Hamlet (1996)

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 01/06/07 15:41:12

"A great, sumptuous, berserk, excessive, cinema-drunk adaptation."
5 stars (Awesome)

At his best, and sometimes at his worst, Kenneth Branagh is an exuberant and playful actor-director. His excess was wretched when applied to the sedate Mary Shelley, but it's perfect for Shakespeare.

In Hamlet, Branagh gives you both barrels -- the full play, which usually takes about five hours to perform on stage. Branagh brings it in at just over four hours, and it hurtles ahead like the bus in Speed (a comparison Branagh might enjoy) -- bulky but fast and exhilarating.

As Hamlet, Branagh wears a triangular goatee pointing down at his body, as if to indicate that this production will be preoccupied with the physical. Branagh's camera circles around huge, opulent sets; he delivers his pre-intermission soliloquy in front of a vast expanse of snow, with Fortinbras' army approaching far in the distance. (It's a glaringly obvious process shot, but I didn't care.) The cumulative effect of four hours of Ken's Magic Show is far from boredom; it's closer to happy exhaustion, like the aftermath of a great meal or great sex. And Branagh keeps serving up one irresistible dessert after another.

In his eagerness to lure the mass American audience, Branagh also serves up a batch of novelty cameos. Ooh, there's Billy Crystal as the gravedigger! (He's actually pretty funny.) And here's Jack Lemmon, Charlton Heston, Robin Williams, and a few others in a variety of walk-ons ranging from amusing to meaningless. A gross example of the latter is Gerard Depardieu, whose sole function in his one brief scene is to listen to Polonius and say "Yes, my lord." Scenes like this make you wish that Branagh had settled for an almost complete adaptation.

Still, even Branagh's insistence on retaining the pointless moments is refreshing nowadays, when every scene in a Hollywood film timidly serves some Screenwriting 101 purpose. And when Branagh gives the floor to his main actors, all is forgiven. Derek Jacobi, who directed Branagh in two productions of Hamlet, makes an imposing and lusty Claudius. Kate Winslet's Ophelia is earthy and lively, making her descent into madness all the more vivid. Julie Christie, a newcomer to Shakespeare, is a touching and conflicted Gertrude. (Branagh has ditched the Oedipal interpretation as seen in the Mel Gibson Hamlet.)

Hamlet is a notoriously difficult role, and Branagh does some amazing things and some other things that don't work. His gestures often seem too smooth and practiced (watch him in his first soliloquy), and he's too openly furious a lot of the time. Branagh never met a rant he didn't like; he's Dennis Miller as a tragic hero. Mostly, though, Branagh the actor-director just wants to put on an eye-popping show, and he does. Consider, for instance, the brilliant conception of "To be or not to be," which Branagh delivers into a two-way mirror, with Polonius and Claudius behind it watching him. At the end, Fortinbras' soldiers crash through the mirrored doors, as if shattering the narcissism, paranoia, and rampant deceit in the corridors of power. It's an action climax; finally, John Woo meets Shakespeare!

Die-hard Bard students may quibble, but this gargantuan and glorious 'Hamlet' is a movie-lover's paradise.

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