1996, PG-13, 238 min. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Starring Kenneth Branagh, Julie Christie, Billy Crystal, Gerard Depardieu, Charlton Heston, Derek Jacobi, Jack Lemmon, Rufus Sewell, Robin Williams, Kate Winslet.
REVIEWED By Robert Faires, Fri., Jan. 24, 1997
The man we can pretty much thank for the movies’ current “Bard Wars” - actor-director Kenneth Branagh, who set off this frenzy of Shakespeare on film with Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing - wades back into the fray swinging the Big One, the saga of the melancholy Dane, and at first glance he looks to be trying to trounce the competition just by using the biggest sword. I mean, everything about this film is big. Big script. Big names. Big screen format. Big running time. Big sets. Big crowd scenes. And, yes, some mighty big acting. But the more you watch, the more it seems that Branagh is following in the footsteps of the century’s other great Shakespearean cinematizers, Olivier and Orson; he’s trying for the grand gesture, the bold stroke, that conveys the epic quality of Shakespeare’s writing. It doesn’t always serve Branagh well - some of his more fiery orations come off as mere ranting, and a few of his spectacular set pieces reek of a self-indulgent “watch me work” quality, and do we really need Gerard Depardieu sitting in a chair smoking a cigar and saying “Yes, m’lord” a half-dozen times? - but much more often than not, Branagh’s bigness connects with the text in a big way and gives us astonishing visuals, passionate performances, a daring, sweeping, living version of this dramatic masterwork. Part of Branagh’s genius is providing contexts for Shakespeare’s characters into which modern viewers can key. When he has Hamlet retreat into a library and lean against a wall, his body outlined by hundreds of volumes, the sense of Hamlet as a private man and one who takes comfort in knowledge and books, strikes home in us, in a way that all his talk of Wittenburg may not. Here, he endeavors to provide us with a context for the whole of Hamlet’s world - Denmark as a political entity, Hamlet and Claudius as public figures whose actions are watched closely by the Danish people, the characters as people of faith - all of which draws us closer to the prince and makes us feel his tragedy more keenly. Although the film’s scope is broad, it retains a tight focus on the war between Hamlet and his stepfather Claudius, the murderer of his true father. Branagh sets up a dynamic tension between himself and Derek Jacobi that wrenches the screen. Jacobi is a wonder, sounding all the notes in the complex Claudius - his ardor, his frustration, his fear, even his horror at his own crime. It’s the performance of a titan. Few members of the cast here match his majesty, but most bring rich feeling to the project, particularly Christie as Gertrude, Winslet as Ophelia, and Sewell as Laertes. And some of the Hollywood casting is surprisingly good, notably Charlton Heston, as an aged actor, and Robin Williams as the foppish servant Osric. In fact, it may be Osric who best sums up Branagh’s Hamlet: “A hit. A very palpable hit.”