Kenneth Branagh (Play: William Shakespeare)
Kenneth Branagh, Richard Briers, Julie Christie, Judi Dench, Gerard Depardieu, Reece Dinsdale, Ken Dodd, Rob Edwards, Nicholas Farrell, Ray Fearon, John Gielgud, Rosemary Harris, Charlton Heston, Ravil Isyanov, Derek Jacobi, Richard Attenborough, Brian Blessed, Rufus Sewell
One of the most widely read and translated authors, William Shakespeare’s collected works have been translated thousands of times and have been adapted on the stage, television, and big screen far too many times to count. Among his most celebrated works, Hamlet has been turned into 30 films with a handful becoming well known. This edition, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh and released in 1996, is one of the most well regarded of such works.
Hamlet is a tale of revenge as Prince Hamlet (Branagh) seeks revenge against his uncle Claudius (Derek Jacobi), who murdered his father and married his mother Gertrude (Julie Christie). The venerable tale gives a raft of major British actors plum roles in performances that are terrific, albeit brief. Among the prominent cast making appearances are Oscar winners Christie, Richard Attenborough (for directing), John Gielgud, Charlton Heston, and Jack Lemmon along with future Oscar winners Judi Dench, Robin Williams, and Kate Winslet. Oscar nominees included John Mills, Rosemary Harris, Gérard Depardieu, and Branagh. Timothy Spall, Billy Crystal, Brian Blessed, and Rufus Sewell also star. Branagh delivers a fiery portrayal, his best to date, ably leading this all-star cast. Winslet was also strong in one of the few other significant roles in the production.
Branagh’s lavish adaptation of one of William Shakespeare’s most popular plays is fiendishly faithful, incorporating all of the dialogue from the most prominent edition of the text along with more bits of dialogue from other editions. It’s a massive work that seems both unnecessarily and fittingly lengthy. At four hours and two minutes, this version is easily the longest yet produced and is unlikely to be topped. Three of the more prominent adaptations were all under three hours.
The sumptuous 19th Century setting takes us out of the original play’s 16th Century climes, but that distinction is quickly lost as we’re pulled beautifully into the melancholy and tragedy of the Bard’s most performed work. Being so incredibly faithful to the source, however, is partly the film’s undoing. Dragging on past four hours, even the short intermission, which is devoid of any musical interlude, feels like too little to break up the tedium. Not everyone is an audience for Shakespeare’s lengthy and verbose productions, but even with the bountiful amounts of backstory, psychological exposition, and grandly exciting scenes, the film feels like it was desperately in need of judicious editing.
Hamlet was Branagh’s third of six adaptations of the Bard’s work and it’s easily his best. For a time, many thought he would become the modern Laurence Olivier and, to an extent, he did, but Olivier’s best work was easily superior, though both actors struggled at times to find work that befitted their talents. Olivier’s version of Hamlet was also better, but when looked at as an entire production, Branagh clearly had a flare for excess that Olivier never quite possessed, so at least in one respect, Branagh was able to outperform is predecessor, even if only in the opulence of his efforts. Audiences who want to see the most faithful adaptation need to check this film out, but be prepared for a lengthy journey.
August 9, 2021