Review of Kenneth Branagh's Film, 1996

March 5, 2003

Hamlet Directed by Kenneth Branagh, 1996 Cast: Hamlet : Kenneth Branagh; Claudius : Derek Jacobi; Polonius : Richard Briers; Gertrude : Julie Christie; Ophelia : Kate Winslet; Laertes : Michael Maloney; Horatio : Nicholas Farrell; Ghost : Brian Blessed; Rosencrantz : Timothy Spall; Guildenstern : Reece Dinsdale; First Gravedigger : Billy Crystal; Second Gravedigger : Simon Russell Beale; Osric : Robin Williams; Reynaldo : Gerard Depardieu; Marcellus : Jack Lemmon; Player King : Charlton Heston; Player Queen : Rosemary Harris; Bernardo : Ian McElhinney; Francisco : Ray Fearon; Fortinbras : Rufus Sewell; English Ambassador : Richard Attenborough; Priam : John Gielgud; Old Norway : John Mills; Hecuba : Judi Dench; Yorick : Kenn Dodd; Prostitute : Melanie Ramsey; Music: Patrick Doyle
Viennese operetta world of "Anastasia". Not right for the world of "Hamlet", which abides in in a more primitive space . Songs, dances, confetti flying through the air.

Hollow bell sounds at midnight. Good. Front of palace is not the battlements. (An unimportant detail.)

A serious error in judgment: Francisco sees the Ghost and raises his gun to shoot at it. Then Bernardo surprises him. Yet when Bernardo asks him how things are going, he replies " Not a mouse stirring". How can he say that when he's just been shown being scared out of his mind by an apparition?

Jack Lemmon as Marcellus is not good. Sing-songs throughout the role. Strangely, everyone has a lance, no-one has a gun. But Francisco was shown with a gun.

Cutaway image of Fortinbras.

Do the enormous over-sized hats really work?

Doyle's score, often obtrusive, sometimes very good, appropriate. Wisely, the music only intervenes at certain moments.

Have strong reservations at wisdom of performing whole text uncut. The text of "Hamlet" is clearly a pastiche put together from several versions and editions. There is a side benefit in doing this. When the entire text is performed one clearly sees how much editorial mutilation was done to the original by virtue of the clumsiness with which one scene follows on another.

All of the costuming and decor is 19th century Habsburg.

Derek Jacobi as Claudius. Although his opening speech reeks with hypocrisy ( "an auspicious and a dropping eye"). there is no hesitation or hypocrisy in Jacobi's manner. His Claudius develops very slowly and only comes into its own with the Chapel scene. Following this it remains very strong.

Worse, our first view of Branagh as Hamlet is completely off key. There is no sense , ( as there is in the Olivier film), that Hamlet-in-mourning is stealing the thunder from Claudius' braggadocio. Also the text calls for a kind of black inky cloak of a bygone age, to emphasis Hamlet's total withdrawal from the triviality of the court scene.

Cutaway of some ridiculous lady wearing heavy cosmetics whom we are supposed to imagine is Laertes' mother. Pointless and silly.

Julie Christie is good. Most of her speeches are best appreciated with one's eyes closed. This is not a put-down. Many of Branagh's magnificent speeches as well can really be best appreciated by closing one's eyes and shutting out the luridly gaudy background.

Introduction of the sickly Doyle "heartbreak theme"

" Oh that this too too solid flesh" is just wonderful. Once again, it's best to close one's eyes.

Now Derek Jacobi delivers Claudius' insult speech. Hamlet is called at least a dozen bad names. Since this obviously comes from the fact that Claudius' self-confidence is thrown by the way in which Hamlet's manner is a reflection on his own crimes, there should be anger and bluster and falseness in this speech. Jacobi conveys none.

Although "solid flesh" speech is very good, the 6 or so pieces of confetti clinging to Hamlet's costume is a "hammy " effect, even embarrassing The camera also seems too rigid. It lacks vitality in many scenes. For example when Horatio, Marcellus and Bernardo reveal the presence of the Ghost to Hamlet, the camera doesn't move at all. The interaction of the characters is good.

90% of any production of "Hamlet" resides in the actors, and this excessively gooey set distracts terribly from them. Annoying that "music" tells you "what to feel". Still, Patrick Doyle is not a notorious offender in this respect.
Laertes. Ophelia, Polonius

Laertes and Ophelia are shown taking a very long walk without once stopping, though there are obvious places for pauses in his speech where they should be stopping and standing still so he can address her. Also, Michael Maloney never seems to be thinking of his choice of words. Yet "Hamlet" is all about thinking. Derek Jacobi at least never makes this mistake. He is a very thoughtful Claudius.

The cutaway of the fornication scene between Hamlet and Ophelia is disgusting, a blasphemy on the text and the intention of Shakespeare. Virtually EVERYONE in the play, including Hamlet himself, refers to Ophelia as an innocent and unsullied maid. Her madness derives from her juvenile , ( often not too intelligent) innocence of the evils which surround her. In fact one has the impression that Kenneth Branagh had a complex involving Kate Winslet when this film was made, and used all sorts of opportunities to abuse her.

On the other hand, the violence that Hamlet later shows towards Gertrude is most certainly in the text, and is marvelously expressed and developed.

The revolting character of the completely gratuitous fornication cutaways ( the word is used to distinguish it from the intensely private nature of true love-making) leaves so sour an aftertaste from this scene as to almost totally cancel out the powerful performances of all 3 actors. Richard Briers in particular is from beginning to end a superb Polonius.

The wassailing of the king ( "drunk, dissolute Danes"). Very silly.

Scene on the battlements. Hamlet and the Ghost.

The horrors of the physical landscape as suggested by the words in Shakespeare's text are a good deal stronger than the stuff being shown in the film. Not that it isn't effective, yet here is a instance where more-with-less would have worked wonders. The Ghost's speech is excellent, as are all the "impulse theater" swings of emotion and reason in Hamlet's response. Special effects are good. Not sure of the effectiveness of exaggerated close-ups of Ghost's and Hamlet's eyes and lips.

This being a movie, everything is "spelt out" in tedious detail. At the same time, all the effects are very conservative. The only "surrealist" effect which in some sense in modern, is in the close-ups of the eye of the Ghost. In general there is very little artistic courage in the creation of external visual effects. (Some of us have been spoiled by the fruits of Gordon Craig's daring imagination. )
Entire scene of Hamlet, Marcellus and Horatio together, with Ghost in the background, demonstrates superb acting. Patrick Doyle Leitmotives: Depression, Heartbreak, Danger, etc. Sometimes they work, sometims they don't
Polonius, Reynaldo. Extremely funny

  1. The scene is very funny

  2. Richard Briers as Polonius is very funny

  3. Depardieu is very funny

  4. The whole scene is brilliantly funny

  5. The presence of the "prostitute" is therefore all the more stupid.
There is always the problem of what to leave out, what to hand over to the imagination of the audience. Cinema, and this production in particular, insists on robbing the imagination of its privileges by showing Hamlet and Ophelia naked in bed , showing Yorick, showing "Polonius' wife", etc. Notice how the prostitute is dolled up to look, well, "gypsy". Swarthy races gratifying the cold Nordics?

Supplying Polonius with a prostitute is not offensive, merely somewhat dumb, whereas the copulation scenes of Hamlet and Ophelia are offensive, ( as in "O, my offense is rank. It smells to heaven". ) Reynaldo leaves. Enter Ophelia. Kate Winslet is quite excellent.

Enter Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Obviously Kenneth Branagh has done this play hundreds of times, and he doesn't overlook all sorts of important details that others miss. In Shakespeare's text, when the King says "Thanks Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern", he gets their names wrong! This intensifies the impression that they have no two identities but one, that of sycophant! Gertrude corrects him and gets the names right. That's a wonderful touch.

Another reason that film is the only possible medium for the production of all of Hamlet is that the sheer effort involved in performing the principal role is about equivalent to that of a violinist performing the Tschaikowsky, Sibelius and Paganini concertos all together in a row. Only a medium like film, in which the "building" of a performance extends over months, can do it justice.
Polonius brings Ophelia and Hamlet's letters to the attention of the king and queen. Having Ophelia read the letters is a nice touch. More obnoxious fucking cutaways - turns the whole thing into a dismal farce, a blot on a major performance involving so many master artists.
Hamlet confounds Polonius in a battle to wits. Very, very well done! In particular, the full obscenity and insult in the "breeding maggots in a dead dog", is marvelously brought out.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern confront Hamlet riding in a toy locomotive on the grounds of the palace. Cute and successful idea. Hamlet walking R and C across the snow at a fast pace works very well. "I have of late" to accompaniment Patrick Doyle depression theme, a kind of dilute Mahler.

"What a piece of work is a man". I guess it works. Branagh is at pains to create a "consistent" character to Hamlet. Shakespeare's impassioned speech far away from the melancholy, depressed young man portrayed in so much of the play. It seems to demand exuberance, enthusiasm, the Renaissance re-establishment of mankind's right to live, thrive and create after a Dark Ages of a thousand years. Branagh tones it down to make it consistent with the generally morose personality of Hamlet.

The conversation about the competition of the companies of child players. Full of life.
The clever doggerel verse of the "play within a play" is, to my mind, taken much too seriously in this production. Doyle's music injects a totally gratuitous sinister mood. I was amazed to discover what a marvelous job "gun-slinging" Charlton Heston does with the Player King.
The two soliloquies: "rogue and peasant slave", followed by "To be or not to be" . It is my impression here that Kenneth Branagh misses the boat. In fact I conjecture that he suffered from a kind of "actor dystonia" in this part of the play similar to the tendonitis of overworked musicians. The giddiness of the "rogue and peasant slave" speech is translated into a painfully grim tension, with none of the wild swings of mood and even humor in the speech. The pauses for thinking through this and that idea are far too brief.

Branagh regains our attention with the reflection "This thing may be a devil...to damn us.." etc. Knocking over a puppet king is a bit silly, but of little consequence either way. However, this is unfortunately followed by one of the most fundamental errors that any Hamlet production can make:

In this production there is absolutely no pause between the end of Act II and the beginning of Act III. However in terms of real time of Shakespeare's script there must be an interlude of at least 12 hours between the evening of the previous act and the morning of the next.

It just doesn't work to cut out this time delay . I understand that in a movie one doesn't have to worry about the actor re-configuring his mood from the violent giddiness of the first soliloquy to the contemplative melancholy of the second. However, the audience needs to have that pause. Especially in a film there should be some sort of interlude, perhaps a stroll around the battlements, or the sleeping royal couple, or Hamlet sleeping, arising at night, meditating, etc.

The result is, alas, predictable. Branagh completely ruins the "To be or not to be" speech. It's a very thoughtful meditation, yet Kenneth Branagh does not once pause to show how his reflections carry him from this notion to that one.

Traditionally, the personality of a staged Hamlet can be "thoughtful", "revengeful", "heart-broken", or "muddle-headed". Branagh's is basically a "heart-broken" Hamlet, and in fact he rises to his greatest heights in those scenes where heartbreak is the dominant theme. This does not mean he should never be "thoughtful" , as he clearly should be in this scene. Instead Branagh is bottled up, mechanical, uptight, like some kind of angry automaton spitting out words as if they'd been preconceived or even written down. Above all, there is no poetry in this rendition, and we all know that this soliloquy is full of poetry.

Hamlet, Ophelia

Tirade scene. Patrick Doyle "love theme". Music cuts across the mood of the scene. In fact, the music has but a single mood, but the scene itself swings through many moods. Hamlet's heartbreak is beautifully portrayed. My sense is that Branagh rediscovers in this scene what he's trying to do in the play. It is extremely difficult to perform or to interpret, and Branagh and Winslet give an excellent performance. The mirrors and the banging doors work well enough, though once again appear somewhat unnecessary. (This depends on a decision made as to whether Hamlet will attempt to ferret out his 'silent witneses' or merely leave the lobby in a rage. Recall that in the script, Shakespeare conceals them behind a simple arras)

Hamlet's speech to the Players: this is one of the very best moments in the whole production. Branagh keeps up the energy in the delivery all the way to the end. The actual content of the speech, in terms of what it tells us about theater is not lost, and we listen with as rapt an attention to the speech as do the Players themselves.
Play within a Play

Here Kenneth Branagh makes a discovery. ( Every serious production of "Hamlet" discovers something new in it.) As we learn from this scene, the whole court of Elsinore has been buzzing with nasty gossip over Gertrude's hasty marriage after her husband's death, and perhaps also about the "incestuous" overtones involved in marriage with the brother of a deceased husband. Hamlet's loud and intemperate rant expresses what everyone else in the court is really thinking.This production brings this out very effectively, by capturing the reactions of the audience to Hamlet's fulminations.

Kenneth Branagh seems to have captured most of what commentators have said about this scene. One can argue over whether Hamlet's behavior towards Ophelia is received in jest or earnest. However what Branagh captures very well is that Ophelia is scared to death of Hamlet, and has been so ever since he showed up in her apartment in complete dishevelment.

My view of the Play within a Play is that Shakespeare indications are that it fails in its purpose. The Players ignore Hamlet's instructions, they start with a dumb show which he'd expressly forbidden, they don't read the speech of a dozen lines or so that he wrote for them. Ultimately he has to stand up and shout out the play's plot before the whole court.

For this very reason the "Play within a Play" does not establish Claudius' guilt, as the king could easily be reacting to the wild bellowing insanity of his nephew-son as to the message of the play.

Hamlet, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern. Branagh in fine form. "Recorders" scene delightful.
"Hot blood speech". This set piece is a staple in all the Revenge Tragedies of the Elizabethan age. Normally it's delivered by some villainous miscreant but here it's delivered by Hamlet, a character who captures and holds our sympathies from beginning to end. Arising as it does from an odd mix of genres, I don't know how it can be made to work. Nor does one have the impression that Branagh comes up with a successful solution.
The Chapel Scene

Derek Jacobi shows us , at last, what he's made of. His performance of Claudius in the Chapel is truly superb. Notice, once again, how deeply thoughtful he is, how each reflection is preceded by some sort of cogitation, weighing the odds, balancing his guilt against his lust for power, how despair mounts until it becomes the dominant passion. Finally the sincerity of his failed attempt to be sincere! Kenneth Branagh is good here as well, though it is not one of the high moments of his performance as it is for Jacobi. Patrick Doyle's music works better here than in many other scenes.

The Bedroom Scene:

To begin with, everything about the decor is wrong. There is simply too much Hollywood goo all over the place. Cloying music, luxuriant sets, all these things leave a bad taste in the mouth. It is to be admitted however that Shakespeare himself pours far too much stuff into this one scene and that the tendency to both over-act and over-decorate is difficult to resist.

To the credit of this production, the latter, that is to say the lesser evil was chosen, because the performances, to my mind, are superior in all respects. In fact the acting is so good and the decor so garish, that one best appreciates this scene by closing one's eyes and simply listening to the impassioned, angry interchanges between Hamlet and his mother.

Now with respect to the sudden arrival of the Ghost it is clear to me that Shakespeare's editors have omitted a major speech or dialogue here. The manner in which the Ghost appears indicates that it is anxious that Hamlet not be swayed by the blandishments and pleading of his mother.

In my reconstruction of this hypothetical missing speech she exhorts him to "behave". He's ruined everything by murdering Polonius, yet she can fix things up, he just has to stop being "crazy" in all his dealings with his uncle. We can imagine Hamlet giving way to these soft "unmanly" enticements of his Mommy, as sons will do.

Then the Ghost arrives! It all fits, it all makes sense. He is rebuked, saved from Gertrude's influence and re-dedicates himself to the holy cause.

In the standard text as it has come down to us Hamlet is not being swayed by Gertrude. In fact he is rebuking her with all the venom and force of which he is capable. At a moment such as this the appearance of the Ghost is entirely out of character. Be that as it may, it's not the fault of the production.

Kenneth Branagh flubs the "lug the guts" line.

"How all things do contend against me". This is far and away the very worst scene in the entire production. Doyle's musical build-up and crescendo just make it that much worse. It's the cardinal fault of all productions of Hamlet : forcing an interpretation on Shakespeare, in much the same way that Olivier forces a Freudian interpretation in his film. Thus Branagh not only hits a long succession of false notes, he does so fortissimo!

(1) Hamlet's actions in Acts IV and V do not bear out the forced interpretation ( that he has discovered will power from his meeting with the army of Fortinbras.)

(2) His commentary on the utterly futile, absurd ambition of Fortinbras, throwing away thousands of lives for a piece of worthless dirt, is much more in the character of an ironic anti-war speech than an incitement to courage.

One again we must remember that Hamlet thinks a lot. Even if he does come out of this meditation with heightened resolve, he's done lots of thinking and weighed the ironies of the situation before acquiring it. The relentless crescendo of manner, words, declamation, music and camera work blot out all the ambiguities clearly present in this soliloquy.

No comment on the mad scenes of Ophelia. Novel conception, seems to work very well, Ophelia in a strait jacket being hosed down the way they used to do with mad people. Laertes is superb. Use of mirrors and tiled floor patterns works quite well. Revolting cutaways of fornication scenes again, as if the audience wouldn't get the point of Ophelia's peristaltic tremors unless one also shows her actually in bed with Hamlet. Some sick fantasy of Branagh's, alas!

Laertes, Claudius, later Gertrude

Scene is quite excellent. Body language between Jacobi and Maloney is as strong as can be wished for. Cutaways very good. Claudius as full-blown hypocrite brought to the fore: dissolute, guilt-ridden, ambitious, rash. Camera moves well, Laertes seated, Jacobi standing and circulating around the room.After the messenger appears with letter from Hamlet, both are seated. Succession of close-ups, all very good. Notice how Claudius recounts to Laertes, the essence of the speech that the Player King maks to the Player Queen in the "Death of Gonzago": under the pressure of necessity and circumstances, love fades far more quickly than one imagines. Yet this time it is poisoned throughout with hypocrisy, actually a very complex mental and emotional state, beautifully rendered by Derek Jacobi.

Julie Christie " There is a willow...". Very well delivered, although once again one has to close one's eyes and block out the garish decor to appreciate the quality of her delivery. Camera moves in on her face slowly, captures the disarray of her hair, a rather trite way of indicating that she's falling to pieces.

Another discovery by Kenneth Branagh. Gertrude does not follow Claudius when he orders her to come.

Graveyard Scene

To my mind the very best in the entire film. Superb from beginning to end. My feeling is that throughout the writing of this play Shakespeare himself was trying to decide what Hamlet's character was all about. It is in this act that he finally discovers what he's trying to say.

Much of "Hamlet" centers on the ambiguity of the role of Polonius. My essay discusses this to some extent. Although Hamlet, ( and by extension, the theater audience) see Polonius as a stupid fool who brings about his own death through meddling, he is also a father so deeply loved by his children that one of them goes insane through his death while the other throws away his life in a duel to avenge him. How can he be both a caricature whose death is almost a joke, yet at the same time a father so deeply beloved?

Herein lies the tragic engine of the play which, as has been noted by many, begins as a typical revenge play, the Elizabethan equivalent of the B-movie, and ends as a tragedy worthy of the best works of the ancient Greek tragedians.

Hamlet sees Polonius as nothing more than an obstacle to his driving ambitions: (1)vengeance, (2) access to Ophelia. This being so he exaggerates the ridiculous side of the man. Likewise the audience sees no reason for grief or mourning at his death. Yet after he's been killed it must deal with the reality that two very sympathetic characters, Ophelia and Laertes, are driven ( each in their own way) to suicide through it. All of these contrary tendencies, contradictions and paradoxes find their full expression in the graveyard scene.

The comments of the 1st Gravedigger indicate clearly that Hamlet is 30. This is not the age of an adolescent. If Shakespeare seriously intended us to consider this to be Hamlet's real age, it puts an entirely new cast on his personality. To have been still at Wittenberg at the age of 30, in the 16th century, indicates the lifestyle of a perpetual student. We are therefore being given to understand that he's idled away perhaps as much as a decade and a half hanging around the university without being able to decide what he wants to do with his life. The line "The unpracticed hand hath the daintier sense" takes on a new meaning.

However, what really strikes me is the fact that William Shakespeare himself was stuck in Stratford-on-Avon until the age of 26. In an age when few persons lived past 40, this was a considerable portion of his life. Along with most of his family and associates, he must have thought that his fortunes would never change, that (as in "peak like John O'Dreams") he was destined to hang out in Stratford forever, a bright kid who never amounted to anything.

On the other hand the indication by the Gravedigger that Hamlet is 30 may in fact mean nothing at all.

Hamlet, Laertes

"There is a divinity .... " speech flubbed, in fact its clear that Branagh has trouble with it.

Robin Williams as Osric is absolutely genial!

The duel is brilliantly choreographed. Lots of fine touches. Never have understood Hamlet's "confession of madness" speech to Laertes; it's so totally false to everything.

All very impressive and thrilling up to the dying speech of Hamlet: "The rest is silence". From there to the end the production is so corny, hammy and "Hollywood" that it's worth neither watching nor reviewing. That includes the singing of Placido del Domingo,( much as I admire him as an artist.)
Conclusion: Kenneth Branagh's film "Hamlet" is a major, even historic, production of this play, marred by many faults, notably in decor, cinematic overkill, special effects and forced interpretations.

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