With his handsome and compelling "Hamlet," Kenneth Branagh brings the Bard's greatest tragedy passionately alive on the screen.
Instead of trying to compete with such acting and directing geniuses as Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles, Branagh does what no one else has done before, and that is to present Shakespeare's full text on screen.
What's more, he has done it with remarkable clarity and meaning, resulting in a two-part film with a combined four-hour running time presented with an intermission after about 2 1/2 hours.
It is a testament to Branagh's dedication, long experience with Shakespeare and sense of the cinematic that he allows us to immerse ourselves in Shakespeare's profound meditation on the human condition without "Hamlet" seeming as long as it actually is. To accomplish this, Branagh has made some inspired and crucial artistic decisions.
He reset the play to an unspecified year in the 19th century, roughly in its third quarter. This brings the tragedy closer to us in time but long enough ago for the Shakespearean dialogue to sound natural. It also makes for a gorgeous period piece with Tim Harvey's superb sets and Alexandra Byrne's equally rich costumes.
Designed in the elegant Scandinavian neo-classical style, the sets are dominated by a vast mirror-lined, balconied throne room, enabling cinematographer Alex Thomson to encircle and dart around the actors with fluidity. To give "Hamlet" epic scope, Thomson (an assistant cameraman on "Lawrence of Arabia") shot in 65-millimeter film, to be projected in 70 millimeters. The Duke of Marlborough's immense Blenheim Palace serves as Elsinore's exterior.
Branagh's use of the full text is neither academic nor self-indulgent, and it provides a richer context for the tragedy that is set in motion when Gertrude (Julie Christie), the queen of Denmark, and her husband's brother Claudius (Derek Jacobi) become lovers and poison the king. When Hamlet, the king's son, hears reports that the ghost of his father has appeared to palace guards, naming his killers, he vows revenge.
The complete text allows a virtually unique opportunity to appreciate fully the political setting of the tragedy, with the practical, pragmatic Norwegian Fortinbras (Rufus Sewell) waiting in the wings to assume the throne intended for the idealistic, reflective Hamlet. It also takes the full measure of the perfidy of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet's close friends.
Branagh has described his production as "color-blind, nationality-blind, accent-blind," and this approach has by and large paid off impressively, but not without a couple of miscastings. Jack Lemmon as the palace guard Marcellus, who utters the famous "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark," and Gerard Depardieu, in the tiny role of Polonius' servant Reynaldo, are too ill-at-ease with the rhythm and cadences of Shakespearean English to be effective.
On the other hand, Charlton Heston, with his extensive experience with Shakespeare, is a magnificent, commanding Player King, playing opposite Rosemary Harris' impassioned Player Queen in yet another sequence enriched by the restored text. Billy Crystal is a rascally First Gravedigger, especially sharp in his exchanges with Branagh.
The British actors in the key roles are as luminous as one would expect. One would never know that Christie has never before played Shakespeare, so perfect a conflicted Gertrude is she, and Richard Briers brings serious dimension to Polonius, concerned father to Hamlet's ill-used Ophelia (Kate Winslet). Briers reveals him to be unsophisticated and naive, rather than the "tedious old fool" Hamlet regards him to be. Brian Blessed is a splendid Ghost, but Branagh presents him in much too literal a fashion.
Branagh's Hamlet soars theatrically, burning with rage but not with much ambiguity and none of the strong sense of the incestuous passion for his mother that made Olivier's Hamlet controversial in its day.
Yet Branagh's interpretation of the Melancholy Dane is in keeping with his entire approach to the play: to illuminate it and make it as accessible as possible to the best of his considerable abilities as a director, adapter and actor. Branagh has succeeded admirably in attaining his goals. Like Shakespeare surely did, he knows how to put on a good show.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for some violent images and sexuality. Times guidelines: The film's love scenes, though brief, are pretty explicit for youngsters.
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Kenneth Branagh: Hamlet
Julie Christie: Gertrude
Derek Jacobi: Claudius
Kate Winslet: Ophelia
Richard Briers: Polonius
Michael Maloney: Laertes
Charlton Heston: Player King
Rosemary Harris: Player Queen
Billy Crystal: First Gravedigger
A Columbia release of a Castle Rock presentation. Adapted for the screen and directed by Kenneth Branagh. Producer David Barron. Cinematographer Alex Thomson. Editor Neil Farrell. Costumes Alexandra Byrne. Music Patrick Doyle. Production designer Tim Harvey. Art director Desmond Crowe. Running time: 4 hours.
* Exclusively at the Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 477-5581.