"Suit the action to the word, the word to the action."
Kenneth Branagh's 1996 film adaptation of "Hamlet" is, for me, the definitive cinematic version. It is a personal favorite to which I always return with my mind flooded by a potent mixture of joyous anticipation of again soaking up its undiminished glories (it has really aged well), and a peculiar lurking dread at the thought of braving in one sitting (the best, though most painful, method) its gargantuan 242 minute running time. For those keeping score at home, that is just over four hours. There's a method to this seeming madness though, because Branagh's is the first unabridged film treatment of Shakespeare's most famous tragedy. As such, all of the Bard's glorious language is preserved, which alone makes for a remarkable experience, and one particularly appealing for devotees of the original text such as myself. If its strengths stopped there, it could be dismissed as merely an exercise in precise adaptation and an excellent study tool for English majors. However, Branagh has given us not only a fine adaptation, but a fine film.
The first remarkable strength is the production design (by Tim Harvey). Branagh makes several bold choices that contrast with other adaptations of the play. The action is set in the Victorian era, and the rich Victorian costumes and furnishings create an unapologetically vibrant and even gaudy atmosphere, all the better to illustrate the corruption—the "something rotten" beneath the sparkling sheen—at the heart of the court, as well as prince Hamlet's own gloomy melancholy and relative isolation. In keeping with the temporal update, Branagh makes splendid use of the magnificent Blenheim Palace (the birthplace of Winston Churchill) as the play's Elsinore Castle exterior. The interior is dominated by a massive throne room and hall lined with mirrors and secret chambers, an equally perfect stage for the exuberant regal pomp of Claudius's first appearance and the political and familial trickery that dominates the middle part of the story. This memorable setting also hosts Branagh's take on the ubiquitous but admittedly crucial "To be or not to be" soliloquy: his Hamlet delivers the speech to himself in a mirror, behind which lurk the spying Claudius and Polonius—a gloriously sustained and surprisingly tense scene that hinges not so much on the question of suicide couched in terms of action versus inaction, but on the question of whether Hamlet is aware of his murderous uncle's presence in the room. If so, the famous words do not a make up a soliloquy at all, but a skillful combination of acting and threatening aimed at a specific in-world audience, and the following encounter with Ophelia takes on added resonance as we realize how Hamlet feels he cannot trust her and yet also feels compelled to protect her by removing her from any proximity to his dangerous position. The creeping corruption of the court and its decadent scheming has already reached their once promising relationship and turned it to heartbreak for both of them. Of course, the core of these dramatic elements resides in the play itself, but Branagh's clever staging helps mightily in drawing them forth. Additional highlights of production design include a massive chandelier, which sees some Errol Flynn style swashbuckling use in a fantastically staged duel, and the dim and claustrophobic confessional where Hamlet sneaks up on Claudius. When the ghost of Hamlet's father appears to him, it tempts him into a dark and almost Gothic woods, where the primal fears of the dark and the wilderness mix with the threats of bodily decay and spiritual damnation to form a truly frightening scene. And by the end of the play, the action has come full circle back to the center of Elsinore Castle and that radiant hall of mirrors and black and white tile, a fittingly reflective and dichotomous location for the final burst of purgative violence and revelations. Also of note is the gorgeous use of 70 mm film by cinematographer Alex Thompson, which allows us to appreciate all of this in breathtaking detail.
The second major strength comes from the delightfully strong cast of A-list actors that Branagh employs to bring Shakespeare's words and characters to life. Veteran Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi brings gravitas, lecherousness, regret, and rage to his conniving but conscience-stricken Claudius, making us hesitate along with Hamlet in our desire to see vengeance done. Julie Christie seamlessly inhabits the alternately flighty and forceful Gertrude, showing a deeply-feeling human side beneath her surface frivolity. Kate Winslet endows Ophelia with raw emotion; her descent into heartbroken badness is visceral and difficult to watch. Nicholas Farrell, another veteran of the English stage, gives a strong performance as the deeply decent, loyal, and reasonable Horatio, supporting and grounding Hamlet selflessly. Charlton Heston's trembling thunder suits the pivotal Player King well, providing the catalyst for a key emotional turning point. Robin Williams is somewhat distracting when he pops up in the small role of the much-ridiculed Osric, but this kind of all-stars-even-for-the-bit-parts casting pays off superbly with Billy Crystal, of all people, giving a barbed and twinkling turn as the gravedigger who converses with Hamlet in a standout scene that sees Branagh meeting Shakespeare's challenge by keeping the most humorous bits of dialogue in place right next to the darkest philosophizing about death, and hitting every single note of each. And did I mention that the cast also includes Judi Dench, Gérard Depardieu, Brian Blessed, Richard Attenborough, John Gielgud, Rosemary Harris, Jack Lemmon, Rufus Sewell, and Timothy Spall?
In the center of it all, Branagh cast himself as the melancholy Dane, the titular Prince of Denmark, "the observ'd of all observers." This rather smells of arrogant presumption, but if it was, it was worth it for us to get the fierce, energetic, brash, frankly emotional Hamlet that Branagh throws forth. We do not struggle to believe the court's assumption of his madness. This Hamlet is a man for whom genuine madness would not be a stretch. But it is not all bluster, either. Branagh also convincingly shows the sharp, cunning intelligence of a grieved and bereaved son who wants to be sure before he commits to vengeance, who hatches clever schemes to discover Claudius and protect himself, who is always one step ahead of his opponents but also teetering on the edge of paranoia. His performance is also helped by having all of Hamlet's soliloquies intact to work with, reveling in the highs and lows they depict. While his "To be or not to be" is all careful consideration and buried threat, his "What a rogue and peasant slave am I" is a thrashing fit of self-hatred and wild impatience, and his "How all occasions do inform against me" builds from dull resignation to a bombastic declaration of righteous anger and renewed purpose, underlined in red by Patrick Doyle's Oscar-nominated score. Branagh makes it a truly grand, heightened moment, capping off the first half of the film and leading into the more meditative back half of the fourth act, after a merciful intermission.
Despite some small missteps (the aforementioned Robin Williams appearance, an unnecessary flashback sex scene between Hamlet and Ophelia, occasionally over-the-top music cues or scenery-chewing), this is truly a powerful film, a splendidly realized adaptation of one of the greatest works of Western literature. Branagh's "Hamlet" whispers and roars and brings Shakespeare's words delightfully to life. It is the definitive film version to date. Accept no substitute.
"William Shakespeare's Hamlet" (PG-13) ****1/2