“This about all: to thy own self be true.” These words spoken by Polonius are also true of the direction of Kenneth Branagh. His gut and drive are what make his adaptation of William Shakespeare’s HAMLET what it is. This is one film that I am always truly in awe of. The biggest reason behind my admiration would be the beautiful scenery and sets involved with the production. The entire cast is also put together so meticulously, but the brightest star of them all is most certainly Branagh in his portrayal of the title character.
Everyone should know the story of Hamlet. Most people are required to read it as part of their high school English curriculum. There’s another part that has been largely exposed to the theater production, as it is one of Shakespeare’s most performed plays. The last half I’m sure have just heard of Hamlet from various places, or even watched one of the films in class or on television. My point is that HAMLET is possibly the most known play in the Shakespeare catalog. It’s almost impossible these days to find anyone who hasn’t been exposed to the tale in some form or fashion. Branagh brings his own touches to his version that pay off in a huge way. In general, the language used in Shakespeare’s work easily puts off people. It’s never a breeze for anyone, especially me. I actually took a full semester plunging deep into the world of Shakespeare. Sadly though, “Hamlet” was not covered due to the fact that the teacher did not want to just touch on the Baird’s more popular plays.
For those of you who haven’t entered into the secret Shakespeare society, I’ll give you a brief rundown over HAMLET (even though that’s a task within itself). After the mysterious death of his Father, Prince Hamlet immediately has to deal with the fact that his Mother and his Uncle have decided to marry. While Hamlet does love his Mother, he also feels betrayed and full of grief over the loss of his great Father. Very suddenly his best friend Horatio and two night guards come to tell Hamlet of a ghost that resembles his dead Father. Upon hearing this news Hamlet immediately wants to see the ghost. The ghost is in fact his Father, who tells him that his Uncle is actually the one that killed him. His Father demands that Hamlet seek revenge at all costs. Hamlet spends the rest of the play planning his attack against his Uncle. This mind-exhausting task takes its toll on his sanity pushing him between what is real and what is not. His wavering sanity is a huge cause for concern amongst his friends and family. While all this is happening, Fortinbras, prince of Norway is planning his revenge against Hamlet. Fortinbras’ Father was killed at the hands of Hamlet’s Father, so in order to exact his revenge he is planning to attack Denmark. Everyone that surrounds Hamlet is struck by tragedy during his path to revenge.
This is perhaps my favorite film adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s plays. The other is TITUS by Julie Taymor, which is also a very stunning piece of cinema. It’s fair to look upon Branagh’s version of HAMLET as many things whether it is a piece of art or just a piece of classic filmmaking. One of the most eye-catching scenes of the film is when Hamlet (Branagh) is standing between the throne of the King and the Queen while thousands of white confetti disks fall upon him. He is dressed in all black with an expression on his face carries the look of woe and melancholy. You sense that every tiny detail was taken with great consideration and care. Branagh kept true to Hamlet, while bringing his own style to the story and direction.
Besides the performance of Branagh, there is never one actor/actress that stands out more than the other. This cast is fairly huge and filled with actors from everywhere. There are those who can be plucked out of a crowd and the others are ones that you may remember from other appearances. Julie Christie plays the role of Hamlet’s Mother, Gertrude. She remains as optimistic as she can about her son throughout the duration of her time in the film. With her Motherly sadness and her guilt over the marriage to her husband’s Brother, Christie makes it easy to sympathize with. Derek Jacobi channels the role of Claudius all too well. When we first meet his character, he seems like an okay guy, but as time goes on the string starts to unravel. Jacobi brilliantly displays the tiresome restraint that Claudius holds even after Hamlet reveals him. As Ophelia, Kate Winslet borders the lines of innocence and naivety. When Ophelia goes mad after the intermission, Winslet never plays it too over the top. You can sense her pain and yet somehow feel uncomfortable when she starts to ramble. Another notable player would be the late Charlton Heston who steps out of himself and gives a great speech as the player King of an acting troupe. Other names you may recognize that give wonderful performances in the movie are: Billy Crystal, Richard Attenborough, Judi Dench, Gerard Depardieu, Nicholas Farrell, John Gielgud, Jack Lemmon, Rufus Sewell, Timothy Spall, and Robin Williams.
Again, I encourage you to pick this up, even if you don’t buy it. I know a lot of people don’t tend to give 4 hour movies repeated viewings. It’s such a magnificent work that really sets a bar not only for adaptations of classics, but also the filmmaking industry as well. Another reason a viewing of this film is important lies in the fact that the plays of Shakespeare as well as many others are getting lost in the generations. The younger audience is less interested in history and therefore loosing the grasp on the structure of literature. These are stories that need to continue to be told until we are all taken from this Earth. We do not want people to become void of a genuine experience, left to quote HAMLET like Michael Grates in REALITY BITES, “They find his skull in a grave, and they go…’Oh, I knew him, and he was funny.’” No one wants that.
Video: Not to sound like a robot, but the colors are gorgeous. This is one of those instances where Blu-ray really pays off. Everything is nearly perfect and maybe at times too perfect. There was a nice balance throughout the duration of the film. The only times I saw a problem were during nighttime scenes. Otherwise, the video transfer is crisp and clean. (2.20:1 Widescreen).
Audio: The audio here is right on. At some points it was a little unbalanced with the loud booms and cheers, but then again it leaves you with the feeling that you are right there. (5.1 DTS-HD).
Commentary with Kenneth Branagh and Russell Jackson, Ma, PhD, editor of The Cambridge Guide to Shakespeare on Film and Professor of Drama and Theatre Arts at The University of Birmingham (12:00): Usually I’m like, “Commentary…sigh.” A lot of the commentary I’ve listened to lately is not really worth the time, especially with the more dated films. However, you’ve got to at least listen to this one once. I know the movie is insanely long, but it’s worth the time. Branagh is so passionate about this film and you can really hear it in his voice. Jackson is the perfect balance and gives a great insight.
Introduction from Kenneth Branagh (7:50) The director/star talks about the production and vision of the film. He also details the emotion of the process of getting the film out on DVD. Filmed in 2006.
To Be On Camera: A History with Hamlet (24:34): This feature was released when the DVD came out in 2007. The good thing is you get interviews with the majority of the cast. There are a lot of funny comments made as well, the best about Gerard Depardieu. Also any moments with Billy Crystal are good moments. You may also experience TITANIC flashbacks when you see a younger Kate Winslet. Filmed in 1997.
Vintage Cannes Promo (12:07): A little piece put together for the Cannes Film Festival.
Blu-ray Book: Honestly, this was my favorite part about receiving the Blu-ray. The packaging is beautiful and is a nice little companion piece. There are 35 pages here covering the cast, trivia, and the journey to Hamlet walked by Branagh. If you are a fan of Shakespeare or any of the actors, run, don’t walk to pick this one up and add it to your collection.