This is a grand, long, sweeping epic that reaqlly does justice to the Bard and this, his most famous/popular (I'd assume) story. The technical stuff, like the sets, costumes, pageantry, art direction, all of that, is just perfect. This is high art that's also accessible. The camera work and direction are wonderful, and the massive ensemble cast filled with tons of cameos are awesome. Well, Jack Lemmmon (surprisingly) is a bit weak, but the rest are great.
This isn't a film I want to watch too often, mostly because it is a lot to undertake, but it is definitely one of those spectacle films that deserves repeated viewings. I don't know what it is, but Branagh and Shakespeare are just a perfect match, and this is exhibit a to prove that.
The use of flashback scenes of things implied, such as the amorous union of Ophelia and her Lord Hamlet abed, or of a vast expanse of snow darkened with distant soldiers to represent the threat of Fortinbras' army from without, and especially the vivid remembrance in the mind's eye of the new king's dastardly deed of murder most foul, helps us all to more keenly appreciate just what it is that torments Hamlet's soul. I also liked the intense closeups. How they would have bemused and delighted an Elizabethan audience.
Branagh's ambitious Hamlet is also one of the most accessible and entertaining, yet without the faintest hint of any dumbing down or abbreviation. A play is to divert, to entertain, to allow us to identify with others who trials and tribulations are so like our own. And so first the playwright seeks to engage his audience, and only then, by happenstance and indirection, to inspire and to inform. Shakespeare did this unconsciously, we might say. He wrote for the popular audience of his time, a broad audience, it should be noted, that included kings and queens as well as knaves and beggars, and he reached them, one and all. We are much removed from those times, and yet, this play, this singular achievement in theatre, still has the power to transcend mere entertainment, to fuse poetry and story, as well as the high and the low, and speak once again to a new audience twenty generations removed.
Branagh himself is a wonderful Hamlet, perhaps a bit of a ham at times (as I think was Shakespeare's intent), a prince who is the friend of itinerant players. He also lacks somewhat in statute (as we conceive our great heroes); nonetheless his interpretation of the great prince's torment and his singular obsession to avenge his father's murder speaks strongly to us all. Branagh, more than any other Hamlet, makes us understand the distracted, anguished and tortured prince, and guides us to not only an appreciation of his actions, wild and crazy as they sometimes are, but to an identification and an understanding of why (the eternal query) Hamlet is so long in assuming the name of action. In Branagh's production, this old quibble with Hamlet's character dissolves itself into a dew, and we realize that he was acting strongly, purposely all the while. He had to know the truth without doubt so that he might act in concert with it.
I was also very much impressed with Derek Jacobi's Claudius. One recalls that Jacobi played Hamlet in the only other full cinematic production of the play that I know of, produced in 1980 by the BBC with Claire Bloom as Gertrude; and he was an excellent Hamlet, although perhaps like Branagh something less than a massive presence. His Claudius combines second son ambition with a Machiavellian heart, whose words go up but whose thoughts remind below, as is the way of villains everywhere.
Kate Winslet is a remarkable Ophelia, lending an unusual strength to the role (strength of character is part of what Kate Winslet brings to any role), but with the poor, sweet girl's vulnerability intact. She does the mad scene with Claudius as well as I have seen it done, and of course her personal charisma and beauty embellishes the production.
Richard Briers as Polonius, proves that that officious fool is indeed that, and yet something more so that we can see why he was a counselor to the king. The famous speech he gives to Laertes as his son departs for France, is really ancient wisdom even though it comes from a fool.
Julie Christie was a delight as the besmirched and wretched queen. In the bedroom scene with Hamlet she becomes transparent to not only her son, but to us all, and we feel that the camera is reaching into her soul. She is outstanding.
The bit players had their time upon the stage and did middling well to very good. I liked Charlton Heston's player king (although I think he and John Gielgud might have switched roles to good effect) and Billy Crystal's gravedigger was finely etched. Only Jack Lemon's Marcellus really disappointed, but I think that was mainly because he was so poorly cast in such a role. Not once was he able to flash the Jack Lemon grin that we have come to know so well.
The idea of doing a Shakespearean play with nineteenth century dress in the late twentieth century worked wonderfully well, but I know not why. Perhaps the place and dress are just enough removed from our lives that they are somewhat strange but recognizable in a pleasing way. And perhaps it is just another tribute to the timeless nature of Shakespeare's play. The mirrors in the great hall added to the effect of a vast and indifferent castle environment, and in the scene with Ophelia and Laertes returned tended to magnify the focus.
There is so much more to say about this wonderful cinematic production. It is, all things considered, one of the best Hamlets ever done. Perhaps it is the best. See it, by all means, see it for yourself.
[font=Century Gothic]And to close, I will point out that this is not the first time that Derek Jacobi has played a character named Claudius.[/font]
With this film, just about every strength that Kenneth Branagh boasted as the directorial storyteller of "Henry V" has been ameliorated, and every flaw has been thinned out, but not to the point of dissipation, because as diluted as they are, the flaws of "Henry V" can indeed be found within in this considerably superior film, which thankfully doesn't boast as many of the slow spots that did some damage to the engagement value of "Henry V", yet nevertheless limps out a bit after a while, never slipping into dullness, but still having blandly excessive moments that retard your intrigue, though not quite as much as the staginess. If nothing else was awkward about "Henry V", it was an active faithfulness to a stagey atmosphere, in all of its objective glory, which didn't gel with the conceptual subjective value of film storytelling, and doesn't entirely work in this film, which is much more realized and comfortable in its handling staginess, yet still has its share of almost cheesy moments of overt theatrics and objectivity within atmosphere establishment. That being said, cheesy spots are relatively few and far between within this gripping dramatic effort, so the real problem with this film's questionably intense faithfulness to Shakespearean play storytelling is, of course, the dragging of scenes, which will spend too much time in one setting, taking on a wave of material, layers and focal shifts that get to be somewhat exhausting after a while in their igniting focal unevenness and a degree of aimlessness that a film this sprawling cannot afford to have. This kind of relentless scene bloating did serious damage to the pacing of "Henry V" and left you to feel every one of its runtime's 137 minutes, and while this film's pacing is controlled well enough through clever style and atmospheric play for the final product's massive four-hour runtime to flow along smoothly, plenty of scenes get to be a touch old after a while, and before too long, the film altogether gets to be a touch old. This film is awesome, and is very rarely, if ever less than that, and that's really impressive considering the overwhelming immensity of the final product's runtime, but it is so excessive in certain spots, and so ultimately overlong, facing repetition and momentum issues that thin out engagement value, little by little, as this enthralling story unravels. The film is mostly borderline great, so it is, on the whole, borderline great, and when it's not, it is usually simply excellent, but momentum dips at the times that feature failures to fully obscure flaws, which still never drift too far away from the final product, which very well could have been held back considerably by its hiccups. Of course, do note that I said, "could have", because no matter how flawed this film is, its ambitions are fulfilled much more often than not, and with enough rich strength to engross you thoroughly and all but craft a bonafide masterpiece of film, and certainly to craft a masterpiece of production value.
"Henry V" milked $9 million for all its worth and put together a handsome production, but one that could have dazzled a bit more, whereas this film doubles both the budget and ambition of "Henry V", and still doesn't appear to have enough money to bring its stellar production vision to life, but only on paper, because when you get down to the final product, production designer Tim Harvey and costume designer Alexandra Byrne knock it quite a ways out of the park, crafting the environment and setting supplements of 19th century Denmark (Calm down, history nuts, even Kenneth Branagh got caught up the fad of updating the timeline of Shakespeare plays, only he didn't quite get as relevant with it in 1996 as Baz Luhrmann) in a fashion that both convinces wholly, and dazzles with richly intricate tastes. The production value of this film gives you a whole lot of spectacle to behold and embrace as elaborate to the point of giving a genuine sense of dynamicity when looking at this epic that covers only so much ground, and technical value also deserves some unexpectedly high praise, as editor Neil Farrell graces cuts with a stylish snap that catches your eye, while incorporating such other stylstic choices as Oliver Stone-esque insertions of imagery that color up the intenisty of dialogue drama with a moderate supplementation of dynamicity that keeps you from getting to be too trapped by one overlong scene. Technically, the film accels, with tasteful style that livens up much within this film and helps more than you would expect in making the final product as worthwhile as it ultimately is, just like the film's musical value. In "Henry V", the great Patrick Doyle turned in some pretty strong score piece, but seemed to have been holding himself back a bit on the whole, yet with this film, his efforts, though a bit conventional at times, really hit, being rich with a classical sweep that fits the scale of an epic this old-fashioned, as well as a dynamic, warm soul that tightly bonds with atmospheric depth, complimenting it, and defining the tone of this tale with a profound effectiveness that fits the final product beautifully, and crafts a worthy musical companion to stunning visuals, powered by photographic efforts that are about as inspired as any other artistic touch. In 2012, Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" became the first major dramatic film in about 16 whopping years to be entirely shot on 70 mm film, with this film being the last entirely 70 mm epic in a while, and an ever so fond farewell to the shooting method, as the camerawork tastes of Kenneth Branagh, as director, and cinematographer Alex Thomson boast a gripping sweep to framing that gives you enough of a feel for the environment of this world, but is still tight enough to intimately immerse you into this environment, and give you an opportunity to really absorb near-lush coloring and lighting. Production, technical, stylstic and artistic value was strong in Branagh's "Henry V", but in this film, it's pretty much definitively rich, fitting Branagh's and even William Shakespeare's vision like a glove, and helping in bringing life to substance that has been tackled time and again for centuries, because it is so promising. Shakespeare's "Hamlet" ranks among some of history's most influential writers' finest work, there's no denying that, boasting a layered story with intriguing thematic and dramatic depth that has been celebrated by both the age-old art of stage, as well as by the more relatively contemporaneous art of film, which has rarely been as faithful to Shakespeare's vision as this particular cinematic effort, which boasts plenty of ambition and has the filmmaking skill to back it up.
Kenneth Branagh's writing is faithful to Shakespeare's to a fault, letting the excessive amount of dialogue that drives this story's telling, and is often too stagily objective to gel all that comfortably with something as subjective as film, get carried away, just like it did when Branagh tackled the rewarding, but overblown "Henry V", whose script was nevertheless inspired enough for you to stick with the dialogue more often than not, no matter how bloated it got, as surely as this film's script, being that it is backed by more ambition and experience on Branagh's behalf, feels even more inspired in its establishing slick set pieces that grace most dialogue sequences - of which there are countless - with some kind of energy or action that ranges from subtle to strikingly complimentary to all of this expository talkativeness, and almost always draws your attention to Shakespeare's clever dialogue, untainted and left to do what it does best: deliver on snappy wit that breaks up audacious dramatic weight and insightful thematic depth. Branagh's writing, alone, does justice to Shakespeare's worthy vision and helps in crafting an engaging story, anchored by effective drama, as well as by colorful characterization that does get to be a bit too histrionic, but has a certain human core to it that our performers bring to life. A young, then-up-and-coming Kate Winslet is unevenly used in this film as Ophelia, - the iconic nobelwoman who is driven mad by a series of unbearable tragedies - but steals the show, being charming in her calm portrayal of the initial nobility of Ophelia, whose gradual deterioation into insanity has rarely been portrayed with as much of the fearless commitment that Winslet infuses into her performance, whose layers and emotional power leave Winslet to humanly define Ophelia as a sympathetic tragic figure, and as the best-portrayed character of this film, which isn't to say that Winslet lets you forget about the strength found within the rest of the cast. This film's cast is a star-studded one that boasts a range of talent, most all of whom deliver to one degree of another, with standouts outside of Winslet including Derek Jacobi and, of course, Branagh himself, who brings a pretty distinguished flavor to the titular role of Prince Hamlet, being as commandingly charismatic as always, but with more emotional range than he had as Henry V, as well as an unnerving intensity that plays upon Hamlet's typically underexplored madness, and gives you deeper insight into the mind of Shakespeare's iconically flawed tragic protagonist. You feel mania slowly, but surely build within Hamlet, who is already gripping enough thanks to Branagh's passionately commanding presence, and if you're able to latch onto to the force within Branagh's boastful, yet, in some ways, somewhat subtle performance, you can find a worthwhile lead, who doesn't just carry this film when he's on the screen. At the end of the day, what can make or break a film of this type as excellent is the effectiveness of the director, thus it falls upon Branagh, not simply as writer or lead actor, but as director to power this effort on, and sure enough, he delivers, gracing the intensity of the tale with chilling intrigue, often broken up by bonafide tension, when not juicing dramatic resonance with emotional kick that more often than not cuts through all of the theatrical melodrama that absorbs genuine depth and defines the human weight of this story, which is, in too many areas, too objective, but handled with a directorial atmosphere that is so confident and smoothly realized that it, while unable to fully battle back moments of too much objectiveness, generally does a fine job of immersing you in this world, crafting epic sweep from conceptually minimalist drama, entertainment value from conceptually overly dry wit, and an upstanding note from a long-running filmmaking tradition. Only so many Shakespeare adaptations have been this ambitious ($18 million and a four-hour runtime, did you honestly think that this film was going to be a commercial hit?), and, as far as I know, no film adaptation of a Shakespeare vision has come close to being this realized, compelling and altogether good, because for every hiccup, this film hits, and hard, being a thoroughly engrossing epic that ranks up there, not among, but as the greatest film interpretation of a Shakespeare opus, and as an exceptional effort by its own right.
Overall, there is the occasional limp spell, and many a spot of questionable faithfulness to staginess, which gets to be cheesy on occasions, but most often leaves scenes to aimlessly bloat as excessive and uneven, until the final product is rendered too overlong to be a masterpiece, but not to where it fails to border on bonafide greatness, boasting spectacle and style that is backed by stellar production value, sharp editing, gorgeous score work and sweeping cinematography, as well as rich substance that is backed by cleverly focused writing, strong acting, - particularly that of a show-stealing Kate Winslet and show-carrying Kenneth Branagh - and deeply inspired direction, whose resonance and immersive value does profound justice to Shakespeare's vision and makes this interpretation of "Hamlet" the best Shakespeare adaptation produced by the film industry, as well as in and of itself an excellent triumph.
3.75/5 - Upstanding
Note: My only criticism is how long this movie is. I suggest you divide it up in two, that way you won't get annoyed and find this boring ;D