Kenneth Branagh is known for bringing Shakespeare to the masses with his successful adaptations of Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing. Branagh favors international star power in casting his Shakespeare films, employs kinetic camerawork and, whenever possible, shuns the dour in favor of the lively. Branagh's new film of Hamlet, in these ways, is no exception. But by presenting the play in its most complete, uncut text-- at a running time of nearly four hours, plus intermission-- Branagh could scarcely be accused of pandering to a larger, unconverted audience for Shakespeare; an outing for this film takes a serious commitment. Branagh's unique take is easily justified in comparison to Olivier's Oscar-winning version and the truncated Zefferelli-Gibson version of only six years ago.
The story is well-known: Prince Hamlet (Branagh) is charged by his father's ghost with the task of avenging his father's murder. The killer is Hamlet's uncle Claudius (Derek Jacobi), who promptly claimed the throne and married Hamlet's mother, Queen Gertrude (Julie Christie). Branagh takes somewhat of a kitchensink approach to the play but, more often than not, he succeeds. He avoids the depressive tones and emphasizes the fire of the emotions: the self-righteousness, joy, pain, fear, passion, rage and indignation. Branagh boldly abandons the gloomy, Gothic castles customary to Hamlet adaptations for a stately 19th century mansion full of two-way mirrors and secret passageways. As such, this Hamlet is vital and universal; little has really changed over the centuries, not political machinations and certainly not basic human emotions.
That said, there are significant missteps. Branagh's enthusiasm sometimes crosses the line into excess, especially during the scenes with the ghostly, elder Hamlet and the Douglas Fairbanks-styled finale. But the flip side is Branagh's smart casting of Robin Williams as a foppish courtier at the very end of the film. Let's just say he provides what directors call the "eleven-o'clock lift," and none too soon. Billy Crystal also scores as the Gravedigger, as does Charlton Heston as the Player King. The leads are masterful, including a perfect Richard Briers as Polonius and Kate Winslet as the victimized Ophelia. Branagh's own Hamlet is dynamic and completely understandable: a sensitive man whose life has spun out of control; his reaction is flawed yet heroic.
No Hamlet will ever be definitive, but this epic film version eclipses the others in its lush visuals, narrative drive, and strong and sensible acting. It truly is an event worth the effort of scheduling it into your day.