Four hours of hardcore Shakespeare, it better be good, Kenny, and sure enough, it is, being much better that Laurence Olivier's "Hamlet", just as Kenneth Branagh had ostensibly hoped it would be. Actually, maybe this film is supposed to be Branagh's answer to the overt faithfulness to Olivier's "Henry V" of his last Shakespeare adaptation, because Branagh is not only neglecting to go the black-and-white route that Olivier took (Four hours of Shakespearean dialogue is torturous enough to the ignorant, contemporaneous philistines who helped this film not get a buck), but setting this version of Shakespeare's vision ahead a couple of centuries, and pretty much doing the same thing with the runtime. Branagh just has to be apologizing for something pertaining to his "Henry V", because if his going so far as to cast Derek Jacobi as King Claudius, a man who our protagonist aims to kill brutally, isn't symbolism for him dethroning Jacobi as star of the longest adaptation of "Hamlet", then it's because he even got annoyed seeing Jacobi pop up from out of nowhere as the onscreen narrator of "Henry V". Hey, as far as I'm concerned, if no one else is making some kind of an apology through this film, it's Kate Winslet, who I'm hoping was apologizing for the then-last film in which she played an especially crazy teenaged girl when she found out that the dramas that are actually over three hours long are much better than the films that feel like they run over three hours. Calm down, people, this film isn't quite "Titanic", but it's certainly a whole lot better than "Heavenly Creatures", which kind of makes me want to see what a Peter Jackson adaptation of a Shakespeare play would be like. Actually, allow me to take that back, because I'm actually pretty terrified to see how long that film would be, and this film is a bit too long as it is, even though it essentially makes up for that by being just plain awesome. Still, as much as this film is a considerable amount of time very well-spent, four hours is plenty of time to pick up some issues, as this film will tell you.
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