Rental Pick: Kenneth Branagh’s HAMLET (1996)

It took me 3 days but I finally finished the 4-hour long Shakespeare adaptation by Kenneth Branagh. I’d even use the term ‘masterpiece’ as it really was quite an undertaking to bring the Bard’s most famous play to life in such a grand and passionate fashion.

Please keep in mind that before seeing this, my knowledge of Shakespeare is minimal at best. I didn’t grow up reading Shakespearean text nor plays, nor did I ever attend any drama class where Old English was spoken. Of course I’ve heard the term ‘To be or not to be’ but in what context it was spoken I never knew. In fact, I even forgot (or simply didn’t know) that Hamlet was Danish! So I’m not going to be presumptuous and think that everyone knows the story of Hamlet, so here’s the gist:

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, returns home to find his father murdered and his mother remarrying the murderer, his uncle. Meanwhile, a war is brewing.

The opening night scene at Elsinore, the Danish royal castle, with the three guards witnessing the ‘ghost’ of the deceased King Hamlet felt like it went on forever. But as soon as the scenes move to inside the castle depicting the festivities of the wedding between Prince Hamlet’s uncle Claudius and his mother Gertrude, things started to pick up.

I LOVE this scene. Right from when the hero of the story is introduced (as displayed in the main banner above) with an interesting camera angle that suggests Hamlet’s loneliness and despair, the entire scene is exquisitely shot. Throughout the jubilant affair, Hamlet’s expression is stoic and blatantly mournful, wearing black when everyone is dressed in colorful attire. The ending of that scene with all the confetti flying in the air is just not only looks gorgeous, but it’s really a beautiful intro into the dynamics of the main characters in the room.

There are a lot of things I admire about this film. The Shakespearean dialog can be a source of frustration to some but I really think it enriches the story way more than if they had gone with modern English. Before seeing this, the other Shakespeare adaptations I saw were Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing and Romeo & Juliet (both the Zeffirelli and Baz Luhrmann’s version), so I’m somewhat familiar with the ‘thou, thine, thee’ use of words but still, for the first half hour or so of watching Hamlet, I was quite overwhelmed. But after a while I actually became enthralled by it. I think the art of speaking is lost nowadays, people swear so much that every other word is replaced by some expletive to express whether disappointment or praise… so to hear people speaking in this manner with not a single f-word or JC (this one always makes my ears burn!) spoken in the entire 4-hour movie is quite refreshing.

Then there is the cast… in addition to Branagh, we’ve got Kate Winslet, Richard Attenborough, Brian Blessed, Richard Briers, Julie Christie, Billy Crystal, Judi Dench, Gérard Depardieu, John Gielgud, Rosemary Harris, Charlton Heston, Derek Jacobi, Jack Lemmon, Rufus Sewell, Timothy Spall, and Robin Williams.

Many of them only have brief cameo, but each actor brought something special to their roles. I especially enjoy seeing two of my favorite actors, Heston and Sewell, though they didn’t share a scene together. I thought Billy Crystal as the grave-maker was somewhat an unlikely choice, and he didn’t even alter his speaking voice at all. It sounded a bit jarring at first, but after a while I found it amusing. It’s quite an interesting contrast to Derek Jacobi, whose delivery is so natural it’s as if the London-born actor was actually born speaking that way.

Out of the main cast, Kate Winslet as Ophelia really stood out to me… her performance is nothing short of phenomenal. Whether she’s projecting fear of Hamlet’s madness or heartbreak as she mourns her father, her acting is simply sublime. I dare say that she perhaps eclipsed Branagh himself, though he too is impressive. I enjoy all the soliloquy scenes he did, and I always thought Branagh has a rich speaking voice. The character actors are particularly notable, especially Nicholas Farrell and Michael Maloney as Horatio and Laertes respectively, both of them had so many lines but both seemed undaunted. I recognized both of them right away from the BBC miniseries The Jury which also stars Jacobi (a fantastic legal drama btw, I highly recommend it).

I’ve since learned that this is the first “full-length” film version of Hamlet ever made and the most ‘complete.’ As I’ve mentioned, it’s one of the longest feature film I’ve ever seen, but also one of the most beautiful. There is such a grand, sweeping feel to this film, an ‘epic’ quality if you will. As it turns out, this film was shot in 65mm, in fact, as of last year, this was the last studio film to be filmed entirely using that high-resolution process. The shot is particularly effective in the castle invasion scene as the Norwegian troops came marching in. I learned in the Special Features section that the crew had to cover that entire castle compound with fake snow!

To complement the gorgeous visuals, Branagh worked with his longtime collaborator Patrick Doyle to score the movie. I adore Doyle’s work, I could easily add Hamlet‘s soundtrack as one of my favorites from the Scottish composer. So really, this film has it all… dazzling visuals, superb script, beautiful music, and fantastic cast. Oh, and a momentous ending! The film sort of opens in that main hall in Elsinore and the climax takes place in the same spot. This time, the crowd gathers to watch Hamlet and Laertes in a sword-fight. It’s an exquisite scene… not only is the duel the most action-packed scene of the whole film, it’s also packed with emotional roller coaster. All the madness, hatred and seething rage that has been building amongst them is at the boiling point, and when Hamlet finally gets to avenge his dead father, it was a great moment. It’s short-lived of course, hence the tragedy.

I’m glad I finally watch this film. I think I appreciate it even more after having seen the behind-the-scenes featurettes and interviews. It’s an ambitious endeavor but Branagh pulls it off beautifully. Now that I’ve seen this, I’m interested to see other Hamlet adaptations out there but I believe this adaptation will stand as one of the best, if not the best of them all. Definitely a piece of cinema to treasure for generations to come.

4.5 out of 5 reels

If you’ve seen this film, I’d love to know what you think. If not, what is your favorite Shakespeare film adaptation so far?