HAMLET – DVD review

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Any film version of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” has formidable competition from Laurence Olivier’s acclaimed 1948 production, which won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Art Direction, and Best Costume Design. Still, of the sixty-four listings for big-screen and television versions of “Hamlet,” two have come close: Franco Zeffirelli’s lean and muscular 1990 rendering and Kenneth Branagh’s complete 1996 rendition. Branagh’s movie may not have won any Oscars, but it gives Olivier’s picture a healthy run for its money.

Branagh, as director and star, does several things to set his film apart from the rest. First, he adapted it for the screen virtually intact. At first blush that may not seem like a lot, until you remember that “Hamlet” is the longest of Shakespeare’s plays, and it is a movie tradition to edit the Bard’s plays. Branagh gives us every word (at least, that’s what he tells us; I didn’t read along the whole play to verify the assertion), and it takes him over four hours (242 minutes) to accomplish the feat. It is a long haul, maybe best suited to dedicated Shakespeare fans, yet when you get into it, it seems much shorter.

Second, Branagh updates the setting. This, of course, is nothing new to Shakespeare, either, on stage or on screen. The author wrote his play around 1602 but based the story on one that goes back as far as twelfth-century Denmark. Branagh sets his movie in the nineteenth century. This setting not only provides a closer link to today’s world and modern sensibilities, the nineteenth-century costumes make the movie’s appearance a lot more colorful. Think of all those gorgeous gowns and fancy dress uniforms of the day.

Third, Branagh shot much of the movie at Blenheim Palace in England, as well as Shepperton Studios. The palace is resplendent and provides the movie with the kind of lush texture that only the biggest epics can usually afford. Yet Branagh did not make the film on an extravagant budget. The total cost was about $18,000,000, which, given the film’s look, length, and all-star cast, seems like a bargain.

And, fourth, Branagh used that cast I just mentioned. There are so many big names, they must have worked for minimum wage to keep the costs down; I don’t know. Branagh himself plays the lead, and everyone from Julie Chrisie to Kate Winslet has a part in it. Still, the film did not fare well at the box office, not even earning back a quarter of its production costs. I suspect that is what one might have expected, given that Shakespeare has seldom been a big motion-picture draw (Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet” being one of the big exceptions), and that Branagh’s film is so remarkably long. The film’s disappointing profits were certainly not a result of the cast and crew not trying.

By now, most everybody who’s been through an American or English school system knows the plot of the story. The scholarly, contemplative, idealistic Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, returns home from university at the death of his father, only to see his mother marry her former brother-in-law, Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius. Then Hamlet’s father’s ghost visits him, telling Hamlet that Claudius murdered him and that he wants Hamlet to exact revenge. The rest of the play concerns Hamlet’s indecision in the matter and a ton of court intrigue, leading up to the final tragedy, here magnificently realized. We get all this and more in Branagh’s version, which doesn’t leave out any of the details.

Since “Hamlet” is the epitome of a great Shakespearean play, it is the poet’s words that count more than the action or even the characterizations. It is here that Branagh must rely on his huge and celebrated cast to do the production justice, and although the performances can be somewhat hit-and-miss, they are for the most part quite fine.

As Hamlet, Branagh, who at the time was in his mid thirties, seems a mite old for the part, but then we remember that Gibson was also in his mid thirties when he essayed the role and Olivier was in his early forties. I don’t suppose there is any rule for how old a college student should be. The main thing is that Branagh throws himself into the portrayal with gusto, and maybe his only fault is that he seems at times a bit larger than life, a bit too theatrical, for the supposedly reserved, melancholy Dane. Speaking of Branagh, you’d think that by now it would impossible to do anything different with the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, but Branagh figures out a clever new twist. What’s more, Branagh’s delivery of the “What a piece of work is a man” speech is the most moving moment in the picture.

Then, there are the other players. Besides some of them appearing more comfortable in Shakespeare than others, their celebrity may be their only serious drawback. Instead of our saying, “Oh, there’s Osric,” we’re saying, “Oh, there’s Robin Williams.” It can be either a minor distraction or a welcome change of pace. Anyway, let me comment on a few of them in their order of appearance in the story.

Among the first two characters we meet are Horatio, Hamlet’s loyal friend and confidant, and Marcellus, an officer of the guard. The actors playing the parts couldn’t be more different. Nicholas Farrell (“Chariots of Fire”) as Horatio is nigh-well perfect, the very model of a best buddy. But Jack Lemmon as Marcellus seems wooden, ill at ease.

Derek Jacobi plays the duplicitous Claudius, murderer and usurper of the throne, and Jacobi is brilliant as the antagonist, making his character all the more evil for his quietly underplaying the part (“…smile, and smile, and be a villain”). Julie Christie is Hamlet’s still-beautiful and loving mother, the unknowing Queen Gertrude. We pity her ignorance of the goings on at court.

Michael Maloney, perhaps best known as a television actor, plays Laertes, Polonius’s son, although in Zeffirelli’s “Hamlet,” he played Rosencrantz. He makes a good hothead. Kate Winslet plays Ophelia, Polonius’s daughter and Hamlet’s one great love. Winslet is good at portraying Ophelia’s conflicting passions, but she’s at her best in the mad scenes. Be that as it may, it is Richard Briers as Polonius who steals the show. British audiences, especially, will recognize Briers from hit TV shows like “The Good Life,” and here he manages to make old Polonius more clever than foolish. He is a joy to watch.

Rufus Sewell plays Fortinbras, a strong actor for a strong, warlike character. Brian Blessed conveys a commanding presence for the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Timothy Spall is always a delight, here playing Rosencrantz. Gerard Depardieu, who barely makes an appearance as Reynaldo, Polonius’s servant, is, nonetheless, formidable, and then we hear from him no more.

Be that as it may, Depardieu’s cameo is at least a speaking part. Several other well-known actors get only face time. We see but do not hear from John Mills, Judi Dench, and the great John Gielgud. The latter two are parts of the play within a play, wherein Hamlet hopes “to catch the conscience of the king.” Charlton Heston portrays the leader of the acting troupe, and he is appropriately hammy in the role.

As one of the grave diggers, we find Billy Crystal. He is pleasantly casual although a touch less than natural in his delivery. Robin Williams is Robin Williams as Orsic, another courtier. And Richard Attenborough has a few final words as the English ambassador.

Branagh’s camera whirls around far too much, sometimes making one dizzy, but otherwise he manages to keep the action moving forward at a brisk pace. As I’ve said, the four hours go by quickly when you’re having fun. Finally, Patrick Doyle’s grand and eloquent musical score provides the proper continuity to tie everything together, with a closing number, “In Pace,” sung by Placido Domingo. It’s a class act all the way.

“The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!”

Branagh originally shot the film in Panavision Super 70 (65mm format processing) and showed it theatrically at 2.20:1 in 70mm and 2.35:1 in 35mm prints. Warner Bros. present the film in its 2.20:1 ratio, and the results in anamorphic widescreen are pleasing. Colors are strong, rich, and natural. The screen is clean and clear and brightly lit when need be. The sublime sets and costumes show up well. If there is any shortcoming, it is that the delineation and detailing are very slightly soft, perhaps the result of an average bit rate, the whole image crying out for high definition.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 reproduction displays some strong dynamics when necessary; the midrange is smooth and well balanced; and the front-channel stereo spread is wide. However, there is not a lot of rear-channel activity beyond the expected musical ambiance reinforcement and a few crowd noises. OK, the ghost’s voice uses the surrounds to give it a more ethereal quality, but that’s about it. I’m not complaining, mind you; simply reporting.

In this Two-Disc Special Edition, the first disc contains part one of the movie, with scenes 1-42. In addition, there is an eight-minute introduction by Kenneth Branagh and an audio commentary by Branagh and Shakespeare scholar Russell Jackson, both of whom provide words of interest for the Shakespeare buff as well as the average viewer. English is the only spoken language Warners provide, but there are English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

The second disc contains part two of the movie, with scenes 43-61 and a continuation of the audio commentary. In addition, since part two is shorter than part one and there is some extra room, we also get a twenty-four-minute featurette, “To Be on Camera: A History with Hamlet,” with comments from the actors in the film; a twelve-minute Cannes Film Festival promo for the film; and trailers for seven other Shakespeare movies.

Parting Thoughts:
Brevity may be “the soul of wit,” but this one is pretty long. Nevertheless, Kenneth Branagh’s vision of “Hamlet” passes the time quickly and enjoyably, thanks to the fine performances, the splendid visuals, and, of course, the masterful words of Master Shakespeare himself. Branagh combines one of Bard’s best plays with some of the best filmmaking the medium has to offer, making his production easily able to stand beside any Shakespeare of any kind committed to film. Plus, on DVD one has the advantage over movie audiences of being able to take a break any time one chooses. Can’t beat that.

“Now cracks a noble heart. Good-night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!”