Wow, I didn't think that you could get two-and-a-half hours worth of momentum out of "Hamlet", though I'm sure that it can't get any longer. Oh man, those poor suckers who thought that when they saw this film when it came out had no idea what they were in for. In fact, they probably never even got the chance to find out what they were in for, because by the time Kenneth Branagh's, or rather, Laurence Olivier II's version came around, the people who saw this film when it first came out were probably dead. If not, then they probably died about half-way through, not just because it takes a good couple of years to watch, but because Branagh's "Hamlet" makes you feel a whole lot older than you actually are, because, as I've always said, if you've got enough time to watch a four hour long version of "Hamlet", then you're probably old enough to not have anything better to do. Well, either that, or you have a good taste in movies, because that film was awesome; it was certainly better than this version "Hamlet". Still, make no mistake, this is still quite the classic film to watch, because although it's not four hour long dialogue piece good, it's still pretty darn good. Still, as good as this film is, it's not without its faults, because if you're thinking that trimming two-and-a-half hours from an epic dialogue drama would make it less slow, then you'd be surprised.
The film is slow in pacing and dull in impact, boasting that classic European dryness, intensified by a matching overly theatrical tone over the dialogue deliver that just doesn't fit all that comfortably on film, rendering it often disengaging. However, the dialogue is not the only theatrical aspect that Laurence Olivier, as director, finds himself unable to execute with total comfort that fits off the stage and on the screen. Scene shifts are jarring, and feel as such, with the film jumping to the next sequence with a kind of sloppy episodicity that leaves the lapses in progressive exposition within the source material to stand more glaring, as we truly see just how brief the layer transitions truly are. Another rather problematic aspect within the source material executed to where that faultiness of such an aspect is made more noticable is repetition, and plenty of it. I joke about Branagh's "Hamlet" being too long, but really, the unabriged source material runs an average length of about three-and-a-half to four hours, which go comprised of few changes in location and much extensive dialogue, so repetition is to be expected, yet no matter how much shorter this version is than that of Branagh's, it falls short on consistent intrigue and scope to mostly drown out the reptition, remaining lengthy, with a more meditative atmosphere that augments the feel for the repetition and, by extension, dullness. The film stands faithful to a fault, adopting all of the histrionics and very stage-oriented aspects of Shakespeare's classic play for the cinematic world that it can not enter unaltered without becoming problematic and inorganic, thus leaving the film frequently faulty and slow. However, for every aspect that Olivier translated inorganically, there is an aspects that he delivers on with enough competence and skill for the film to ultimately triumph as a rewarding adaptation, with aspects that fit like a glove onscreen.
The production designs are fine, but not terribly so, yet that is precisely the point, as the structure of this world is livley yet gritty, with deep intimacy and isolation upon the environment and characters in order to pronounce their presence, as well as the dramatic aspects. Credit for such tonal capturing also goes out to cinematographer Desmond Dickinson, whose work goes dated, especially considering that it is black-and-white, yet remains commendable, as he too captures the isolation of the environment with clever camerawork, while capturing the raw grit and subtlety of the drama and tension with clever manipulation of the limited color and lighting. Still, while Olivier taints the film's intrigue with his faulty faithfulness, he himself, as director, also stands as a key player in making the film as engrossing as it is, giving the atmosphere a kind of grace and intensity that may not be consistent in its effectiveness, yet remains prominent enough for the film to engage just a little bit more than disconnect. As director, Olivier is competent, yet remains hit-or-miss. However, as performer, Olivier is consistent in competence, boasting a boldness in charisma that seems to fit the Hamlet role and keeps you engaged during the less intense moments. However, upon the gauntlet's meeting with the floor, tension comes into play, and would be nothing without Olivier, not as director, but as actor, as he captures both the noble and problemic aspects of Hamlet's intensions in a very engagingly clever, yet fittingly offputting fashion, making the character a mysterious figure and his own, transforming into Shakespeare's iconic dubious protagonist with subtlety and grace. Okay, slowing down a bit on my own Shakespearean freneticism, the fact of the matter is that the film remains heavily flawed, yet where it could have collapsed as simply underwhelming, it ultimately triumphs as a satisfying effort by Olivier that's well worth the sit.
As the curtains draw, the final product stands as heavily flawed, predictably plagued by slowness and dryness, yet is perhaps most tainted by the faulty faithfulness that leaves theatrical histrionics to damage intrigue, while the hurried play structure damages comfort in the storytelling, yet where these strikes against the film could have toppled it as underwhelming, relatively impressive and cleverly manipulated production and cinematography compliment the atmosphere within the environment, while Laurence Olivier's direction generally graces the atmosphere with many a moment of sharp intrigue, with his transformative, show-owning acting performance embodying the Hamlet character with a compelling charisma and mysterious depth that helps in making his vision of "Hamlet" a generally satisfying revolutionary piece in Shakespearean filmmaking.
3/5 - Good