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?

40 thoughts on “Rental Pick: Kenneth Branagh’s HAMLET (1996)

  1. PrairieGirl

    My sentiments match yours exactly concerning this film. It is an epic. Every thing about it is quality all the way through. Like you, I had no idea about Hamlet either, so finding out Rufus was in this version, I had to see it, and I had no idea what a spectacle it was. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but even at 4 hours, this will be a definite repeat for me. Since there are so many Hamlet’s out there, it helps to know this is the 1996 version.

    1. Ahah, I think you might’ve told me that you rented this because of Rufus but I actually didn’t remember it until I saw him in the movie. He looks so different with the super curly hair ha..ha.. Yeah, I don’t mind seeing this again in the future but I want to see the other Hamlet adaptations first.

  2. SO SO SO GLAD YOU SAW THIS ONE FINALLY!!!

    you already know my love for this version! It has remained my absolute favorite since I first saw it back in 1999. I own it on vhs AND dvd!

    I didn’t know about the fake snow, actually! That’s even cooler (no pun intended) to know now!

    Ruth, I’m so happy you enjoyed this version. It remains one of my favorite movies period as i mentioned in my post about films that made me a critic: http://wp.me/pWaTa-Nx

    Bravo, Ruth! A great review and a great score for a great movie!

    1. Hi T, well thanks for the recommendation. I actually moved it up my queue after learning you adore this one, glad I did as it’s a good one indeed. Yeah, in the behind the scene video, they showed the crew spraying the grounds with the fake snow stuff, I read somewhere that the castle construction itself cost like $2 million!

      Oh yeah I remember that post, that’s cool that this movie made you want to be a critic. Thanks for sharing this on FB, much appreciate it, my friend!

  3. This confirms that I need to rewatch this epic. I saw it about five years ago, and have wanted to rewatch it ever since.
    I forgot that this movie had such a good cast.

  4. I love this film. This is why I was excited that he was doing Thor. My buddy was like “Thor is going to suck” and I begged for him to give it a chance because I knew that universe was right up Branagh’s alley. Of course my friend ended up liking Thor. Too bad he won’t be doing part 2.

    1. the same thing for me Markus! I was Thor’s advocate to a lot of my friends because of Branagh! haha. and, they did end up liking it.

      I am also not thrilled that he won’t be doing part 2, but at least he did great foundational work!

    2. Yep I like Thor too. I was bummed out that he won’t be doing the sequel but I understand he’s not that type of director. I hope whoever is doing it won’t butcher it!!

    1. Oh boy, there is the Olivier’s version too… I was thinking of seeing the Gibson’s version after this. Too many Hamlet adaptations to catch up on! 😀

  5. Yep. Brilliant pretty much covers it, although I’d have to say that Olivier’s is pretty masterful as well. Next I highly recommend Othello starring Branagh and Laurence Fishburne, which is tremendous!

    So glad you enjoyed your foray into hard-core Shax!!

    1. Y’know I think I’ve rented Othello once a long time ago but my memory is hazy. I love Fishburne, he’s got one of the best voice in the business IMO. Yeah, I’m glad I enjoyed it too, I was a bit worried at first. I know my hubby couldn’t take it, he left after only 20 minutes, ahah.

  6. Winslet’s in it … I’m there. 🙂

    Jokes aside, I did see this and I quite liked it. I am a fan of film adaptations of Hamlet for very selfish reasons. I wrote a term paper about Hamlet when I was in HS which my English teacher admonished to high heaven. I still remember some of the commentary – seemed a bit personal.

    So I have sought out adaptations trying to see how others have viewed or portrayed the Prince of Denmark.

    1. Wow, you wrote a term paper on this in high school? Very high brow… I wish I had learned some Shakespeare even in college, I feel like I’m missing out! You must be laughing at me that I didn’t even know Hamlet was Danish, ahah.

      So is this your fave Hamlet adaptation then?

      1. I went to a prep school where writing essays about the classics of literature were de rigueur.

        As for my favorite adaptation, I don’t know. Maybe this one.

        But I also liked the RSC version that aired on PBS featuring David Tennant and Patrick Stewart. There was also a made for TV one starring Campbell Scott which I also liked. And for years, I pined to see the 1948 version starring Laurence Olivier and Jean Simmons — don’t think that I actually got around to seeing it.

        I guess my thing is there is something to take out of every interpretation of the play. And most artists accept and flourish under that premise so every one is good in its own way.

        That said, the Zeffirelli version with Mel Gibson, did not resonate with me as much.

  7. Hi, Ruth and company:

    Excellent choice!

    Even though Branagh’s ‘Henry V’ stays at the top of my personal favorites, “Hamlet’ just edges out ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ for second place. The eye popping, mind boggling opulence of ‘Hamlet’ sets the stage magnificently for a premiere tale of familial, political intrigue.

    Branagh rocks the role and directs with style and elan.Getting the most from the most insignificant of characters. To letting Charlton Heston wax poetic as the Player King.

    What I’d first noticed in ‘Henry V’ and ‘Much Ado…’ Is Branagh’s welcome respect, near reverence for Shakespeare’s written works. Also his attention to detail and moody lighting. All are polished and refined and brought to a high gloss in ‘Hamlet’.

    1. Wow Jack, you put my super long review to shame with your eloquent succinct comment of this film! Man, why you don’t have a blog on your own I never knew, you are such the wordsmith!

      I have Henry V in my Netflix queue, looking forward to that. I did enjoy ‘Much Ado’ very much… like Luv said, frothy and light, quite a contrast to this dark tale.

  8. HAMLET was actually my favourite film back when I was a teenager and it is still in my top ten favourite films of all times!
    My love for Branagh pretty much started with this marvelous movie adaptation. Yes, it was difficult to follow at times since I’m not a native speaker of English and Shakespeare’s language is complex, but it was a wonderful experience.
    I especially loved cinematography and art direction, costumes and the decision to set the film in an unknown period.
    Kate Winslet’s performance was absolutely and totally mesmerizing and mind blowing, and beside Cate Blanchett’s role in ELIZABETH GOLDEN AGE and Toni Collette’s in MURIEL’S WEDDING presents the biggest injustice in Oscar history, since those three performances didn’t get an award!

    1. Hey Dez, English is not my native tongue either but it’s fun listening to the Old English sound, isn’t it? I wish I could speak like that… especially when Derek Jacobi speaks, man he’s amazing.

      I knew you’d appreciate the lush cinematography, costume, art direction etc as you’re very artistic. Yes, Winslet is mesmerizing indeed, perfect word to describe it. I really need to see Muriel’s Wedding Dezzy, forgive me that I haven’t seen that one even though I love Toni!

  9. weetiger

    This is my absolute favorite film version of a Shakespeare play, (before this it was Branagh’s own Henry V, but I’m sure that I will have a new favorite come December…*wink wink nudge nudge*) and I cannot believe how long it took for it to make it to dvd. I love Olivier’s version as well, but JMHO this will probably be Branagh’s legacy. Every performance was a gem, the production itself was sumptuous and beautiful (Blenheim Palace was used to masterful effect) and Patrick Doyle’s score was gorgeous. It’s definitely worth the time to watch the full length of it over and over again.

    1. He..he.. I know EXACTLY which adaptation you’re referring to 😉 But y’know, because of the amount of violence on Coriolanus, I don’t know if I’ll enjoy it as much as this (yes, Butler’s presence notwithstanding). I have to see Henry V soon, Bale is in that one… I hope he has quite a bit of screen time.

      1. weetiger

        I wouldn’t say Bale has a lot of screen time. His part (Robin) is small. He’s also a kid. I think he was only 14 when it was made, so if you’re not looking for him you might not even know it was him. It’s a great movie though. If you’re a Branagh fan it’s a must see. The end piece is even better knowing KB and Emma Thompson were falling in love in real life.

  10. Ted S.

    That was a very well and in depth review Ruth. good job. Hamlet is probably the only work of Shakespeare that I didn’t “get”. I remember reading it in high school and had trouble with the test afterwards. I did see the Mel Gibson version, it was alright. I waited till this version to hit Blu-ray before seeing it, like you mentioned, it was the last full feature length film to have been shot in 65mm and I didn’t want to see it on regular DVD. I finally watched last summer and looked spectacular on my big screen. Also, it took me a couple of days to finish watching it too.

    1. Yeah, it’s quite a lot going on in this story but I find it surprisingly digestible… which I think is a testament to the great script. But if they test me on it, I’d probably fail miserably, too, ahah. I thought you’d appreciate the 65 mm format, it must look amazing on your home theater!

  11. Me and Shakespeare don’t mesh. Well, you already know I’m not the biggest English period movie fan 😉 That said, this is very high praise for this movie and the cast is very impressive looking.

  12. Wow Wee WOO WEE!!

    I really do not think that me, Shakespeare, Period drama, and 4 hours would be able to cope. I am sorry ruth!!

    It looks stunning and i can see that it truly is an immense cast!!

    Just not for me!! Well done getting through it all!

    1. Ahaha, who knows Scott, you might end up enjoying it!! I mean the cast alone should be at least amusing to watch… so never say never, matey.

  13. Not a fan of period dramas, but looking at those images I must say that it looks stunning! Will note this one down and hope I get around to watching it….

  14. I completely agree.

    This is my favourite Shakespearean film. I have been a fan of Hamlet play since I first read it in Year 12. In fact, I remember seeing this film in a cinema with the rest of my class. It was the first film I ever saw that had an intermission.

    I think it is truly an amazing film and Kenneth Branagh deserves every bit of kudos out there for being bold enough to create a film that included every scene and every bit of dialogue as in the play.

    Thank you for writing about it because it has brought back all these wonderful memories.

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