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Reviewed in the United States on September 5, 2018
Kenneth Branagh decided he wanted to film all of Hamlet, and that's important, because nearly every line sheds some kind of light on Hamlet and the people around him. The film is four hours long--it's so long that in the process of production, I believe Branagh became a better actor. There is some very good acting in here. Kate Winslet's madness of Ophelia is some of the best acting I have ever seen anywhere, by any actor of either sex. That alone makes the film worthwhile, and it is good to great in many other ways. There is a sensitivity to Branagh's portrayal of Hamlet in the latter half of the movie that is also well worth seeing.
At times brilliant, at times simply over the top, often careless with the women characters (especially Kate Winslet's initially smart but ultimately abused Ophelia -- abused by Branagh as Hamlet and as director -- and painfully weak in the more star than studded peripheral supporting cast --- certainly one of the few opportunities to see Jack Lemmon completely out of his depth. This has a brawny, go for broke feel, with some truly insightful readings stitched through it (e.g., Hamlet's kaleidoscopic, compulsive but ultimately refined and convincing theatricality, and the sexuality of the Prince's affair with Ophelia (which like much of the interpretive armature of the production gets illustrated perhaps too heavily by flashbacks and cutaways). All in all, ever-admirable (come on, un-cut, Kenneth!), often illuminating, but sometimes a bit glaringly so. Perhaps it was the suits footing the bill for all this thoroughness and cinematic splendor who forced Branagh to direct somewhat defensively, pumping up performances out of that debilitating directorial flop sweat from fear of losing an audience’s attention and therefore spending too much time over the top. (Although minor, the opening treatment of the play's first scene with its enigmatic questions and commands, including "stand and unfold yourself," is handled -- inexplicably other than as a ham-handed means to 'catch our attention" -- with all the nuance of cage fight.) Nevertheless, Branagh’s version is absolutely worth owning if only as a wonderful part of the matched set of Hamlets in the flow of influence and precedent that runs from Olivier to Olivier's protégé Jacobi to Jacobi's protégé, Branagh.
Those privileged to be in attendance at a small Pennsylvanian farming village in late 1863 would have heard a high pitched, almost squeaky voice speak for two minutes. The orator was indistinguishable from the rest of the crowd in his appearance or sartorial choices. But they would have heard words that would summarize the meaning of the Civil War for generations to come.
Something similar takes place in Hamlet. The original vengeance play is almost hoaky. A ghost appears, revenge is demanded, much blood spills and a dramatic sword fight brings the play to a climax. But in between Hamlet voices some of the most articulate words ever spoken about the human condition.
This meditation on humanity may have been motivated by Hamnet; the name of Shakespeare’s son who passed away in childhood. It’s hard not to think that Shakespeare put everything he thought about mortality into this play.
Branagh’s acting brings this out. I just watched it for the second time with closed captioning in order to savor every word. A rendition to return to again and again.
If you haven't read Hamlet...what are you doing with your life??? It's absolutely an amazing story by Shakespeare. I know some people don't like to read Shakespeare because they were forced to read other plays by Shakespeare in school and it just didn't interest them at the time. But this movie is the full script of Hamlet, and if you really payed attention to the words, you would have a laugh. I think it's William Shakespeare's most excellent piece, and the people who made it into this movie...even more fantastic for taking on the challenge! Spoiler alert: Kate Winslet is in it and she has an epic performance (you definitely gotta love it because of that). There are also some other big names in the film. It's pretty long because it was one of Shakespeare's longest plays, and this is the un-cut version, but trust me, it's worth it.
The greatest film adaptation of Hamlet ever made. There are some in previous reviews that have criticized it and even called Branagh's acting "pretentious." I would venture that none of them has ever poured his heart and soul so earnestly and completely as Branagh obviously did with this movie. He is not PRETENDING to be the greatest Shakespearean actor and director of his time. He simply is. It is breathtaking and brilliant.
Reviewed in the United States on November 10, 2013
My fiancé and I screened 4 versions of Hamlet in the last 4 weeks before this came out. Saw this in the theaters. This movie avoids the affectation of Olivier, the mail-it-in from Mel Gibson (Got to acknowledge the physicality Mel brought to the role, but other than that, nothing there). It's a passionate love letter from one of the best Shakespearean actors/directors living, Kenneth Brannagh. He has assembled a magnificent cast.
A poem In light, color, words, and drama. These actors inhabit the language so thoroughly that they can help almost anybody appreciate Shakespeare.
I love Jack Lemmon (as does Kenneth Brannagh) but I love him too much to enjoy seeing him barely get through lines he is just unfit to handle. He does cutely attempt to steal a scene or two with a touch of movement, and it was amusing to watch the cameraman take him out of focus.
The sexual scenes are pleasant looking enough and perhaps necessary to translate the passion of that age to these fallen times. I remember hitchhiking across the country for love, and being truly thrilled to hold that ladiy's hand. Passions seem to run a bit more coarsely these days.
Probably the best Shakespeare adaptation ever. Kenneth Branagh is brilliant in the title role, and all the American "stars" who took parts were great fun, and did themselves proud. Really bright staging, as opposed to some prior versions of the story that are cast in shadows. Love it!
4.0 out of 5 starsBranagh as bleached-blond Hamlet
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on January 16, 2008
This is a very well-directed film. The great joy of watching a Branagh-directed Shakespeare is the effort put into ensuring that the diction is as clear and natural as possible without losing the strength of the text. The cast is excellent, Derek Jacobi and Kate Winslet in particular; even cameos for which you would perhaps have doubts - such as Robin Williams, who impresses with his characterisation of Osric, and Billy Crystal as the gravedigger - work. Indeed, the repartee between Billy Crystal and Simon Russell-Beale in the graveyard scene is the funniest I have ever witnessed.
The colour and sets are spectacular, all filmed in 70mm, allowing for great richness and definition. Branagh says he wanted to escape the Gothic look of previous Hamlets, "away from the clichés of doublet and hose", so instead Elsinore becomes Blenheim in the nineteenth century. Almost everyone wears glitteringly smart military dress, for it is, after all, a time of war. It's also winter, although the effect is somewhat undermined by the lack of cold air on the breaths of the protagonists. Branagh wanted the look to be sexy and glamorous. He says he wanted, rather than a portrayal of an exact period, more an impression of period. He mentions the Austro-Hungarian Empire and claims the films "The Prisoner of Zenda" and "Mayerling" as influences.
The interior shots were made at Shepperton Studios. Here all is light and brightness, with a focus on the mirrored hall. There are some very long and impressive takes, but you become so engrossed in the action that you barely notice these. I only became aware of them when listening to the interesting commentary by Branagh and Shakespearian scholar and collaborator, Russell Jackson. It is well worth listening to, commenting as it does on both the philosophy and the practicalities behind both the original play and on the filmed production.
This film is long because it includes, more or less, the whole play. There have been some shavings; as mentioned in the commentary, Branagh has kept to the first folio and second quarto editions, so we do not see the scene of Gertrude being informed of Hamlet's return from England that is in the first quarto. The play itself, despite its length, is to some extent made worse by missing scenes, for example where Laertes is told of his father's murder and sister's madness, and draws together his mob to attack the palace. It would have been nice too to have seen how Hamlet returns to Denmark. Branagh tries to provide a detailed backdrop by, for instance, showing him making love to Ophelia, and by the use of cameos such as those of John Gielgud and Judi Dench, so perhaps I should not be too complaining.
It has an intermission between discs but the time passes quite unnoticed as you become involved in the drama, as when Laertes and Claudius conspire Hamlet's death. Indeed, I would say that Claudius is the key to this performance, and Jacobi (for once) is formidable in the role. Claudius now has time to be seen as a more well-rounded character. He is not a purely evil man, and Branagh in his commentary describes him as a "good man gone bad". This means that Hamlet is not so much the solution, but he is the problem to the play, for when he kills Polonius does not he become just as much the murderer as Claudius?
But what of Branagh's portrayal of Hamlet itself? It feels mean of me to criticise a man who has seemingly devoted half his life to the Shakespearian cause, but Branagh's Hamlet in his ravings and rantings in his soliloquies goes over the top. For me, Branagh's rages are seen as overacting, as not true. (Laertes too - played by Michael Moloney - tends to overplay his wrath, but, in a sense, he is Hamlet's mirrored self.) The worst scene in the entire play - just before the intermission - sees Hamlet raging against the universe, and set falsely against a vast winter landscape where Fortinbras's soldiers march across a plain. It is too full of hubris. If Hamlet is the Renaissance man that Branagh claims him to be, then where is his self-control, his healthy scepticism, his calm reasoning? I prefer him not to rage but to be more introverted; more moody; more in touch with his true self; cooler, calmer and more collected. Rage does not suit Hamlet, and it most certainly does not suit Branagh's hamlet.
Having said that, when Hamlet is in company, Branagh is excellent, almost faultless. He is suave, he is playful, he is comic, and he mad. But in all these scenes he is credible. His relationship with Kate Winslet as Ophelia is electric, and the interaction with his mother and uncle profoundly realistic. By the way, in this film Branagh has assumed that Gertrude does not know that the drink intended for Hamlet has been poisoned.
Some things do not work, such as Patrick Doyle's too-sweet score. The ghostly statue of Hamlet's father that is seen to move at the commencement of the play is also lacking, for he is just not scary at all. It is a wooden performance (literally?), for the camerawork here clearly does not portray the statue as great or as frightening as the film pretends him to be; the result is that the awed speeches surrounding the statue's movement are a little ridiculous, because we do not share the fear of the witnesses. On the other hand, Brian Blessed's later reprise of the role of the ghost in the woodland scene does indeed scare, with his whispered incantation and his glowingly dead eyes. It would have been, perhaps, an interesting idea in this scene to have compared Hamlet exuding cold breath from his mouth in the cold night air with the ghost's very lack of breath.
But at the end of the day, after four hours of intense drama, I felt somehow unmoved. Was it because I was numb? Or was the fault to do with the play itself? Is the ending too contrived for this post-Enlightenment viewer? Why did Shakespeare believe that his audience would be persuaded that Claudius would go to such lengths as to create a final fencing match to kill Hamlet, when he had the means to remove him more covertly, just as he had done to Hamlet's father? For me, Hamlet is a wonderful play ruined by the need for ends to be tied-up neatly at the close of the curtain. But as for this film version, there is so much wrong, and yet far more that is so right. I have yet to see a better filmed version.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on November 11, 2014
Excellent and entertaining film of this classic Shakespeare play. Branagh has capitalised on the opportunities to use film to enhance the audience's experience. Worth seeing and comparing with other interpretations of this great play both classic and modern. Purists may argue that the play's the thing but this production allows a wider public to enjoy Hamlet.