Boy, did I remember this hulking thing more fondly than I received it this time around. The performances are as fine as one would expect from an all-star ensemble cast such as this, many of whom had worked with director and star Branagh on other Shakespeare projects. Branagh, however, despite his extensive experience in film, seems to think he is still on a stage judging by his bombastic gestures and blustering line delivery. To watch him with no audio were to see a performance more suited to the opera than to the silver screen, which is rather disappointing when compared with his compelling 1989 big-screen debut as Henry V.
The movie is extremely well-lit, and while it does often work to the film's advantage by leaving nothing hidden to the eye and taking full advantage of a rich colour palette. However, the ęsthetic's strength turns out to be its greatest weakness. A dearth of shadow robs many scenes of a sense of realism and paranoia. If every single shot is equally pretty, the visual aspect of cinematic storytelling is lost, along with the justification for adapting the full text of the play to the screen: with little variation in the visual texture and sound quality (each voice is perfectly crystal-clear and pristinely equalized) one loses interest in the actual experience of seeing the film and has no reason to sit for four hours listening to a literary masterpiece that could have been much more enjoyable without any picture at all (I highly recommend the Arkangel audio dramatizations of the Bard's complete works.)
The sets and movements are just as grand and gaudy as Branagh's performance, the entrances and exits a mixed bag ranging from tense and gripping to awkward and cartoonish. The scenes are presented exactly in the order in which they are set down in the play, so the staging is quite by-the-book and for the most part predictable. The film's visuals all blur together after the two-hour mark, and one is left wondering why one is still sitting while other more worthwhile activities are readily available options. The film ultimately holds no visual interest on a cinematic level despite the odd shot of a topless Kate Winslet (way to name draw, Ken) and an absurd bit of swashbuckling at the end. It seems that Branagh learned the hard way that to adapt a written work for the big screen one must add some level of visual interest for the non-Shakespeare scholar to justify the runtime of a full-text production. Without a reason to watch a film, one might as well listen to a full-text audio dramatization. Branagh's Shakespeare films are intended to bring the Bard into the mainstream Hollywood consciousness, but this overlong, overlit, overstuffed, overwrought behemoth hasn't enough cinematic merit to justify its existence.
This is best demonstrated in two scenes of the movie. One of those scenes is the play that Hamlet puts on for the king. Rather than simply speaking with those sitting around him, (Ophilia, the king and queen) he runs around the entire theater screaming at everyone. He even runs onto the stage during the play. The King barely notices the big reveal, because he's too busy watching Hamlet run around the theater as if he were training for a marathon, it is the epitome of ridiculous.
The other scene that outlines the absurdity of Kenneth's directing is with Ophilia. In order to show the audience that Ophilia has gone mad he puts her in a straight jacket and matching hat. It is as if he doesn't believe that the audience can pick up on her madness without those extreme visual aids. It is simply demeaning to the audience.
This movie got in the 90s on Rotten Tomatoes with both critics and audiences; it is the perfect example of the emperor's new clothes syndrome. Because it is Shakespeare and because it is old everyone is too afraid to say that it's not great.
First off, this movie is FOUR HOURS long [HOW did I miss that?]. Second, it barely seems that long. I wasn't expecting to enjoy this movie as much as I did. Even with the language being just like the book, it was still engaging and visually it is just stunning.
Glad I got to see this one.