February 28, 1997 in Seven

Branagh And The Bard ‘Hamlet’ Is Probably The Greatest Play Ever, And Movie Version Is A Visual, Intellectual Feast

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Anyone who has ever survived high school has at least heard of “Hamlet,” if not actually seen a full production of the play.

It would be virtually impossible to avoid knowing something of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, even if you’re ignorant of who’s in it or what tale it tells. Raise hands all those who haven’t heard the line: “To thine own self be true.”

Or “I must be cruel only to be kind.”

Or “sweets to the sweet.”

Not to mention “To be or not to be…”

Yet, the question truly is how many among us have ever seen the entire play? If you’ve never seen anything but movie versions, you certainly haven’t.

Laurence Olivier trimmed it down for his Oscar-winning 1948 version. Tony Richardson did the same for his 1969 version with Nicol Williamson as the troubled Danish prince. And so did Franco Zeffirelli for his 1990 adaptation that featured a surprisingly good Mel Gibson in the lead.

That left another challenge to the master of modern Shakespearean interpretation, Kenneth Branagh. And as his three-hour, 58-minute film demonstrates, it proved to be a challenge he was more than capable of meeting.

For after watching “Hamlet,” no matter what your opinion of Branagh’s creative choices, you can’t help but realize one thing: Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is the greatest play ever written in English.

And maybe the greatest play ever written, period.

It has everything. Murder, ghosts, love scenes, love quarrels, deception, intrigue, lust, envy, revenge, stabbings, poisonings and one of the great sword fights ever staged. Plus, let’s not forget indecision, indecision and even more indecision.

Filmed in 70mm, with the exterior scenes shot at the picturesque Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, and boasting a principal cast more noted for its talent than its star quality, Branagh’s “Hamlet” is a true ‘90s-style production. Which means that, whenever possible, it never forsakes the chance to reach for a riveting image, a swirling camera segue or a quick-march feel for pacing.

But none of this visual fanciness comes at the expense of the acting. Two performers in particular, Derek Jacobi as Claudius and Richard Briers as Polonius, play their roles as if born to them. Jacobi, strangely enough known best for playing the title role in Public Television’s “I, Claudius,” lends new king Claudius a gentile sense of nobility to go along with his more treacherous side.

And Briers plays Polonius as less a meddling fool than as a domineering father whose gentle-seeming temperament masks a distinct darkness.

The others fit right in: Kate Winslet’s Ophelia reaches for madness, Michael Maloney’s Laertes seethes with rage, Julie Christie’s Gertrude remains blind to the truth until it is far too late and Nicholas Farrell’s Horatio remains always the most steadfast of Hamlet’s friends.

Even Branagh’s penchant for gimmick casting mostly works: Charlton Heston and Billy Crystal are perfectly fine, Robin Williams less so (and Jack Lemmon is embarrassing).

Over them all reigns Branagh, whose line readings may not outshine Olivier’s nor any of the other great actors who have played this difficult role. Clearly, though, he is best at interpreting Shakespeare’s dialogue for a ‘90s audience. Even Shakespeare’s most seemingly obtuse lines sound familiar to a modern ear when spoken by Branagh.

And that aura of familiarity is in keeping with the adaptation overall.

For by filming the entire play, Branagh gives “Hamlet” the context that it so often lacks.

Now, if four hours (with an intermission that comes after 2-1/2 hours) sounds like a long time to sit, note this: I’ve sat through 90-minute movies that feel longer. And trust me here: You absolutely MUST see this film in a theater; video will not have anywhere near the same impact.

If that seems like a sacrifice, look what you get in exchange. You don’t have to guess why Hamlet is afraid to act. You don’t have to wonder about the significance of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Or whether Hamlet really does love Ophelia or why Fortinbras comes rushing in at the end.

Branagh gives you answers to questions one and all. He puts them right there on the screen. In living color.

And if you don’t agree with him? That’s OK, too. As with any interpretation of Shakespeare, Branagh’s “Hamlet” probably is not definitive.

But it may be the closest thing so far.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo

MEMO: Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. “Hamlet” Location: The Newport Cinemas Credits: Directed by Kenneth Branagh, starring Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie, Nicholas Farrell, Kate Winslet, Richard Briers, Michael Maloney, Charlton Heston, Billy Crystal, Jack Lemmon, Richard Attenborough Running time: 3:58 (includes intermission) Rating: PG-13

2. OTHER VIEWS Here’s what other critics say about “Hamlet:” Chris Hewitt/St. Paul Pioneer Press: The movie’s unapologetic demand that you sit still for a long, sad epic is a big part of what makes it interesting. The first complete “Hamlet” on film, Kenneth Branagh’s movie is so fluid and so entertaining that there are no bathroom-break lulls. You’ll have to take care of that during the intermission. Paula Nechak/Seattle Post-Intelligencer: Kenneth Branagh is back doing what he does best: making the Bard accessible for the wary masses. With his 4-hour, 70-millimeter wide screen version of “Hamlet,” he has fashioned a swash-buckling and sensual familial and political intrigue out of Shakespeare’s epic tragedy.

Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. “Hamlet” Location: The Newport Cinemas Credits: Directed by Kenneth Branagh, starring Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie, Nicholas Farrell, Kate Winslet, Richard Briers, Michael Maloney, Charlton Heston, Billy Crystal, Jack Lemmon, Richard Attenborough Running time: 3:58 (includes intermission) Rating: PG-13

2. OTHER VIEWS Here’s what other critics say about “Hamlet:” Chris Hewitt/St. Paul Pioneer Press: The movie’s unapologetic demand that you sit still for a long, sad epic is a big part of what makes it interesting. The first complete “Hamlet” on film, Kenneth Branagh’s movie is so fluid and so entertaining that there are no bathroom-break lulls. You’ll have to take care of that during the intermission. Paula Nechak/Seattle Post-Intelligencer: Kenneth Branagh is back doing what he does best: making the Bard accessible for the wary masses. With his 4-hour, 70-millimeter wide screen version of “Hamlet,” he has fashioned a swash-buckling and sensual familial and political intrigue out of Shakespeare’s epic tragedy.


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