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Hamlet (Sir Kenneth Branagh), son of the King of Denmark (Brian Blessed), is summoned home for his father's funeral and his mother Gertrude's (Julie Christie's) wedding to his uncle Claudius (Sir Derek Jacobi). In a supernatural episode, he discovers that his uncle, who he hates anyway, murdered his father. In an incredibly convoluted plot, the most complicated and most interesting in all literature, he manages to (impossible to put this in exact order) feign (or perhaps not to feign) madness, murder the "Prime Minister", love and then unlove an innocent who he drives to madness, plot and then unplot against the uncle, direct a play within a play, successfully conspire against the lives of two well-meaning friends, and finally take his revenge on the uncle, but only at the cost of almost every life on-stage, including his own and his mother's.Written by
John Brosseau <firstname.lastname@example.org>
What an ambitious project Kenneth Branagh undertook here and how well it was realized! This is the first filmed version of 'Hamlet' to use the full text of Shakespeare's play, but Branagh didn't do it just because "it was there." His intention, I believe, was to make the play accessible and understandable to the general viewer without dumbing it down, so to speak. In return he asks viewers to put in a little work themselves, a fair enough proposition and one that's a bargain.
The setting is a generic 19th century European one and this does more than work well, it keeps a modern or ancient look from possibly distracting from the work itself. The production design and cinematography and both outstanding, which helps immensely when you're watching a four-hour movie. Branagh's casting once again is inspired and the acting is likewise. The direction accomplishes the heavy task of making this a movie rather than a deluxe version of a play. Since so much of 'Hamlet' is based on interior monologue and there are relatively few duels, battles, etc., this can be a daunting task. But everything Branagh tries to do seems to work.
Branagh has always been one of the most interesting actor/writer/directors, if not always the best, since he made his big splash with 'Henry V.' One quibble I had with him was what I saw as a tendency to ham it up at times. In his portrayal of Hamlet here he might be accused of that again, but there is a method at work. Let's face it, 'Hamlet' is not an easy work for the average person to understand and if one has never seen it performed before, he or she needs help even if they've read the play. Hamlet has the most lines of any Shakespearian character and Branagh makes sure that his viewers know what this man is thinking and feeling throughout the film, even if you don't know the literal meaning of every arcane word. This performance by Branagh was at the very least worthy of an Oscar nomination.
There are so many other outstanding performances here they're almost too numerous to mention, but some of them must be acknowledged. Derek Jacobi as Claudius is superb but even he takes a back seat to Kate Winslet when it comes to handing out praise. Her portrayal of Ophelia is awesome in its depth of feeling, made only more outstanding by the knowledge that she was only about 20 years old at the time! She looks to me like the finest young actress around. Other super performers in no particular order are Richard Briers, Nicholas Farrell, Michael Maloney, and Reece Dinsdale and Timothy Spall as Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, respectively. Honorable mention goes to Julie Christie, Charlton Heston, and Robin Williams, who manages to do his thing here successfully. Even Billy Crystal as a gravedigger works. The one cast member who doesn't, inexplicably, is Jack Lemmon. In the very opening scene he appears, and while the other three actors do a great job at setting the tense mood, Lemmon sounds like he is just running lines in rehearsal as a favor. You know this must have been a real dilemma for Branagh, since everything else about the movies screams out that it's the work of a perfectionist.
Not to be facetious when speaking of a four-hour movie, but it does seem just a tad too long. Some monologues and conversations do tend to go on a bit, if I may be so bold, and a little bit of judicious pruning would be welcome.
Did I forget anything, other than Patrick Doyle's score? No doubt I did. I'll just sum up by saying that Kenneth Branagh may have made the definitive film version of 'Hamlet,' and it will be a truly monumental production that tops this one.
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