There are some films on the List that I’ve no idea when I’ll get to them. These films fall into three categories – the ones I absolutely adore but have no clue how I’ll even start writing about them, the ones I desperately do not want to watch (but am too much of an anal completist to ignore) and the really long ones. This four-hour-plus cut of Hamlet obviously falls into the latter, but fortunately for me, my girlfriend opted for Kate Winslet as her Film-Maker of choice, and seeing as I’ve reached that point in Winslet’s career in which she appeared in Hamlet as Ophelia, I can cross off Kenneth Branagh’s opus from the Empire 5-Star 500. As for the unspeakable films I don’t want to see, whenever LoveFilm drop Salo through my letterbox it shall not be a good day, though I could pull an In The Realm Of The Senses and bottle it when I’ve taken as much as I can stand.

Now this won’t come as anything even close to a shock for my regular readers, but I’m not very familiar with the plot of Hamlet. It wasn’t one of Shakespeare’s plays that I studied at school or college (Othello, Macbeth and Twelfth Night), and all I knew was that the main character is supposedly the greatest and most complex male role in acting history (although I’ve read elsewhere that it’s been compared to the Hulk amongst modern roles). I’m now slightly more knowledgeable about the plot, although to be honest the combination of Shakespearean language, sporadic iambic pentameter and a mind-numbing 242-minute runtime I was lost an awful lot of the time.

From what I could understand, Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh) is the son of the recently deceased King of Denmark (Brian Blessed). After being visited by his father’s spirit, Hamlet discovers that his uncle Claudius (Derek Jacobi), the King’s brother, was behind the King’s death in an attempt to steal both the throne and Hamlet’s mother (Julie Christie). Meanwhile, Hamlet is forging a relationship with Ophelia (Kate Winslet), the daughter of Polonius the Lord Chamberlain (Richard Briers), and a troupe of travelling players visits the castle, led by Charlton Heston, and Hamlet sees a way of using them to expose his uncle’s treachery, whilst the Norwegian army fast approaches on the attack, led by Prince Fortinbras (Rufus Sewell).

The cast for this film is, frankly, ridiculous. Alongside those already mentioned, there are smaller roles for the likes of Jack Lemmon, Robin Williams, Gerard Depardieu, Billy Crystal and Timothy Spall, as well as unspoken parts for John Gielgud, Judi Dench and Ken Dodd, and a completely out-of-the-blue last minute cameo from Richard Attenborough. Insane. The strength of the cast was beyond distracting, especially with the likes of Dench and Gielgud, both Oscar winners (though only Gielgud at the point of the film’s release) being relegated to flashback scenes. Quite a few people seemed to be cast upon the base of their star value than their appropriateness for the role, with the biggest example being Jack Lemmon, who doesn’t seem to understand the dialogue he’s speaking (though to be fair he’s not the only one). His broad US accent is also very jarring when used to deliver the bard’s prose. Elsewhere, some casting is spot-on correct. Billy Crystal damn near stole the film in his one scene as a gravedigger, and even though he is present for the infamous “Alas, poor Yorrick” speech, a scene which should be no-one but Branagh’s he still retains all the attention.

For much of the film I felt like John C. Reilly in Magnolia, when he meets Dixon, the young kid who tells him the identity of the murderer of a body Reilly’s cop Jim has discovered. Jim disregards Dixon’s statement because he doesn’t understand it, and similarly I found myself not digesting a lot of the dialogue, purely because it was spoken in a manner I’m unfamiliar with. I’m ashamed for saying that, seeing as I really like the Shakespeare plays I’ve studied, particularly Othello, which I will occasionally quote in everyday life, so I feel that I would definitely appreciate this a lot more with repeat viewings now that I’ve got some idea of what was going on. Hell, I might even go and see it performed on stage.

Performance-wise, Branagh was good, although the fact that he directed, adapted the writing (although not very much, if I’m any judge) and then cast himself in the lead role is a very egotistical thing to do. His descent into madness takes a turn for the annoying as he gurns maniacally whilst the rest of the cast remain relatively reserved. Derek Jacobi is wonderful as the arch Claudius, his classical training and theatre background really shining through – he played Hamlet himself in the 80s – and he puts the rest of the cast to shame, though I often felt he thought he was still on stage, as he was projecting his voice and over-enunciating in the way the board-treaders are inclined to do to ensure they’re heard in the cheap seats, something obviously not required in cinema. This was something that annoyed me an awful lot as the film progressed, as the actors all seemed to think they were in different types of productions. Winslet was trying to be on the stage but, alas, failed against her more experienced colleagues, whilst most of the Americans were clearly more familiar with acting for the screen than the curtain.

There was a clear attempt to distinguish the film from any stage productions, thereby rationalising the need for the film. Whether it be the huge scale of some shots, showing thousands of marching troops, or giant lavish sets that the characters run from room to room in, everything that cannot be done on stage is accomplished here, although remarkably extended shots for the more important speeches are still used, and are both effective and impressive. 

I had a minor quibble with the LoveFilm disc – it was scratched in a couple of places so skipped approximately 5 minutes (I very nearly missed “To be, or not to be”!) – but that’s no fault of the film, and it made me wonder if Shakespeare, when writing the play, ever considered for a moment the possibility of DVD scratches almost ruining some of his best work. I’m guessing not.

This is one of those list entries where I really think I should choose film. It’s such an impressive production on every front, and I feel glad that I’ve watched it because now I know the general plot of Hamlet, something of a cultural milestone, but I don’t think I’d recommend it to any of my friends (apart from the few of appreciate Shakespeare), and there were too many annoying niggles throughout.

Choose life 7/10

6 thoughts on “Hamlet

  1. For my money, the Branagh Shakespeare to watch is Henry V. His Hamlet is good, but it doesn't hold a candle to Olivier's."Cry God for Harry, England, and St. George!" If that doesn't get your blood moving, you might be dead. Or possibly French.

  2. I agree with Steve that Henry V is THE Branagh Shakespeare movie to see. The St. Crispin;s Day speech is stirring to begin with, but Branagh just nails it. It's not a spoiler to see it. I embedded it in my review of Henry V. You can see it here: http://tipsfromchip.blogspot.com/2011/10/movie-henry-v-1989.html This version of Hamlet is so long because it's a very faithful adaptation of the play. All other versions I've seen have cut much of the supporting characters' lines and plots. And Branagh was simply doing what Laurence Olivier had done himself back in the 40s by having all those filmmaking roles – something he also copied Olivier with on Henry V.

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