It's the greatest work of literature, but nobody had ever filmed Hamlet
uncut--until Kenneth Branagh went about the task for his lavish 1996 production. The result is a sumptuous, star-studded version that scores a palpable hit on its avowed goal: to make the text as clear and urgent as possible. Branagh himself plays the melancholy son of the Danish court, caught in a famous muddle about whether to seek revenge against his royal father's presumed slayer
the man who now sits on the throne and shares the bed of Hamlet's mother. (Or, as the song "That's Entertainment" summarizes the plot: "A ghost and a prince meet / And everyone winds up mincemeat.") As a director, Branagh (who shot the movie in 70 mm.) uses the vast, cold interiors of a vaguely 19th-century manor to gorgeous effect; the story might scurry down this hallway, into that back chamber, or sprawl out into the enormous main room. With its endless collection of mirrors, the place is as big and empty as Citizen Kane
That all works; what doesn't work is Branagh's tendency to over-direct the big dramatic moments. He indulges in quick cutting and flashbacks as though to fend off the audience's objections to the four-hour running time, and the style sometimes looks like wasted energy. The experienced Shakespearians in the cast come off nicely; Derek Jacobi's Claudius, Richard Briers' Polonius, and Michael Maloney's Laertes are just terrific. Julie Christie is a suitably attractive Gertrude, and Kate Winslet makes the most of Ophelia's mad scenes. Branagh's habit of folding in unexpected American performers is on the mark, too: Billy Crystal is surprisingly good as the Gravedigger, Robin Williams predictably camps up Osric, and Charlton Heston is an inspired choice as the grandiloquent Player King. The biggest irony here is that Branagh himself is not quite spot-on as Hamlet. Of course he speaks the lines beautifully, but Branagh's screen personality radiates certainty and clarity of vision; there's little of the doubt that might make him Hamlet-esque. Still, tremendous credit for fending off slings and arrows to get the movie made. --Robert Horton
Kenneth Branagh, Kate Winslet. Shakespeare's masterpiece about a Danish prince gets retooled for this unabridged screen version with notable cameo appearances by Richard Attenborough, Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Dame Judi Dench and more. 2 DVDs. 1996/color/approx. 4 hrs/PG-13/widescreen.