Format: DVDs from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.
I’ve seen four cinematic versions of Hamlet. From worst to first, I would rank them with the German version made for television (and skewered on Mystery Science Theater 3000) as the worst, the 1990 version with Mel Gibson good but sort of “Hamlet-lite,” the 1948 Best Picture winning Olivier version as a traditional and solid version, and Branagh’s 19th-century reimagining as the best. This is not the first time I’ve hunkered down for Branagh’s 4+ hour version of Hamlet, and I was happy to watch it again because I think it’s the best film version available. I know there are others. I’ve heard the Ethan Hawke 2000 version is good or at least interesting. I may get there someday.
I’m not going to run through a plot summary of Hamlet. If you don’t know the story, shame on you or shame on the school system you came up through. You’ve had more than 400 years to familiarize yourself with Hamlet, so if what follows ends up being a spoiler, you have only yourself or your old literature teachers to blame.
Branagh’s version of Hamlet is unabridged, meaning he includes the entire text of Shakespeare’s play. This is the first time anyone had done this on film, and it makes for a very long sit. He also updated the look of the film, moving it in appearance from the pre-Elizabethan setting Shakespeare gave us and put it in the 19th century as mentioned above. He did not change the language, though. However, the Elizabethan of Shakespeare works really well with the updated costumes and period. There is no disconnect here as there can be with some reinterpretations of Shakespearean texts.
Branagh also filled the film with interesting cameos, particularly in a few roles that have only a couple of lines or no lines at all. We get John Gielgud and Judi Dench in a flashback sequence when Hamlet tells the story of King Priam. Non-Shakespearean actors abound. Robin Williams shows up as Osric in the final act, Billy Crystal plays a brilliant version of the gravedigger, and Charlton Heston is cast as the Player King. Also featured in small roles are Jack Lemmon and Gerard Depardieu.
What makes the Branagh version really work for me is the exapansiveness with which the film is made. Branagh allows himself not to deviate from the text, but to deviate from what could be easily shown on screen. We get flashbacks during soliloquies, for instance, and tales being told acted out in front of us rather than simply seeing the actors reciting lines. In other words, Branagh took the text provided by the play and didn’t simply film the play. He turned it into an actual film.
There are, of course, some excellent performances. Brian Blessed shows up as Hamlet’s father, and he is a staggeringly impressive armored ghost. Derek Jacobi and Julie Christie are uniformly excellent as Hamlet’s murderous uncle Claudius and his doomed mother Gertrude respectively. Other important casting decisions concern Nicholas Farrell as Hamlet’s friend Horatio, Michael Maloney as Laertes, and Richard Briers as a believably obsequious Polonius.
The two most critical casting decisions here, at least in my opinion, are Hamlet himself (Branagh, naturally) and Ophelia (Kate Winslet). Branagh, of course, is a Shakespearean actor and he demonstrates that here thoroughly. He eliminated almost all of the oedipal undertones of many of the earlier versions (a good choice) and also decided to make Hamlet more mad by design than teetering on the brink of madness as happened in many other versions. I like the mania with which he plays the role in those scenes where Hamlet is designed to be acting madly. There’s more cunning and less neurotic behavior from him, and it’s a decision that works.
Kate Winslet, though, makes the film for me. It would be another year before half the planet went Kate Winslet-crazy on the release of Titanic, but anyone who saw Hamlet could tell that this was a woman bound for stardom. A large part of the reason this is my favorite version of the story comes from her performance of Ophelia when she has finally lost her mind after her rejection by Hamlet and the death of Polonius. I can’t help but think that the Academy missed completely by not nominating her for Best Supporting Actress. Her insane version of the character is as good as these things get.
I’m well aware that strapping in for a four-hour marathon film isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Frankly, it’s not always mine, either. I have to be in the mood to dedicate this much time in a given day to a single film. But there are few films that warrant a full four-hour treatment. Hamlet is one of those rare films. Despite the length, there’s very little dross here. Oh, the story could stand a cut or two—the dumb show before the Murder of Gonzago isn’t really necessary, but such cuts might eliminate 15 minutes or so from the total length. Ultimately, there’s not that much difference between a film that runs 3:45 and one that runs 4:00, so the inclusion of these small scenes doesn’t affect me one way or the other.
But is it good? It is. It’s grandiose and extreme and wonderful because it is those things. This is the way to do Shakespeare on film. Branagh managed to take a great story and, by doing more than simply filming the actors reproducing a stage play, create something more than simply a reproduction of the source material. That’s the power of film, and it’s something that Branagh has done well with Shakespeare adaptations in the past.
For a production of this size, there are a lot of decisions to make. He made the right ones in almost every instance, and the places where I might have done something different are minor enough that I’m not bothered by them. This is, to me, the definitive cinematic Hamlet, and someone would have to produce something incredible to eclipse it.
Why to watch Hamlet: The best-available version of the greatest English-language drama ever done.
Why not to watch: It’s four hours long.
Aw man, I'm jealous: Not just because you've had a chance to check out this film (which I've long wanted to see) but because you had the four hours to do it! It sounds like they really did the play justice. I like that they threw out all the oedipal stuff (because ew) and made Hamlet a bit more active and less cuckoo. I really need to find the time.ReplyDelete
As for the Ethan Hawke version, I remember thinking it was fine... probably on par with the Mel Gibson version. I saw that a loooong time ago and it'd be interesting to watch it again more critically.
Ayeah, this is Nolahn.Delete
I always know it's you, man.Delete
This is worth your time. If it helps, it typically comes on two discs, so there's a natural intermission if you don't have the full four hours on a given day.
Heston did do Shakespeare before as Marc Antony in Julius Caesar in the early 70's. I think he is quite good as the Player King in Hamlet. I've seen several versions of Hamlet and this is definitely my favorite, despite the four hour length.ReplyDelete
It's not that Heston couldn't do Shakespeare, it's more that Heston doesn't really seem like a natural fit for Shakespeare. I like him as the Player King. In fact, I like pretty much all of the cameo roles. Billy Crystal makes a great gravedigger.Delete
I LOVE this version! So strong, and Winslet is ON FIRE, like you note...she makes this film! It's a long sit, but well worth it!ReplyDelete
I had forgotten just how good she is in the second half of the film. See this and you'll never wonder about why she's as acclaimed as she is.Delete
The "There's rosemary. That's for remembrance" scene is some of the best work she's ever done on camera.
I remember thinking when I watched this that I never realized how much Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were in the story. I only remembered them at all because of the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which I had heard of but not yet seen.ReplyDelete
This is certainly the most impressive of the Hamlet versions I've seen. (I've done the Hawke version, the Gibson version, the Olivier version, and a Russian version, in addition to this.)
I have to say that I've never had the desire to see it a second time, though, even though it's been almost 20 years since I watched it. I think it's simply over familiarity with the story that has made it get a little tiresome for me. The Russian version was the most recent one I saw and I was mostly sitting there waiting for it to get over so I could check it off.
I get that. At some point, there are only so many versions of a story you can sit through before you know where we're going.Delete
If I have to choose a Hamlet, though, this one is my pick. I like that Branagh did considerably more than just film the play but he made the story cinematic while keeping everything (literally) that makes the story great.
I can't say I'd strap into this again any time soon. One four-hour Hamlet and I'm good for at least a decade.
Definitely agree this is the best version, not just because of the completeness of the text but as you mentioned that Branagh took the time to make it cinematic. 14th century Denmark was surely a dank and dark place and four hours of low light and dusky corners would have been too much of a burden for modern audiences to tolerate. Moving it to the vivid 19th century really peps up the experience. I saw this in it's original theatrical run with my sister and her, at the time, teenage children and they mentioned specifically how beautiful the film was.ReplyDelete
Another thing that he wisely did was include an intermission, something that most modern filmmakers seem resistant to but if you're supersizing a cinematic experience, say if you're breaking the three hour mark, the audience needs a chance to stretch their legs and move a bit to avoid ennui thereby checking out of the story.
The absence of acting nominations puzzled me at the time and still does, if this isn't filled with high quality, award worthy performances I don't know what is. From the top Branagh is riveting, and a nod for direction was his due on top of one for acting, as well as Kate Winslet (the best Ophelia I've ever seen), Julie Christie and Derek Jacobi.
I was worried about the star casting in many roles initially when Jack Lemmon showed up and was just awful, I'm a big fan of his but he was so out of place!, but fortunately he was an anomaly. When Billy Crystal showed up I thought "oh no, here we go again" but he turned out to be perfect for the gravedigger. You mentioned you didn't think of Heston as a natural fit for Shakespeare and I suppose that for many roles he might not of been right for but I think it speaks to Branagh's eye for casting that he recognized the exactly right part for a blowhard like Chuck. The Player King and his grand manner utilize Heston's somewhat stiff, operatic performance style that made him so right for Moses, Andrew Jackson etc. He and Rosemary Harris seemed just right as the leaders of a traveling troupe as well.
This isn't something I watch often as you said it's a big commitment of time, I think I've watched it once in the intervening years, but it's a great film and a tremendous achievement.
I really liked the change in era for this--it worked really well and it blended surprisingly well with the original text, And I agree on the intermission. We do need a few moments, if only to use the bathroom, and to get settled back in for the resolution of everything that's been set up for us at the start.Delete
I also agree on the lack of acting nominations. If I could only have one from this film, my choice would be Kate Winslet, hands-down. However, I could certainly see a nomination for Branagh as director and as Best Actor.
Jack Lemmon...he feels out of place only because he doesn't attempt an accent. Heston doesn't really either, but Heston doesn't need to. If Lemmon could have pulled off a believable accent to fit in with everyone else (as Crystal and Williams do), he'd have been fine. Crystal is brilliantly cast, and I really like Robin Williams as Osric. There's something about that casting that simply works for me.
Honestly, I think it's the run time that scares everyone. It's too bad, though, because this is worth all four hours.
I took my ten year old daughter to see this in 1996, it helped create the Shakespeare monster she is today. Four hours is not long when you listen to the words and watch the performances. A directing nod would be appropriate but the odd thing is the nomination for screenplay when it is a complete Shakespeare text. And then, it doesn't win.ReplyDelete
I wonder in cases like this how many members of the Academy actually watched the movie. It is, after all, four hours long and it would be easy to think, "Well, it's just Hamlet." Of course, it's not just Hamlet; Branagh truly adapted it.Delete
Roger Ebert once said no great movie is ever too long. This is proof of that idea.
Haven't seen this since it came out, but I remember my feeling at the time was that Branagh ironically demonstrated that the play really could do with a bit of a trim.ReplyDelete
I've got it on DVD and I do really want to see it again (cos I do remember it being a really interesting production in spite of the above reservation). It's just... yeah, the four hours thing.
I get that. It's a lot of material. Honestly, though, it didn't bother me.Delete
Good point about how they made it filmic and not just the stage play. Hamlet (1996) is also the gold standard for me, I barely remember Mel Gibson's film. I thought Ethan Hawke 2000 version was too americanized. The 1996 film I've seen twice, it looks great, and as you say is uncomprimising by including the full play, and what a cast.ReplyDelete
Of course, the ultimate version is Shakespeare's text (which I've read) where you don't have connotations to other movies the actors have been in. Still, I love the 1996 adaptation fo what it is. For me, I got a lot more out of the film after I had read an annotated version of the text.
I've always thought that Shakespeare could really only be understood well if it's read aloud. That doesn't necessarily mean seeing it on stage or as a movie, but it's text that works better aurally than simply written on the page.Delete
SJHoneywell: Many would agree that Shakespeare is great read aloud, at least if those who read it do it the right way.ReplyDelete
To read the texts at my own pace with annotations is a richer experience for me. I'm in the minority I suppose,I find it tough to enjoy the plays at a speedy pace(unless I've read them beforehand).
If you know the plays well then you are able to notice the subtle differences between the different adaptations, which I can see you do with Hamlet.
Bachelor's in English lit helps with that.Delete
I have no issue with someone reading with annotations. It's how I read Milton and Dante and quite a bit of Shelley, Byron, and Blake. But Shakespeare was something I was more immersed in, and so I got more familiar with it.