Ambition, thy name is Branagh. In the 1990s, Kenneth Branagh staked his claim as the cinematic heir to Laurence Olivier, scripting, directing and starring in Shakespeare films: Henry V (1989), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), for starters (in 2000, he helmed Love's Labour's Lost and in 2006 As You Like It). Much Ado About Nothing first demonstrated Branagh's true intention: to bring the masses back to Shakespeare with all-star casts, energetic pacing, and good, old-fashioned sex. Branagh upped the ante when, in the mid-'90s, he set his sights on Hamlet. The director pitched his version as a David Lean-style screen epic to be shot on 65mm film (and projected in Panavision Super 70), gathered a staggering ensemble of stage vets and movie stars, and set about crafting his version of the play widely regarded as the best piece of dramatic literature ever written.
At least partly in reaction to what had already been done by Olivier and Zeffirelli, Branagh sets his Hamlet in an opulent 19th-century palace (Blenheim Palace provides the exteriors). In widescreen splendor, Elsinore shines and bursts with color, the better to contrast the original Man in Black brooding over the recent death of his father. Hamlet (Branagh) can hardly stand to go on living as he watches his mother Gertrude (Julie Christie) in wedded bliss with his uncle Claudius (Derek Jacobi), but Hamlet finds purpose when the ghost of his father (Brian Blessed) commands him to avenge his murder by killing the treacherous Claudius. Not surprisingly, these turns of events have been most damaging to Hamlet's budding relationship with Ophelia (Kate Winslet), who finds Hamlet's new "antic disposition"...well, maddening. Hamlet's roundabout approach to sticking it to Claudius has unforeseen—let's call them tragic—repurcussions, leading to an infamous finale with a high body count.
Of course, I've buried the lead about Branagh's Hamlet, which has the distinction of being the only unexpurgated big-screen version. The four-hour version is now the standard on home video, but at the time of release, the full "Roadshow" version (with intermission) didn't play very widely or very long in comparison to the studio-mandated two-and-a-half-hour cut that was much more cinema-friendly. Presenting the totality of the play certainly distinguishes Branagh's adaptation, but it's also not for everyone, and at times bogs down in those places so often trimmed. Still, Branagh makes a heroic effort to present the play at its fullest, and keeps stoking attention with guest stars like Charlton Heston as the regal Player King, 93-year-old former Hamlet John Gielgud in the non-speaking role of Priam, Jack Lemmon as Marcellus ("Something is rotten in the state of Denmark"), Gérard Depardieu as Reynaldo, Billy Crystal as "First Gravedigger," Robin Williams as Osric ("A hit! A most palpable hit!"), Rufus Sewell, Rosemary Harris, Judi Dench, John Mills, Lord Richard Attenborough, and Timothy Spall.
As has been often noted, there is no such thing as a definitive Hamlet, not even Branagh's bold, unexpurgated version. It's a matter of choices, hundreds of thousands of them, in production design (Tim Harvey outdid himself with the cavernous indoor set, full of secret doors and mirrors), costumes (Alexandra Byrne), photography (Alex Thomson, a camera operator on Lean's Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago, oversees the dynamic, searching camera), direction and, most especially, acting. Most of the choices work out, while others are glaringly or naggingly off. Some of the performances are inconsistent (Lemmon, in his first Shakesperean role, doesn't have the knack), and Branagh's is no exception: his lunatic energy can be excessive when we'd rather just follow his train of thought with greater clarity and finer emotional sensitivity. Richard Briers is sharp as Polonius, but the choice to tip away from his foolishness and toward his rigorously hard-hearted intolerance subtracts some much needed levity (though Hamlet is certainly witty, the comic heavy lifting goes to the surprisingly effective Crystal and Williams).
Branagh took no chances with the key roles: Jacobi is a magnificent Claudius (it was Jacobi's 1980 BBC Hamlet that inspired Branagh to become an actor), Christie a solid Gertrude, and Winslet a smashing Ophelia, while Nicholas Farrell and Michael Maloney provide sturdy support as Horatio and Laertes, respectively. It's all a matter of taste, of course, but there's little doubt that Branagh's Hamlet is, in so many ways, a towering achievement in Shakespearean film adaptation (Branagh's somewhat amusing Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay acknowledged not the words, but the staging: it was a stealth directing nod). More than any cinematic Shakespeare adapter before or since, Branagh honored that famous fragment of verse "The play's the thing..."
Warner delivers Hamlet in one of their increasingly popular deluxe DigiBook special editions. Given the touted resolution of 65/70mm, Hamlet is a bit disappointing in hi-def. Don't get me wrong: it's a definite improvement over standard-def DVD, but DNR rears its ugly head, diluting the image's texture, and the color wavers, further eroding confidence in the transfer. Given the frequent movement of the camera, the telecine wobble is hardly noticeable, but flesh tones tend to run rather pink while, at other times, they appear more olive: this may be a natural extension of the original color timing, but something seems off. On the bright side, black level is quite good, and the color doesn't lack for pop, especially in the bold reds and startling blue eyes of the Hamlet clan. Though imperfect, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is excellent given the source material. Most of the sound is warm and pleasingly punchy (with ADR lines sticking out like sore thumbs): dialogue is crisp, and the music full.
The best of set is the audio commentary by director/star Kenneth Branagh and Shakespeare scholar Russell Jackson. This highly informative track covers all of Branagh's choices from his artistic perspective and puts them into scholarly relief via Jackson's reflections. The two keep up their conversation very steadily over the four hours, with shout-outs to the important contributions of their colleagues on the film, and scene-by-scene analysis of the characters and the play, as interpreted by the commentators. This is one of the most impressive commentaries ever produced; don't fail to give it a listen.
"To Be on Camera: A History with Hamlet" (24:34, SD) is a fine featurette with fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpses and very interesting interview clips of Branagh, Billy Crystal, Lord Richard Attenborough, Kate Winslet, Jack Lemmon, Sir John Gielgud, Richard Briers, Derek Jacobi, Michael Maloney, Robin Williams, Charlton Heston, Julie Christie, Branagh's acting double Orlando Seale, Rufus Sewell, produer David Barron, and John Mills.
"Vintage Cannes Promo" (12:07, SD) is a piece screened at Cannes that premiered footage from the film, interspersed with an interesting interview with Branagh.
Last up is the "Theatrical Trailer" (1:39, SD).
It's all enclosed in a lovely 36-page color booklet that includes essays, cast bios, trivia and photographs. Shakespeare and Branagh fans will find this reissue hard to resist.
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