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Part of the genius of Branagh's interpretation of Hamlet is in the use
of the techniques of the cinema to enhance the production. Branagh has
not condensed the acts like some mass market soup, as was done in
Olivier's 1948 Oscar-winning production, or in, say, Zeffirelli's 1989
Hamlet lite starring Mel Gibson (both excellent, though, within their
scope), but has kept every word while directing our understanding so
that even those only casually familiar with the play might follow the
intent and purpose with discernment. Recall that for Shakespeare--the
ultimate actor's playwright who wrote with precious few stage
directions--interpretation was left to the direction and the actors, an
open invitation that Branagh rightly accepts.
The use of flashback scenes of things implied, such as the amorous union of Ophelia and her Lord Hamlet abed, or of a vast expanse of snow darkened with distant soldiers to represent the threat of Fortinbras' army from without, and especially the vivid remembrance in the mind's eye of the new king's dastardly deed of murder most foul, helps us all to more keenly appreciate just what it is that torments Hamlet's soul. I also liked the intense closeups. How they would have bemused and delighted an Elizabethan audience.
Branagh's ambitious Hamlet is also one of the most accessible and entertaining, yet without the faintest hint of any dumbing down or abbreviation. A play is to divert, to entertain, to allow us to identify with others who trials and tribulations are so like our own. And so first the playwright seeks to engage his audience, and only then, by happenstance and indirection, to inspire and to inform. Shakespeare did this unconsciously, we might say. He wrote for the popular audience of his time, a broad audience, it should be noted, that included kings and queens as well as knaves and beggars, and he reached them, one and all. We are much removed from those times, and yet, this play, this singular achievement in theatre, still has the power to transcend mere entertainment, to fuse poetry and story, as well as the high and the low, and speak once again to a new audience twenty generations removed.
Branagh himself is a wonderful Hamlet, perhaps a bit of a ham at times (as I think was Shakespeare's intent), a prince who is the friend of itinerant players. He also lacks somewhat in statute (as we conceive our great heroes); nonetheless his interpretation of the great prince's torment and his singular obsession to avenge his father's murder speaks strongly to us all. Branagh, more than any other Hamlet, makes us understand the distracted, anguished and tortured prince, and guides us to not only an appreciation of his actions, wild and crazy as they sometimes are, but to an identification and an understanding of why (the eternal query) Hamlet is so long in assuming the name of action. In Branagh's production, this old quibble with Hamlet's character dissolves itself into a dew, and we realize that he was acting strongly, purposely all the while. He had to know the truth without doubt so that he might act in concert with it.
I was also very much impressed with Derek Jacobi's Claudius. One recalls that Jacobi played Hamlet in the only other full cinematic production of the play that I know of, produced in 1980 by the BBC with Claire Bloom as Gertrude; and he was an excellent Hamlet, although perhaps like Branagh something less than a massive presence. His Claudius combines second son ambition with a Machiavellian heart, whose words go up but whose thoughts remind below, as is the way of villains everywhere.
Kate Winslet is a remarkable Ophelia, lending an unusual strength to the role (strength of character is part of what Kate Winslet brings to any role), but with the poor, sweet girl's vulnerability intact. She does the mad scene with Claudius as well as I have seen it done, and of course her personal charisma and beauty embellish the production.
Richard Briers as Polonius, proves that that officious fool is indeed that, and yet something more so that we can see why he was a counselor to the king. The famous speech he gives to Laertes as his son departs for France, is really ancient wisdom even though it comes from a fool.
Julie Christie was a delight as the besmirched and wretched queen. In the bedroom scene with Hamlet she becomes transparent to not only her son, but to us all, and we feel that the camera is reaching into her soul. She is outstanding.
The bit players had their time upon the stage and did middling well to very good. I liked Charlton Heston's player king (although I think he and John Gielgud might have switched roles to good effect) and Billy Crystal's gravedigger was finely etched. Only Jack Lemon's Marcellus really disappointed, but I think that was mainly because he was so poorly cast in such a role. Not once was he able to flash the Jack Lemon grin that we have come to know so well.
The idea of doing a Shakespearean play with nineteenth century dress in the late twentieth century worked wonderfully well, but I know not why. Perhaps the place and dress are just enough removed from our lives that they are somewhat strange but recognizable in a pleasing way. And perhaps it is just another tribute to the timeless nature of Shakespeare's play.
There is so much more to say about this wonderful cinematic production. It is, all things considered, one of the best Hamlets ever done. Perhaps it is the best. See it, by all means, see it for yourself.
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I must say that, looking at Hamlet from the perspective of a student,
Brannagh's version of Hamlet is by far the best. His dedication to stay
true to the original text should be applauded. It helps the play come
to life on screen, and makes it easier for people holding the text
while watching, as we did while studying it, to follow and analyze the
One of the things I have heard criticized many times is the casting of major Hollywood names in the play. I find that this helps viewers recognize the characters easier, as opposed to having actors that all look and sound the same that aid in the confusion normally associated with Shakespeare.
Also, his flashbacks help to clear up many ambiguities in the text. Such as how far the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia really went and why Fortinbras just happened to be at the castle at the end. All in all, not only does this version contain some brilliant performances by actors both familiar and not familiar with Shakespeare. It is presented in a way that one does not have to be an English Literature Ph.D to understand and enjoy it.
It's hard to say anything about a movie like this because there isn't enough
words to give this magnificent, stylish and unique film the veneration it
unquestionably deserves. They should make this the official and only true
real Hamlet -movie because all the previous films out of the same immortal
spectacle are being overshadowed by Kenneth Branagh's "Hamlet".
It's a perfect, complete version of the play, potent, massive, earthshaking first-class masterpiece Shakespeare would have been proud of. They've packed over a dozen of world-famous top actors in the same film and everyone of them is having one of the greatest performances of their career. Every moving and charming sequence leaves behind a comprehensive sense of satisfaction.
The cameras embrace gracefully the enchanting coulisses. Branagh is phenomenal in the leading role. His sharp, irresistible performance is the only one of it's kind and will be permanently part of the glorious movie history. Every second in this presentation is feast for the movie lover from beginning to the very end. Branagh's version of "Hamlet" is among the ten best motion pictures ever.
What an ambitious project Kenneth Branagh undertook here and how well it
realized! This is the first filmed version of 'Hamlet' to use the full
of Shakespeare's play, but Branagh didn't do it just because "it was
His intention, I believe, was to make the play accessible and
to the general viewer without dumbing it down, so to speak. In return he
asks viewers to put in a little work themselves, a fair enough proposition
and one that's a bargain.
The setting is a generic 19th century European one and this does more than work well, it keeps a modern or ancient look from possibly distracting from the work itself. The production design and cinematography and both outstanding, which helps immensely when you're watching a four-hour movie. Branagh's casting once again is inspired and the acting is likewise. The direction accomplishes the heavy task of making this a movie rather than a deluxe version of a play. Since so much of 'Hamlet' is based on interior monologue and there are relatively few duels, battles, etc., this can be a daunting task. But everything Branagh tries to do seems to work.
Branagh has always been one of the most interesting actor/writer/directors, if not always the best, since he made his big splash with 'Henry V.' One quibble I had with him was what I saw as a tendency to ham it up at times. In his portrayal of Hamlet here he might be accused of that again, but there is a method at work. Let's face it, 'Hamlet' is not an easy work for the average person to understand and if one has never seen it performed before, he or she needs help even if they've read the play. Hamlet has the most lines of any Shakespearian character and Branagh makes sure that his viewers know what this man is thinking and feeling throughout the film, even if you don't know the literal meaning of every arcane word. This performance by Branagh was at the very least worthy of an Oscar nomination.
There are so many other outstanding performances here they're almost too numerous to mention, but some of them must be acknowledged. Derek Jacobi as Claudius is superb but even he takes a back seat to Kate Winslet when it comes to handing out praise. Her portrayal of Ophelia is awesome in its depth of feeling, made only more outstanding by the knowledge that she was only about 20 years old at the time! She looks to me like the finest young actress around. Other super performers in no particular order are Richard Briers, Nicholas Farrell, Michael Maloney, and Reece Dinsdale and Timothy Spall as Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, respectively. Honorable mention goes to Julie Christie, Charlton Heston, and Robin Williams, who manages to do his thing here successfully. Even Billy Crystal as a gravedigger works. The one cast member who doesn't, inexplicably, is Jack Lemmon. In the very opening scene he appears, and while the other three actors do a great job at setting the tense mood, Lemmon sounds like he is just running lines in rehearsal as a favor. You know this must have been a real dilemma for Branagh, since everything else about the movies screams out that it's the work of a perfectionist.
Not to be facetious when speaking of a four-hour movie, but it does seem just a tad too long. Some monologues and conversations do tend to go on a bit, if I may be so bold, and a little bit of judicious pruning would be welcome.
Did I forget anything, other than Patrick Doyle's score? No doubt I did. I'll just sum up by saying that Kenneth Branagh may have made the definitive film version of 'Hamlet,' and it will be a truly monumental production that tops this one.
Olivier, Kosentsev, Richardson, Coranado, Zefferelli, and Almerayeda
have all directed Hamlet but Branagh's the only one who got it right.
This is the only film of "Hamlet" that contains the full four hours of William Shakespeare's masterpiece and gives a unique feel to the whole story.
Not many directors could pull this off without boring their audience but Branagh's skillful use of bravora film style and stunt casting allows people to see the importance of the scenes that are usually cut out.
Examples of this include Gerarde Depardue as Ranyaldo whos entire purpose in the film was to simply say "yes my lord" as Polonius asks him to spy on Leartes. This also included Billy Crystal as the grave digger, Robin Williams as Osric, Jack Lemmon as Marcellous, and Charlton Heston as the actor.
Branagh's performance of the Act 4 scene 4 soliloquy (Which again is usually cut out) is nothing short of c cinematic marvel as the camera slowly pulls back as the intensity grows. It is a scene that literally made me want to jump out of my chair and start applauding.
Branagh is the only film maker that understood the importance of every scene in this film and knew how to convey that importance to the general audience.
This is a must see for everyone who enjoy's good story telling, brilliant acting,and incredible direction. All of these part of William Shakespeares greatest triumph.
As a play, Hamlet is an anchor of civilization, and even moderately
successful films are worth seeing. But in making the translation to film,
the artist has two challenges.
The first concerns the work as drama. This is Shakespeare's most ambitious vision, one he tinkered with and enlarged both conceptually and literally. The purest choice, the only choice which can encompass the full weave of the work, is to include everything -- and that's what Branagh has done. Consequently, this work has extra dimensions of life. In doing so, he's included some nice touches:
--gone are superficial hints of mother-lust in the closet scene. These were never in the text.
--we are reminded that Hamlet's initial and sustaining anger is because his uncle jumped into the line of succession
--we see the hints that Hamlet was a student of Bruno in the book on witchcraft he consults after seeing the ghost. Also his book on `matters' (often thought to be Bruno's) is actually given to Ophelia. Nice. Shows deep research.
--Polonius is treated humanely, as more than a dottering fool. This makes Ophelia's loss (and earlier obedience) believable.
The second challenge is cinematic. The play was written for sparse settings; it translates naturally to audio tape and unnaturally to film. So the filmmaker has an open palette. Branagh makes some interesting choices. Many work extremely well, in particular the mirrors in the `to be' and Ophelia sequence. Others are strange:
--he introduces recognizable actors in secondary roles to jar us into the realization that this is a play. (One of these is really funny. How do you portray an actor among actors playing non-actors. Well, you get a noticeably BAD actor. I wonder if Heston knows he'll be goofed on for this for many decades as this film outlives his sandled perorations.)
--he introduces some almost satirical film reflections: a cheesy ghost, an Errol Flynn chandelier swing...
--he provides visual overlays for some of the images implied in the text: Hamlet's lovemaking, considerations in Norway, reflections of the players. This ruins a few of the important ambiguities but we do have a wealth to spend after all.
--in perhaps the worst loss of ambiguity, he makes Fortinbras an invader. This is done only to allow for some cinematic sweep at the end. Okay, I'll reluctantly buy it since the alternative is extended mugging in the death scenes.
I think Branagh and collaborators meet the first challenge nearly perfectly. As to the second challenge, this is our very best film version, in part because of extending the US tradition of playing the characters as real people (versus the UK tradition of characters as speechifiers). So far as the cinematic challenge, there are some great, really great visions here, but there are also some big cinematic misses which keeps this far from perfect. Until Greenaway attempts it, this is the best film Hamlet we have, and that simply makes it one of the best, most rewarding films ever. I'll bet Branagh tries again before he dies.
Still being of school age, and having to learn Shakespeare almost
constantly for the last four years (which is very off-putting of any
writer, no matter how good), I didn't really expect to enjoy this film
when my English teacher put it on; I thought it'd be the typical
English lesson movie: bad acting, awfully shot, badly edited and the
dreaded awful old dialog, so, as you can tell, I was all but ready to
go into a coma from the go. However, I watched and, much to my
disturbance, found myself not only paying attention, but actually
enjoying the movie too. This production of Hamlet is possibly one of
the best drama movies I have seen in a long time- and it really brings
to life what I expect Shakespeare wanted his plays to be like (well,
with the difference that this is cinema) much better than my English
teacher harking over the text ever possibly could. The story is good,
the dialog seems to flow with an unexpected grace that is far from
boring (though a little hard to keep up with if you aren't used to
Shakespeare's language) and even the smallest parts are performed with
a skill you wouldn't expect; mainly, perhaps, due to the staggering
number of cameos this movie has. Brian Blessed and Charlton Heston are
as great as you'd expect these two veterans to be, even in such small
parts, but it is Robin Williams as Osric and Billy Crystal as the
Gravedigger who really stand out, giving such minor parts an unexpected
zest, as well as offering some comic relief amidst the tragedy.
The main stars, of course, are also wonderful. Kenneth Branagh excels as Hamlet, bringing not only the confusion and pain required to the roll, but also a sort of sardonic air which plays beautifully in the comic scenes, making the movie as a whole much more watchable. The other major players are also good, but it is Kenneth Branagh who stands head and shoulders above the rest in the title role.
The set pieces, too, are often quite stunning, giving a refreshing change to the danky old castle corridors we're used to seeing in Shakespeare productions, as well as a real sense of the country around them.
Of course, the movie, taken as a movie in its own right, is not without faults, but no major ones (the pacing is the only real problem I can think of offhand, as well as the prose for anyone not used to, as I said, Shakesperean language) and, especially when compared to the sort of Shakespeare productions I'm used to seeing in class, it really is quite brilliant. It's even made me rethink my previous typical teenager stance on Shakespeare, that his plays are boring (I came to the conclusion it's not the plays that are boring, merely the teachers who recite them in class). If only they made all of his plays into movies such as this one, English students in schools everywhere might have a higher opinion of the Bard.
seen one you've seen them all, right? wrong! I still like the sombre
Olivier version and Gibson did well, but this is in a class of its own.
I finally realized with this expanded production set 200 years closer to the present the full message that Shakespeare cleverly concealed with the more prominent aspect of Hamlet's quandary, and that is he, Hamlet, is driven to distraction by the awareness its the insidiousness of human nature that created the conditions that saw his father murdered.
looking at the play with this insight you can see numerous scenes where this notion is there in the background. and by changing the era, Branagh shows yet again the astonishing applicability of that truth. all you need is to read a newspaper, something 'included' in this production.
thank god for British stage actors raised on Shakespeare.
a very rewarding viewing.
First, what I didn't like. The acting was not really up to the Hamlet
standard. Branagh was really over-the-top, doing a lot of yelling
mostly. In my opinion, those actors who were not big-name celebrities
generally did a better job; though I would except Billy Crystal and
Robin Williams. (And Charlton Heston, too, but I wasn't sure if he was
playing at being a hack.) A lot of the ambiguities in the play were
clearly resolved one way in the flashbacks.
What I think speaks very much in this play's favor is that it is accessible. Shakespeare is hard to understand for the vast majority of people nowadays; many people are not even inclined to try, because of its reputation as Serious Literature and its archaic English. If they see this film they will understand clearly at least one man's interpretation of the play. They will be seeing it more as Shakespeare's audiences saw it: a play with sword fights and battles, and mighty kings and nobles, murder and incest and evil schemes and ghosts--and great art, if one cares to look for it, but in Shakespeare's day most didn't, any more than most people do now. Branagh's overacting, and his forcing of his interpretation of the story on the viewer, may detract from Shakespeare's art somewhat, but it is better that modern audiences get a piece of it, rather than nothing.
I've got to say one more thing though. Some people are complaining that "it's set in the 19th century and that wasn't Shakespeare's time". Well, in Shakespeare's time their costume and scenery was that of their own day for all of their plays. Shakespeare may have SAID it's in the days of ancient Rome or medieval Denmark or whatever, but he didn't dress his characters up like they were, he used the costumes of his own time. For the same reason his plays are full of anachronisms. For example, in King John the English and French have cannons--in Robin Hood's day. In Julius Caesar they talk of chimneys, which wouldn't be invented for another thousand years, and in Henry IV they talk about Machiavelli, who wasn't even born yet then. So I think this objection is silly--you might as well complain that the play isn't in Danish (after all they live in Denmark don't they?).
The actors play wonderfully, especially Kenneth Branagh himself. It's good that Robin Williams got the comedy role of Osiric, otherwise it could be a bit strange to see him in such a production. It is really great that Kenneth decided to use the fullest version of the text, this happens definitely not too often... Thanks to that the viewers can see the whole, not the chosen - by the director - parts. Also - thank God that the film is in a classical form; NO to surrealistic fanfaberies ! Although "Tytus Andronicus" was impressive nevertheless, but still Hamlet is a different story, at least that's my point of view.
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