It took us four nights to watch the nearly four hours of Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It was time well spent. There was much to savor, though a few things did annoy. As scholar E.M.W. Tillyard noted of the famous play, “No one is likely to accept another man’s reading of Hamlet.” Nor woman’s, neither, I would add.
Branagh chose to film the first “uncut” Hamlet, a combination of the Second Quarto and First Folio texts. This honors the play’s sweeping themes and action, but gives Hamlet a great deal of speechifying–he does go on. And on. But Branagh is a fine figure of Hamlet, only a bit older at the time than his character’s thirty years, with well-defined muscles, light blond hair befitting Hamlet’s Danish ancestry, and arresting blue eyes. The cast is a combination of seasoned Shakespearean actors, such as Brian Blessed and Derek Jacobi, with minor parts filled with Hollywood notables who fared much less well in the execution of their lines. They were far outshone by Charlton Heston as the fierce Player King, who summons the image of Sir John Gielgud as Priam and Dame Judi Dench as Hecuba, both of whose silent roles were far more powerful than those of Jack Lemmon, Billy Crystal, and Robin Williams.
I was troubled at first by Branagh’s inclusion of flashback until I realized he was deliberately exploiting the medium of film. Just as a stage play shows more than does the text, so a film can show even more of what has been inferred from the text. For instance, Hamlet and Ophelia are shown in bed together in flashback. Critical opinion differs whether the couple had prior relations, or a chaste wooing. Some took offense at Branagh’s choice to make his interpretation so literal. My husband noted that he found it perfectly understandable: cast Kate Winslet as Ophelia and of course Branagh is going to write her in bed naked with his character.
Similarly, the growing threat of young Fortinbras is shown in great detail, much more apparent than it is in the text. Yet this provides a frame for the story, and places it squarely within both an historical context as well as emphasizing the themes of action versus deliberation, and status quo versus change.
Branagh’s Hamlet is an attractive prince, horrified by the crime of his uncle, repulsed by his mother’s possible complicity, and uncertain of the ghost’s authority in urging him to revenge. This Hamlet veers between sorrow, anger, madness and introspection. It is a flattering portrayal of a complex character, an unsurprising choice given Branagh’s long affection for the character, which he owns to in the introduction to the film.
The film is literally spectacular, shot in 65 mm and at full length, though it was difficult to get made. Coming off the critical failure of Frankenstein, Branagh compromised with Castle Rock by including bankable Hollywood stars and releasing the full-length film in select theaters, and a 2.5 hour abridgment more widely. Interestingly, I recall the full-length film was more popular at the time, and was the one chosen for the dvd. (Thanks to reader VT for recalling this to my attention; I’d forgotten.)
Added later: I found the soundtrack obtrusive and irritating. Every time Hamlet would make a speech, the music would swell, obscuring the beautiful words that have stood the test of centuries. During his speech to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, I thought for a moment I was going to see the selection from Hair.
My husband G. Grod strenuously objected to the staging of the end of IV, iv.