Monday, July 27, 2009
On Kenneth Branagh's HAMLET (1996)
When I first saw Kenneth Branagh's 4-hour "full text" version of Hamlet during its initial theatrical release in 1996, I was not overly impressed. I thought it was OK but too long, had too many cameos and was too much of a Kenneth Branagh Experience. Now, having just finished watching the pristine DVD release, I wonder what kind of bad weed I was smoking back in '96. Branagh's Hamlet is a great film. And more than that, it is the best Hamlet I have ever seen on film: better than Olivier's reductive "man who could not make up his mind" interpretation; better than Tony Richardson's 1969 film with Anthony Hopkins miscast as Claudius to Nicol Williamson's Hamlet (although Hopkins is actually a year older than Williamson, he looked about 10 years younger in 1969, and Claudius should really look noticeably older than Hamlet); better than Zefferelli's version with crazy Mel Gibson pretending to be sane; better than the tame 1980s PBS film with Kevin Kline; better than the Ethan Hawke 'Wall Street Hamlet' with Sam Shepard as the Ghost (providing the best scene in the movie, by far). Brilliant and thrilling and as mad as its protagonist, Branagh's film deserves to be seen again and again. Yes, Jack Lemmon's wooden line readings weigh down the front end a bit, but that's ultimately a minor flaw, and what works in the film massively outweighs it--to wit: the "too, too solid flesh" soliloquy in the suddenly emptied great hall; the mirrored "To be or not to be" soliloquy during which the camera moves in so that the edges of the mirror become invisible and we have an image of two Hamlets with daggers drawn preparing to duel, an absolutely perfect visual analogue for the soliloquy; the thrilling "let my thoughts be bloody" speech reimagined as a German Romantic aria performed atop a snowy mountain out of Caspar David Friedrich; Derek Jacobi's Claudius, who comes off in this production as almost a Macbethian tragic figure (it could be argued that this is Jacobi's movie); Brian Blessed's performance as the Ghost, especially the wonderfully understated side-glance of tenderness he directs at Gertrude in the bedchamber scene; the amazingly fluid camera work (looks like steadicam, but it's actually all dolly shots); the marvelous Wellesian low-angle shot that shows Hamlet and Gertrude reflected in a pool of Polonius's blood; the perfect casting of Charlton Heston as the Player King (which made me think: if Chuck had been offered more roles like this during the 90s, maybe he wouldn't have gone looking for love at Wayne LaPierre's house); the mad genius of Branagh's set with its rooms behind mirrors, secret passages and myriad hiding places, a set on which no one can say with certainty "Now I am alone..."; the fact that one of those mirrors conceals the padded cell in which Ophelia will rave... I could go on ("I'll rant as well as thou") because this is a great film, probably the only Shakespeare film that's worth watching twice solely for its excellence as a film. The DVD commentary track by Branagh and the film's textual advisor is also quite good. It was only when watching the the movie with the commentary track on (and Shakespeare's words muted) that I was able to fully appreciate the filmic beauty of this work (the mise en scene, shot compositions, etc.). This is a Shakespeare movie that still looks amazing even without Shakespeare's words. Check it out.