-HD audio reveals the soundmix as an unambitious, front-oriented thing that all but ignores the rear channels and subwoofer, unless there's an atmospheric birdcall or a brass blat from Patrick Doyle's iffy score. Although the Ghost reverberates around the room well enough in an overly-processed sound effect, scenes that should clang and echo--like that finishing duel--may as well be in simple stereo.
The commentary, recorded for the 2007 DVD, finds Branagh and Shakespeare scholar/script consultant Russell Jackson teaming convivially, with much warm crosstalk and passion for the subject matter. Branagh has great recall of production details--Horatio's (Nicholas Farrell) letter-reading scene was shot against a real-life blizzard that interrupted lunch, for example--and the two men share a deep respect for the play and its history. Drama classes should put this yakker on the syllabus. Branagh notes that he saw his Hamlet projected in IMAX for a special showing and muses hopefully that the movie's DVD resurrection "may encourage people who own IMAX cinemas to offer up the full experience." The director also recorded "Hamlet: An Introduction By Kenneth Branagh" (8 mins., SD), in which he declares himself thrilled by the Internet campaign that pounded the table for a Hamlet disc.
"To Be On Camera: A History with Hamlet" is a 24-minute, standard-def featurette that leads off with Billy Crystal, of all people, probably to hook in U.S. audiences. Surprisingly, it entertains. We see Branagh cutting up hard to keep the mood light on what should by tradition be a sepulchral set. "Please, Ken!" Jacobi laughs, trying to assume character for a murderous take; Branagh, meanwhile, flubs a line charmingly opposite the stoic Heston. The doc makes clear that Branagh's will was bent towards a big-screen Hamlet for much of his career, while Briers characterizes the 1996 film as a now-or-never proposition for the star: "He can't do it much longer, because he's gonna look to old for it." Julie Christie says she nearly passed on the role, laughing it off with, "Oh, no, I don't do emotion," which sounds awfully self-aware. And Branagh shares the spotlight with Orlando Seale, his acting double, who ran the scenes during set-ups so the director could see how his performance would slot in. ("He was able to show me some kind of performance pitch, the way he would act and react in a scene.") The best EPK I've seen in a while--but where's Brian Blessed? "Vintage Cannes Promo" (12 mins., SD) launches with Trevor Horn's overture to Excalibur (tickling my nerd cockles) and shows off some alternate takes from key scenes. There's a less convincing Ghost encounter, which leads me to ask again: where's Brian Blessed? Because really, you can never get enough. Originally publshed: September 5, 2010.
242 minutes; PG-13; 2.20:1 (1080p/VC-1); English 5.1 DTS-HD MA, French DD 5.1, Castilian Spanish DD 2.0 (Stereo), Latin Spanish DD 2.0 (Stereo), German DD 2.0 (Stereo); English SDH, French, Spanish, German SDH, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish subtitles; BD-50; Region-free; Warner
1. This article points to Gandhi for that honour, but Hamlet has it beat by thirteen years. Was it really that forgotten just because it didn't make an early jump to DVD? return
2. Here Branagh pulls off a great explanation for how Laertes, poisoned long after Hamlet gets his dose, still manages to die first. return