229 of 240 people found the following review helpful
on October 11, 2004
There is a moment at the start of this film when Hamlet, until then holding himself rigidly erect through sheer force of will, seizes a moment of privacy and literally deflates with exhaustion and despair. In itself, this perfect gesture would mark Branagh's portrayal a masterful work. But what follows raises his performance to the sublime: He embarks on the "O that this too too sullied flesh would melt, /Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew..." soliloquy not with Burton's anger, Olivier's melancholy or Gibson's bitterness, but with an exhalation that embodies the emotion most genuine given the circumstances: overwhelming grief. This is a perfect note, and what follows shows an understanding of the play's mental and emotional landscape that puts other portrayals to shame.
I have seen many performances of Hamlet, but I have never seen one as perfectly pitched as this. Branagh's Hamlet is strong, resourceful, thoughtful and restrained. Branagh purposely rejects the psychological poses that other actors find so hard to resist. After all, Hamlet and Richard III are the two Shakespearean plays that afford actors the most range. It's hard playing the Dane on a leash when one can go wild with existential abandon and not only dodge the charge of overacting, but actually attribute such excess to the character. There are few meatier roles in the repertoire that simultaneously offer the actor such depth on the one hand and such leeway on the other.
For me, such moderation exemplifies Branagh's devotion to Shakespeare. It must have been tempting for a man of his talents to show off. But to forego such gestures, to offer in its stead restraint, is to put service before self.
For, of course, Hamlet is restrained. His very life depends on it. His whole course of action is based on it. His safety revolves around it. Hold off the will to strike, restrain the impulse for vengeance, apportion each action in only the most miserly measure. The walls have ears, conspiracies abound and death lurks around every corner. In such an environment, is it plausible that a man of Hamlet's intelligence would show his hand by indulging in excess? A restrained performance feels right because a restrained course of action is the only course possible for our hero.
This does not stop Hamlet from making bold gestures. But such gestures must always be made under cover, and here again, Branagh shows his creative mettle. The Player King scene provides a counterpoint. Branagh lets go here and shows his excitement when the occasion demands it. Likewise, his graveyard response to Ophelia's death: the cover of madness conflates with reality because Hamlet's act cannot be sustained forever. Branagh knows exactly when to allow the cracks to show.
Those used to earlier works may find Branagh's version overly long and laboured. Many directors have cut out scenes and soliloquies in a misguided attempt to "tighten up" the production. Branagh makes what I believe is the right decision: to leave them all in because every scene, every soliloquy adds texture and is indispensable to the whole.
The best Hamlet I have seen.
489 of 520 people found the following review helpful
Part of the genius of Branagh's interpretation of Hamlet is in the use of the techniques of the cinema to enhance the production. Branagh has not condensed the acts like some mass market soup, as was done in Olivier's 1948 Oscar-winning production, or in, say, Zeffirelli's 1989 Hamlet lite starring Mel Gibson (both excellent, though, within their scope), but has kept every word while directing our understanding so that even those only casually familiar with the play might follow the intent and purpose with discernment. Recall that for Shakespeare--the ultimate actor's playwright who wrote with precious few stage directions--interpretation was left to the direction and the actors, an open invitation that Branagh rightly accepts.
The use of flashback scenes of things implied, such as the amorous union of Ophelia and her Lord Hamlet abed, or of a vast expanse of snow darkened with distant soldiers to represent the threat of Fortinbras' army from without, and especially the vivid remembrance in the mind's eye of the new king's dastardly deed of murder most foul, helps us all to more keenly appreciate just what it is that torments Hamlet's soul. I also liked the intense closeups. How they would have bemused and delighted an Elizabethan audience.
Branagh's ambitious Hamlet is also one of the most accessible and entertaining, yet without the faintest hint of any dumbing down or abbreviation. A play is to divert, to entertain, to allow us to identify with others whose trials and tribulations are so like our own. And so first the playwright seeks to engage his audience, and only then, by happenstance and indirection, to inspire and to inform. Shakespeare did this unconsciously, we might say. He wrote for the popular audience of his time, a broad audience, it should be noted, that included kings and queens as well as knaves and beggars, and he reached them, one and all. We are much removed from those times, and yet, this play, this singular achievement in theatre, still has the power to transcend mere entertainment, to fuse poetry and story, as well as the high and the low, and speak once again to a new audience twenty generations removed.
Branagh himself is a wonderful Hamlet, perhaps a bit of a ham at times (as I think was Shakespeare's intent), a prince who is the friend of itinerant players. He also lacks somewhat in stature (as we conceive our great heroes); nonetheless his interpretation of the great prince's torment and his singular obsession to avenge his father's murder speaks strongly to us all. Branagh, more than any other Hamlet, makes us understand the distracted, anguished and tortured prince, and guides us to not only an appreciation of his actions, wild and crazy as they sometimes are, but to an identification and an understanding of why (the eternal query) Hamlet is so long in assuming the name of action. In Branagh's production, this old quibble with Hamlet's character dissolves itself into a dew, and we realize that he was acting strongly, purposely all the while. He had to know the truth without doubt so that he might act in concert with it.
I was also very much impressed with Derek Jacobi's Claudius. One recalls that Jacobi played Hamlet in the only other full cinematic production of the play that I know of, produced in 1980 by the BBC with Claire Bloom as Gertrude; and he was an excellent Hamlet, although perhaps like Branagh something less than a massive presence. His Claudius combines second son ambition with a Machiavellian heart, whose words go up but whose thoughts remind below, as is the way of villains everywhere.
Kate Winslet is a remarkable Ophelia, lending an unusual strength to the role (strength of character is part of what Kate Winslet brings to any role), but with the poor, sweet girl's vulnerability intact. She does the mad scene with Claudius as well as I have seen it done, and of course her personal charisma and beauty embellishes the production.
Richard Briers as Polonius, proves that that officious fool is indeed that, and yet something more so that we can see why he was a counselor to the king. The famous speech he gives to Laertes as his son departs for France, is really ancient wisdom even though it comes from a fool.
Julie Christie was a delight as the besmirched and wretched queen. In the bedroom scene with Hamlet she becomes transparent to not only her son, but to us all, and we feel that the camera is reaching into her soul. She is outstanding.
The bit players had their time upon the stage and did middling well to very good. I liked Charlton Heston's player king (although I think he and John Gielgud might have switched roles to good effect) and Billy Crystal's gravedigger was finely etched. Only Jack Lemon's Marcellus really disappointed, but I think that was mainly because he was so poorly cast in such a role. Not once was he able to flash the Jack Lemon grin that we have come to know so well.
The idea of doing a Shakespearean play with nineteenth century dress in the late twentieth century worked wonderfully well, but I know not why. Perhaps the place and dress are just enough removed from our lives that they are somewhat strange but recognizable in a pleasing way. And perhaps it is just another tribute to the timeless nature of Shakespeare's play. The mirrors in the great hall added to the effect of a vast and indifferent castle environment, and in the scene with Ophelia and Laertes returned tended to magnify the focus.
There is so much more to say about this wonderful cinematic production. It is, all things considered, one of the best Hamlets ever done. Perhaps it is the best. See it, by all means, see it for yourself.
--Dennis Littrell, author of "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!"
57 of 61 people found the following review helpful
on December 28, 1999
Phenominal acting by Kenneth Branagh makes this film both entertaining and a fine addition to anyone's library, be they a Shakespeare afficionado or simply looking to enjoy a good film. This is a refreshing switch from the stereotypically stale rap such a wonderful playwright is encumbered with. While it does take some time to watch, this is not necessarily a bad thing. As a result, there are always new things to discover with susequent viewings. Admittedly, the language itself is a barrier at first. For me, it is much more difficult to comprehend without the text before me. But, once realization dawns, I would say it is well worth the wait. Currently, my favorite part is when Hamlet tells his uncle to go to hell on the first tape. The delivery is subtle enough to elude most on the first pass, myself included. While this is not a line unique to this film, as the text exists in others, it is a high point for me. Kenneth Branagh makes the film, though. Accolades are also due equally noteworthy actor Charleton Heston for a brief but inspiring appearance. I am eagerly awaiting this title to emerge on DVD, as I hope many others are too. Perhaps a public outcry would prompt the distributor to arrange its (hopefully forthcoming) release.
76 of 90 people found the following review helpful
This is one monumental piece of filmmaking. To the dectractors, for whom it was probably too long for their MTV attention spans, I can only say, go back to Britney Spears and save your comments for something you know something about. I'm sorry, but these responses really get me ticked in this instance. This is the "full" text, as written. Every word is a gem. Every scene is necessary for a full apprecition and understanding of Shakespeare's scope and genius. I didn't detect a dull moment or a lapse in directorial love and care for the duration of the film. Even Robin Williams, who I find annoying of late, was perfectly cast. The cameos, supporting roles, and stars all shone equally. This film is a triumph on Branagh's part, even better than his masterful Henry V. He's followed in Olivier's footsteps and even superseded him in many respects. I didn't for a moment doubt any of his choices, either as actor or director. For me, this is the definitive Shakespeare recording of the modern era. Enough said.
22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on September 28, 2003
I've seen several different screen adaptations of Shakespeare's Hamlet, and I can unequivocally state that Branagh's is my favorite. From start to finish, this four hour film stunned me with incredible acting, beautiful sets, and creative cinematography. However, the film didn't exactly match my original interpretation of the play.
Probably the greatest thing that disappointed me in the film was the play within the play. No matter how much I enjoyed the acting, I didn't like the interpretation that Branagh chose. After several readings of Hamlet, I still can't understand why Branagh chose to have Hamlet yell so much during the play. I suppose on one hand it reinforces the idea of Hamlet going mad, but it also seems to degrade the cunning that went into planning the play and the trap for Claudius. I always imagined that scene to be a little more subtle, working its way into the mind of Claudius and creating doubt...not screaming "bloody murder" the way Branagh seems to portray it. If I was directing this film, I would probably have Hamlet talk under his breath a little more and possibly brood in his seat, watching every move that Claudius makes. Luckily, this is probably the most major thing that confused and disappointed me about this film version (besides Rosencrantz and Guildenstern riding in on the little train).
Other than the play within the play, I think I agree with almost everything Branagh does, but a few of his choices stand out more than others for me. The thing that I liked the most about Branagh's version is Ophelia's falling into madness. I thought the way Ophelia carried on in the large, mirrored room was fantastic. The flowers being a construct of a deranged mind and her method of getting right into the face of Claudius was great! I thought Kate Winslet's acting was amazing. That certainly isn't the only thing I liked about it, but it is probably the thing that stood out the most to me.
I've seen this production several times, and I even own a copy on VHS, and the thing that I remember most about the movie is the indeterminate era in which it is set. From the sets and the costumes, it is very difficult to pin-point an exact date on this production. There are many seemingly modern devices in the palace, from Hamlet's fencing garb to the amazing mirrored rooms, but there isn't any electricity or computers. Branagh seems to be making the point that Hamlet is a timeless masterpiece and choosing a specific timeframe for the play puts it in a box, which is a point that I can't agree with more and is probably the most memorable part of the movie.
Overall, I enjoyed the Branagh production a lot. In fact, I've noticed that other movies often attempt to mimic this production! One recent example is the remarkable similarities of the sword fight in the most recent James Bond film: "Die Another Day" to Branagh's Hamlet. The fact that large film franchises are trying to mimic Branagh's work proves to me that his production is nothing short of spectacular and worth every minute of the four hours.
25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on March 5, 2005
Yes, finally Warner Bros. has confirmed that this film will be issued on DVD sometime in 2006 for its tenth anniversary. Rumors of legal problems delaying the release (some stated even by WB themselves) were apparently just that -- rumors. [Or, whatever it may have been, they can't talk about.]
The DVD is expected to have Branagh's "full cooperation".
Check here for more details:
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on April 6, 2000
Shakespeare was meant to be performed, not read, but modern attention spans are so brief his plays have to be hacked to bits in contemporary performance. Shakespeare's plays are also not particularly cinematic, except to an imaginative director. Branagh, who is wonderful at bringing Shakespeare to cinematic life, tackles the best play ever written and walks a tight-rope. The lead characters -- Branagh, Jacobi (especially), Christie, etc. are all wonderful. The "star turns" are extremely variable (Heston is superb and should do more Shakespeare; Lemmon should stick to light modern roles). The movie should be seen in widescreen, though even when it's formatted for the tv screen many nuances are lost (such as the army of Fortinbras far in the distance behind Branagh in his final speech before the intermission). In that way, it's like "Lawrence of Arabia", losing so much on the conversion to a small screen. But this "Hamlet" captures the excitement, romance, and thrills of the play better than any filmed version, though it's probably only for those who love Shakespeare
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on December 17, 2000
Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet is the best since Lawrence Olivier's. The film is beautifully shot, and some of the set is stunningly effective--a hall of mirrors in particular is used to great effect. Branagh does a great job as Hamlet, and Kate Winslet (this shocked me) is the best Ophelia I have ever seen. Remarkably well-cast and with skillful camerawork, this is a Hamlet well worth seeing. It's refreshing to be able to watch a version of any Shakesperean film which hasn't cut some wonderful scenes purely to bring the length down, and this movie lets us view Hamlet "uncut." There is only one scene in the entire 4-hour movie which is irritating from a cinematic perspective--a scene where Hamlet's character on his way to Norway delivers an impassionated soliloquy against a very obviously artificial background, causing the viewer to have a frame break ("Hey! That's not sky! That looks like a blue screen!")--and only one tiresome scene in four hours means a pretty fantastic movie.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on August 30, 2010
1080p or not 1080p. That is the question. I saw this last on VHS. Holy balls of awesome. This blu-ray is like seeing the movie again for the first time. I have a bias. This is my favorite movie version of Hamlet. This version is the reason I started Rash & Bloody Deeds Productions, and directed Hamlet at university. I'm not going to review the film. Just the blu-ray. If you don't own a 70mm print of this, this blu-ray is the best way to experience these performances. The inky blacks, the depth of blood, the deepness of the resolution. I watched this on 50" plasma. I wish I had a 150" projector/screen to absorb all the detail encoded in the picture. I haven't seen too many reviews of this blu-ray. I wanted to kick in a 5-star vote, both for video and audio. The clarity of the speech by the Player King. And I loved the commentary.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on April 11, 2006
Simply put, Kenneth Branagh's rendition of Hamlet has been the best on record. For the powers that be to not release this gem to DVD is an outrage to all envolved with the film and also to those who are fans of this masterpiece. To DVD or not to DVD? That's an absurd question. Release this title now!