Rick's Review of Hamlet
Kenneth Branagh's towering (and majestic) version of perhaps Shakespeare's greatest play has been appalling neglected for the past decade. Pretty much ignored on initial release and thoroughly dis-serviced by home video, it is a joyous occasion that it is now (finally) presented on a beautiful DVD that does this masterful epic justice and gives us a chance to look at a film that is ripe for re-evaluation as one of the best films ever made.
This version of Hamlet is unique for film and rare for the stage, it is the full version of the play. Not a single line has been cut, though Branagh does change locations to open the film up a bit; indeed many of his location switches enhance the story. Branagh's first masterstroke was resetting the tale to the 1800s. Gone is the dark, oppressive visualization of nearly every Hamlet thus made and incomes a wonderfully opulent visualization. Branagh's Denmark is a beautiful, potentially prosperous country on the verge of an external military coup and threatened to be ripped apart from within by crime and corruption most foul. The halls of Hamlet's palace becomes to the film what the desert was to Lawrence of Arabia - a place of limitless potential and freedom but also of oppression and doom.
The cast is spectacular. Branagh himself is awesome in the title role displaying an abundance of youthful energy and zest. He portrays all the facets of Hamlet's complex character perfectly. He's funny, charismatic and cultured, yet overcome with grief, melancholy and thirst for vengeance. Branagh is wonderfully supported by experienced Shakespearean thespians Derek Jacobi, Richard Briers and Nicholas Farrell and cameos from John Gielgud and John Mills. Shakespeare newcomers Kate Winslet and Julie Christie also deliver wonderful performances and even actors you would have thought were not suited to Shakespeare such as Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Charlton Heston and Jack Lemmon deliver excellent performances appropriate to their roles.
Anyone suspicious of Shakespeare's relevance on a modern audience need look no further than this film. Branagh did a tremendous job of making the story accessible to modern audiences while not changing a word of Shakespeare's text. There is no need to understand every word spoken; the actors do such a wonderful job at conveying what their character is saying. It's absorbing, thrilling and as moving as any modern story. It's the definitive telling of one of the greatest stories ever told and it's the shortest 240 minute films I've ever seen.