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Kenneth Branagh’s full-text screen version of Hamlet is, in many aspects, just what one suspects it will be: It is gorgeous, it is reverent, and it pretends that iambic pentameter, when sped up at random and broken apart mid-clause, is a perfectly natural speech pattern.
What makes this Hamlet interesting is all the things it is not: It is not pretentious, it is not sober, and it is not altogether modern in its point of view. It isn’t, at three hours and 58 minutes (not four hours, as Branagh likes to point out), ever boring.
That is not to say that this play is well served by all of Branagh’s choices. Typically, in his role as the highbrow Renaissance man for middlebrow strivers, Branagh has done nothing eccentric, or even brave. The casting is the uptown mix he showed a predilection for in Much Ado About Nothing. Perennial cinema sweethearts like Julie Christie, as a languid and utterly natural Gertrude, share the screen with old Shakespeare hands like Derek Jacobi, here as Claudius, whose presence under a more idiosyncratic director would appear less stately homage than in-joke.
The mainstream surprise this time is Billy Crystal, loose, confident, and sharp, as the First Gravedigger; the dud is Robin Williams. Williams used to ad-lib astounding “fake Shakespeare” in his ’70s performances. But in the small role of the bootlicking Osric, he’s stilted and smug, clearly out of his depth. And Jack Lemmon, God love him, shouldn’t oughtta be anywhere near this project. Democratization of Shakespeare is a wonderful idea, butlisten up, celebrity, punk-rock, and New Age “poets”it means that the stuff should be accessible to everyone, not that everyone is equipped to do it.
The casting is quite showy for such a serious productionit’s hard not to play spot-the-famous-face-in-a-tiny-role, whether it’s Gerard Depardieu’s king-size mug adding little to the part of Polonius’ spy Reynaldo, or Sir John Gielgud as Priam, the old legend going down in flames, gloriously. (Branagh has touted this as a “colorblind, nationality-blind, accent-blind” production; it must have been pure coincidence that the best actor for each role just happened to be white.) But it is not as pointlessly extravagant as the choice of perioda peculiarly rigid and splendid Russo-German 19th centuryin which this Hamlet is set.
Branagh gives predictable reasons for the move, actually invoking the schoolmarmish “accessible.” But then he goes on to overexplain perilously: “This was a period in Europe’s history when borders were changing and royal families controlled large empires. In the story, the impact of events of one royal family is felt right across Europe.”
This is a spurious justification as to why a 19th-century Hamlet should make political sense to a 20th-century audience. It’s fair to assume that no one knows anything about history, but on the off chance that the errant pointyhead might make his way to the cineplex, it’s probably safe to assume that if they know anything about history, they’re caught up on that of 19th-century Europe. The misty political landscape of the West in medieval times, on the other hand, would have offered more opportunity to engage an audience in the machinations at Elsinore.
But “authentic” period Shakespeare is a moot concern, especially in Hamlet’s case, since Elizabethan theater companies performed the work, which was based on a 12th-century legend, in Elizabethan dress and style. Still, period-shifting can’t always bear the weight of a director’s justification. If Branagh wanted to exploit the opulent lines and colors of the time he’s chosen, he ought to have just said so. Just as Milos Forman’s clean, dull The People vs. Larry Flynt betrayed a mistrust in the reaches of the First Amendment via an airbrushed portrayal of its First Amendment hero, Branagh’s unnecessary rationale betrays his own mistrust in Hamlet’s vaunted “timelessness.”
The colors are schematic in the extremecream and scarlet for everyone, sumptuous forest tones for Gertrude, slimming black for the moody prince. Dishwater Freudianism raises its bleached-blond head as wellClaudius has his nephew’s pale hair and beard layout, the same square torso and lipless good looks as Branagh. The incestuous lust Hamlet swears to avenge could be construed, rightly, to be his own.
Hamlet’s tangential relationship to sensuality aside, it is the quest to prove Branagh an object of sexual desire that queers this production’s pitch. The brooding, clever but petulant, often exasperating teenager he’s playing offers few chances for swaggering macho, but Branagh creates them. When Ophelia (Kate Winslet, heartbreakingly beautiful and sad) speaks of the prince, the scene cuts away to aqua-washed memories of the pair writhing about naked, and the last 20 minutes involve a shirtless Hamlet crossing swords spectacularly and at length with her vengeful brother Laertes; swashbuckling, actuallythis Hamlet is a dream come true for a smart, artsy little boy who has everything but 6-foot sexual allure and wants that, too. Despite the magic of the movies, you never quite believe it, even when he’s striking catlike, flamenco-inspired poses in his dramatic black suits.
Generally, though, Branagh is willing to sprinkle the good stuff around as needed, and his Hamlet is richer, wittier, and more real for it. From the very first moments, this is a movie that believes in ghostsBranagh resurrects Marcellus and Horatio’s spotting of the old king’s shade, thereby restoring awesome fear as an element, and dismissing the modernist argument that the apparition is some tedious psychological manifestation of yadda-yadda quack-quack. His performance makes Hamlet the character sparkle. Gone is the droopy, indecisive hero, in its place a naive manipulator whose schemes careen out of his control, a smart but indulged young aristocrat who is told too little and guesses too much.
The madness Hamlet dabbles in is as much a game he plays with himself as a trick he plays on his family and confidants; Horatio (Nicholas Farrell) is particularly invulnerable to his friend’s new, fevered disguise. While Rosencrantz and Guildenstern still gawp and shuffle and trudge miserably off to (the news of) their deaths, other previously inert characters come aliveHoratio most vividly, and also Richard Briers’ Polonius, who finds his reputation as a fathead useful to his string-pulling ambitions.
But Branagh using all his directorial brain power cannot smooth over the play’s glaring rough spots. No one has ever known how to make sense of Hamlet and Gertrude’s confrontationhe accidentally kills Polonius early in the scene; they express their dismay, then carry on talking while the body bleeds onto her bedroom floor. The final bloodbath is a mess, with Gertrude indecorously gagging on poison in the background while her son fences gaudily everywhere else. By the end, bodies litter the place, thanks to a baffling, overcomplicated series of switcheroo scratchings and poisonings, but the speeches go on. And the politics of the thing are never sufficiently explained; it takes more than flashes of Rufus Sewell’s apocalyptically handsome face to clarify the distant machinations of Fortinbras’ army.
But these are built-in glitches, Shakespeare’s glitches, and Branagh only adds a few to their number. The music is too loud and practically uninterrupted, meaningless visual showboatinga revolving steadicam whirling around characters, the use of a handheld cameraproves distracting, and the narration that leads us into the post-intermission sequence sounds exactly like the voice of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion.
By this film’s spectacular end, however, its rough spots and old-timey melodrama seem of minimal importance. Branagh hasn’t allowed his production to become bloated with big acting and the strictly imposed rosy-cheeked merriment that is the hallmark of a director less at ease with the material. His Hamlet offers visual and verbal splendidness as well as more intimate revelationsthe ache in the soul of a fatherless boy, the zingy double talk of the peasant echoing and confounding an aristocrat’s more acrobatic wordplaysmall, precious facets of a familiar gem.CP