Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie, Richard Briers, Michael Maloney, Nicholas Farrell, Kate Winslet, Charlton Heston, Jack Lemmon, Timothy Spall, Robin Williams, Richard Attenborough, Brian Blessed, Billy Crystal, Judi Dench, Gerard Depardieu, Reece Dinsdale, John Gielgud, Rosemary Harris, John Mills, Rufus Sewell
Running Time: 240 minutes.
The play is certainly the thing in writer/director Kenneth Branagh’s bold and ambitious four hour adaptation of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy. Branagh uses the entire text, re-instating many of those scenes often missing from other interpretations, thus capturing the full intent and rich scope of this timeless drama of murder, sex, bloody lust for vengeance, intrigues and internecine struggles. Branagh has updated the play to the 19th century, without sacrificing the essential integrity of the original language, the complex motivations of the characters or the awesome power of its dramatic themes.
The first British film in over 25 years to be shot using the 70mm format, Hamlet is also a visually stunning and splendidly epic cinematic experience, and its rich beauty and style far outweigh any thoughts about its massive and initially daunting length. Olivier’s robust, Oscar winning 1948 performance may still be the definitive screen portrayal of the doomed prince of Denmark, but Branagh’s sumptuous and exhilarating film is probably the definitive cinematic interpretation of the play itself.
Branagh makes the psychologically complex drama more accessible for modern cinema audiences by deliberately surrounding himself with an impressive cast of respected film and theatre veterans from both sides of the Atlantic, who put aside their normal fees for the opportunity to work on such an audacious undertaking. Appearing alongside veterans such as Charlton Heston, Richard Briers, Julie Christie, Judi Dench, Rosemary Harris, Jack Lemmon and Derek Jacobi, is the beautiful Kate Winslet (from Heavenly Creatures, etc), Nicholas Farrell and Michael Maloney (both from A Midwinter’s Tale, etc). Gallic heart throb Gerard Depardieu appears in a small role, while Oscar-winners John Gielgud and John Mills contribute small, non-speaking cameos.
Branagh’s performance is indeed passionate and energetic, capturing the tortured emotions of the prince who seeks vengeance for the murder of his father but is unsure of how to act. Using Olivier’s performance as a guide, Branagh has also opted for the striking blonde Nordic look, and he replaces much of the typically angst-ridden doubt of the character with more physical energy. However, his performance is occasionally tainted with those self-indulgent mannerisms that have inevitably coloured many of his other performances, and suggests that he is probably better off under the direction of someone else who is more capable of polishing the rough edges.
Jacobi, who directed a young Branagh in a 1988 stage version of Hamlet, is perfectly sinister as the ruthless usurper Claudius, while Christie is beautiful and brings a pained grace to her role as the betrayed Gertrude. Heston is majestic in a smaller role as the player king, while Winslet is marvellous as the sexually confused and tormented Ophelia. Billy Crystal and a decidedly camp Robin Williams superbly highlight the undercurrents of comic wit so often overlooked in more conventional productions that purely concentrate on the blood, treachery and intrigue.
Branagh’s staging is truly magnificent, with the impressive Blenheim Palace doubling for Elsinore during the exterior scenes. Tim Harvey’s lavish interior production design creates opulent throne rooms lined with mirrored walls and labyrinthine secret passage ways that seem to reflect the rotten core of corruption that threatens the Danish royal family. Cinematographer Alex Thompson’s swirling camera beautifully captures the bleak, wintry landscapes and frames the action magnificently. Alex Byrne’s lavish costumes and Patrick Doyle’s haunting score further add to the stamp of quality that suffuses virtually every aspect of this production.