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Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet is not only the longest version (just under four hours, not counting the credits), but also the most sumptuous version of Shakespeare’s great revenge tragedy on film. With exterior shots of Blenheim Palace, in Woodstock, England, and interiors designed to reflect the English baroque style of that massive country house, Branagh’s Hamlet shows the king and prince of Denmark in an opulent, luxurious setting.
This Hamlet pulls out all the stops. Not only is the setting lavish, but the cast is full of recognizable names. In addition to Derek Jacobi as Claudius (Jacobi notably played Hamlet in the BBC’s television version of the play, filmed in 1980), this film features Julie Christie as Gertrude, Kate Winslet as Ophelia, Michael Maloney as Laertes, Richard Briers as Polonius, and Nicholas Farrell as Horatio. The cast also includes such well-known actors as Robin Williams, Gérard Depardieu, Jack Lemmon, Billy Crystal, Rufus Sewell, Charlton Heston, Richard Attenborough, Judi Dench, John Gielgud and Ken Dodd.
So, with big names and a big set, does this Hamlet work? First, you need to settle down for the long haul. At just under four hours, this is a long film. There is an intermission (at around 2:38), so if you can’t plan to see the entire film in one sitting, you can split it at that point. Branagh based this film on a conflated version of the Hamlet text. (There is a book version of the Hamlet Screenplay – Amazon.com, Amazon UK – though this has no notes on the text. The best standard version is probably the Arden Shakespeare edition (Amazon.com, Amazon UK.) There are three main texts of Hamlet, the First Quarto of 1603, the Second Quarto of 1604, and the First Folio of 1623. There are a number of differences among the texts, and each one contains some lines that are not in the others. Branagh used all of the texts, rather than editing a specific version.
Branagh plays Hamlet splendidly, using the character’s feigned (or real?) madness as a prop, and leveraging the luxurious sets and excellent actors. While there are some areas where you could call this film bombastic, it never quite goes over the top. Branagh is, at times, very moving (the graveyard scene), and a bit excessive (the play-within-the-play), but the overall impression is that of a character fully in control of his destiny, with no other option but to head toward his tragic end.
The cast is generally magnificent. Derek Jacobi is brilliant as Claudius, and Julie Christie is excellent as Gertrude, especially in the cabinet scene where she see’s Hamlet’s madness up close. Kate Winslet is sublime as Ophelia, and some of the smaller roles feature fine actors, such as Charlton Heston, Richard Attenborough, Judi Dench, and John Gielgud.
One element that Branagh introduces that is not in the play is flashbacks. He shows Hamlet making love to Ophelia; Claudius killing King Hamlet; Yorick playing with young Hamlet; and a number of flashbacks and flash-presents of Fortinbras, particularly as his army is preparing to storm the castle. This makes the film much more cinematic, though it does alter the story a great deal. When reading the play, or seeing it on stage, it’s clear that Hamlet is in love with Ophelia, but showing sexual relations lifts the veil on any ambiguity about their relationship, which isn’t spelled out in the play. On the other hand, showing Claudius poisoning King Hamlet is simply an illustration of what the reader or spectator knows has happened, and serves as a counterpoint for the dumb show that precedes the play-within-the-play.
Some elements of the play are a bit excessive. Kate Winslet, as Ophelia, seen in a straitjacket and padded room, seems to be a bit too much. Billy Crystal’s New York accent – he’s one of the gravediggers – is out of place. And the final sword fight almost jumps the shark, as Branagh kills Claudius by throwing his sword, then swings from a chandelier.
But none of this detracts much from the overall impression one gets watching this version of Hamlet. This large-scale approach makes the story much bigger, and instead of the king and queen being the rulers of a handful of people (as is the case on stage), we see them in a more realistic environment. There are many ways to direct Hamlet, and this, a Hamlet of extremes, is the best example of one approach. You may prefer others; there are several on film. But if you like Hamlet, you probably won’t be disappointed by this version.