by Cathleen Myers
Kenneth Branaugh has taken so much abuse for his sometimes static direction and sometimes over-the-top performance (the film has been jocularly called "Hamlet V") that it only seems fair to point out that his Hamlet is a boldly conceived and imaginative film well-worth a second look now that it’s available on video. Yes, the film has serious weaknesses, yes, most of the American actors seem uncomfortable with the language, yes, Brian Blessed’s magisterial King Hamlet is almost upstaged by the horror film special effects, and yes, Branaugh does have trouble directing himself.
But Branaugh’s boldest and best decision - to film Shakespeare’s entire script and let the story unfold as the bard planned it - pays off. For the first time, the story of Fortinbras’ planned invasion of Denmark - a danger ignored by every character in the Danish Court - plays out in counterpoint to Hamlet’s story and we observe not only the parallels between the two princes’ stories but the very cogent political reality that the corruption of Claudius’ court nearly destroys the State of Denmark. Despite the nearly four-hour running time, the film moves swiftly - thanks to Branaugh’s faith that Shakespeare actually knew what he was doing. The man could write, after all. In Bleinheim palace (complemented by some really dazzling interior sets and the gorgeous late Victorian-inspired court costumes!) for once we get a setting worthy of the language!
Whatever one thinks of Branaugh’s interpretation of Hamlet - the fact that we finally get to hear all of Hamlet’s lines does help show the prince’s Renaissance versatility of mind. It’s a real pleasure to see Hamlet’s entire scenes with the visiting actors, who really look like a troupe of travelling Victorian actors here (Charleton Heston, in particular, as the Leading Man/Player King, is charmingly at ease as the actor and magisterial in his "Pyrrhus" speech. Indeed, there are so many full-realized supporting characters - Derek Jacobi’s surprisingly plausible Claudius, Kate Winslett’s affecting Ophelia, Nicholas Farrell’s noble Horatio are among the best - that we really do get the sense of entering another world.
It is four hours well-spent.
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