Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh) is Prince of Denmark. After his father (Richard Briers) dies, his uncle Claudius (Derek Jacobi) takes the throne and marries Hamlet's mother, Gertrude (Julie Christie). When the late king's ghost reveals he was murdered by Claudius, Hamlet must decide which course of action to take. Meanwhile, he has been courting Ophelia (Kate Winslet), daughter of...Oh. You've heard this one before? Sorry.
It does seem somehow redundant to recount the plot of Hamlet, which is, after all, the most filmed of Shakespeare's plays, the best-known play in the English language, and (excepting the King James Bible) the prime claimant to the title of Central Text of All Western Literature. The press material for Kenneth Branagh's new film version laughably claims that the play has been filmed five times before; the actual number is roughly 10 times that. The 1980 edition of the Guinness Movie Facts and Feats lists 41 adaptations and nine parodies, the first being a 1900 production with Sarah Bernhardt (!), and the book fails to include everything. It omits loose adaptations and updatings such as Edgar G. Ulmer's 1945 Strange Illusion, Kurosawa's 1960 The Bad Sleep Well, Aki Kaurismaki's brilliant deconstruction Hamlet Goes Business (1987), Enzo Castellari's 1972 western Johnny Hamlet, and, if you were really paying attention, the 1983 Dave Thomas-Rick Moranis film Strange Brew...as well as related backstage stories such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1990), To Be or Not to Be (done brilliantly in 1942 and less well in 1983), and Branagh's own A Midwinter's Tale (1995). Nor is it recent enough to mention the 1990 Zeffirelli version with Mel Gibson.
All of which suggests the obvious question: Did we really need another Hamlet?
The answer is yes--and, perhaps sadly, we still do, despite Branagh's often estimable efforts.
The most famous film Hamlet is, of course, Laurence Olivier's multi-Oscar-winning 1948 version, which--despite some competition from Nicol Williamson's late '60s outing and the Zeffirelli/Gibson take--has remained the "official" version ever since its release.
Branagh has been cursed (or blessed) with comparisons to Olivier since the start of his career. He certainly encouraged the talk by directing and starring in Henry V, exactly as Olivier had 45 years earlier. Now he's following in Olivier's footsteps again. (Is a Branagh Richard III inevitable as well?)
On the face of it, Branagh's version has several advantages over its forerunners. For starters, it's complete--which may be a first. (A shortened version is also being released in some cities.) Despite the play's revered status, it's almost never performed (and may never have been filmed) in its entirety. Branagh's clocks in at four hours and two minutes (more than 50 percent longer than Olivier's), plus a 10-minute intermission, so be sure you've prepared the babysitter. (Although every line is included, at least one of the best-known is changed in a way that significantly alters its meaning: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy," Hamlet says, rather than the more condescending "your philosophy.")
While the longer speeches may sometimes bog down, Branagh has, if nothing else, provided an educational service by preparing this full-length version. Hamlet really does deserve such treatment: Some of the "less important" material that has been cut in other versions is in fact crucial. It is, for instance, common to remove or shorten much of the fourth act, when the protagonist himself is absent from the action, traveling to England with his turncoat buddies, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. While the story may seem on hold with Hamlet missing, his prolonged absence--roughly a half hour here--is what gives his Act Five reappearance in the graveyard such power.
Branagh also has the advantage of shooting in an ultracrisp, panoramic 70mm format and the clout to enlist whatever actors he wants. Further, as he displayed in Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing, he has a knack for staging Shakespeare in a manner that makes the actual meaning of the words take precedence over their often hypnotic sonority. In short, even benighted Americans can generally understand what the hell the characters are talking about.
So, with all these advantages, why is it impossible to be wholeheartedly enthusiastic about Hamlet? The film opens well, with a wide exterior view of Elsinore Castle. It's a beautiful shot...one of the very few, unfortunately, in the next four hours. The setting has been changed to the nineteenth century, a move that has little effect on things (though one might be struck by the incongruity of guards in such uniforms carrying spears instead of rifles). But the first bit of business, while dramatic, hardly makes sense: Bernardo, arrived to relieve Francisco, literally attacks his comrade and wrestles him to the ground--a fine howd'yado. I mean, what the hell is that about?
Still, Hamlet has become so overplayed it's better to risk new or offbeat interpretations, even if some of them, such as the one above, don't quite compute. (And, in general, Branagh scores well on these counts.)
The immediate arrival of Horatio and Marcellus introduces a far more grave flaw. While Horatio is portrayed by the relatively anonymous British actor Nicholas Farrell, Marcellus is none other than...Jack Lemmon! Branagh has chosen to cast every bit part in the play--plus several wordless parts not in the play--with a famous actor. In general, this is a distracting practice, though, in some cases, notably Charlton Heston as the Player King, the performance overshadows the distraction.
But in many cases it is simply silly. As the obscure and incredibly minor Reynaldo, Gerard Depardieu shows up to utter roughly 14 brief lines, most of them variations on, "Yes, my lord, I will do so." By the time you've gotten over giggling at this bulky, heavily accented French guy playing a Dane, Gerard is gone, never to be seen again. In the world of inappropriate cameos, this one falls just short of John Wayne as The Centurion in The Greatest Story Ever Told.
Of all the famous players on display, however, none fares worse than Lemmon. What is shocking is just how awful his performance is. Even those who have had their ups and downs with his work will be stunned; he can be irritating and self-imitative, but he's always an intelligent actor. Here his line readings are so flat, so devoid of any meaning, that it's hard to resist the conclusion that he was heavily medicated at the time. He's that bad.
Billy Crystal is not my favorite Gravedigger by a longshot--Stanley Holloway in the Olivier version still holds that honor--but he's OK; and there's nothing inherently wrong with bringing a smidgen of the Catskills to the character. Robin Williams' performance as the foppish courtier Osric is fine but is ruined by the editing. Branagh, who seems to dote on Williams, inexplicably chooses to cut to close-ups of him whenever possible...even when utterly improbable. Osric is a minor character, yet during the film's final half hour, we probably see his face more than anyone save Hamlet himself. It's just...weird.
Richard Attenborough pops up at the very end as the English ambassador: Any number of lesser lights would have sufficed, but, as a rule, I support any employment that takes time away from Sir Dickie's directing career.
And then there are John Gielgud, John Mills, and Judi Dench, whose roles barely qualify as cameos. One of Branagh's worst decisions was to cut away during major speeches to show us stagings of what the speeches are describing. Some of these cutaways are passable: We get to see the Norwegian Fortinbras preparing his attack on Poland. Some of them are interesting if dubious: When Ophelia talks of her time spent with Hamlet, we actually see a discreet shot of them in bed together, presumably post-coital. This flies in the face of the usual interpretations of their relationship, but at least it's provocative. And it could be taken simply as Ophelia's fantasy--a consummation she devoutly wishes.
But Gielgud, Mills, and Dench show up to no effect at all: Their casting was either the result of some kind of government senior-citizen make-work project or Branagh coveting the imprimatur granted by having the greatest living Shakespearean actors appear in his film, however briefly. A final cutaway during the "Alas poor Yorick!" speech provokes as much unintentional laughter as Lemmon's arrival: Branagh shows us a flashback of the clownish Yorick, cavorting with an eight-year-old Hamlet (played by some kid in a hideous blond fright wig).
Others of Branagh's decisions work well. Scenes that are usually played for maximum laughs--such as Hamlet's feigned madness before Ophelia--are given far more emotional gravity. In his introduction of the Players' performance, Hamlet is like a slick M.C., driven increasingly manic by anxiety and anticipation. Jacobi is perfectly oily as Claudius, and Christie is quite perfect as Gertrude. But, outside of Branagh, it's Winslet who leaves the strongest impression. Ophelia can sometimes come across as a pathetic wimp, but Winslet makes her deeply moving.
Given the care that went into the production design and the promise of the opening shot, the visual style is disappointing. In addition to the dubious cutaway strategy discussed above, there is some clunky, surprisingly amateurish editing. The wide 70mm frame is rarely employed to best advantage; and Branagh tiresomely repeats the one camera movement trick in his repertoire. As in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, whenever in doubt, he covers the action with vertiginous circular tracking shots.
Patrick Doyle's score is memorable but not always appropriate. Its worst moment is right before the intermission: Branagh delivers the call to resolve--"How do all occasions inform against me"--as a grand monologue in the manner of the St. Crispin's Day speech in Henry V. The camera slowly tracks away as his voice rises, while Doyle's music swells in a manner that suggests patriotic fervor, rather than a commitment to revenge. It's rousing, it's effective, and it's just stone wrong.
Starring Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie, Kate Winslet, Charlton Heston, Billy Crystal, Brian Blessed, Robin Williams, Rufus Sewell, Richard Attenborough, Gerard Depardieu, and John Gielgud. Directed and adapted for the screen by Branagh; based on the play by William Shakespeare. Opens Friday.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.