Modesty is becoming in a dentist, an airline pilot, or any other professional whose abilities are appreciated most when they’re noticed least. But who wants a shrinking violet at the center of a four-hour movieespecially a movie of Hamlet, a play that concerns, demands, and rewards theatrical flamboyance? A daredevil spirit is required to galvanize such an enterprise, and Kenneth Branagh supplies it. His new film version of Hamletwhich uses the full text of the play, as has been noted with surprising dismay from critics who usually chide filmmakers for deletionsis a gloriously brazen thing, an adaptation of Shakespeare that is at once reverent, audacious, lucid, and utterly thrilling.
Hamlet is a particularly tough play to adapt to film, in part because its imagery, action, and subtext derive so strongly from the stage. The word “play”like the wordplaycarries devious multiple meanings in Shakespeare’s Denmark: to perform, to trick, to wear a false face that disguises true intent. These divided meanings typify the spirit of the play. In Hamlet’s paradoxical world, fiction has the power to unmask, to conceal, or even to kill; to act means either to make a decisive move or to hide one’s grisly deeds and intentionssometimes both at once. Add to this dense thematic and theatrical tangle the many fits and starts in the narrativecharacters are constantly digressing and delaying the actionand you have cinematic terrain pocked with potential pitfalls.
As star, adapter, and director, Branagh brings to the film a furious energy, a clear (but not reductive) understanding of the text, and a confidence in his own abilities that rallies the entire cast. Most importantly, instead of being cowed by the undertaking, he rises to the challenge as an actor, creating a Hamlet who is by turns admirable, athletic, commanding, unforgivably cruel, and mortally conflicted.
Branagh uses all the cinematic trickery at his command in service of the text, finding images and visual motifs that underscore and illuminate the lines. If “playing” a part holds “the mirror up to nature,” as Hamlet advises the actors, the setting of Branagh’s Hamlet mirrors the deviousness of the political theater. He transforms the dank Elsinore of previous film versions into a vast, airy, pristine fairy palace. But this show of purity is entirely for public effectthe innocuous facade conceals hidden passages and (a brilliant touch) two-way mirrors.
The palace riddled with wormholes doesn’t just mirror the rotten state of Denmark. It’s a fitting monument to the new ruler, Claudius, portrayed by Derek Jacobi as a jovial but ruthless leader. However grave his guilt over killing his brother, the elder King Hamlet, and stealing his wife, Claudius nonetheless maintains his regal composure before the masses. This includes showing a seemly interest in the well-being of his melancholy stepson.
Branagh heightens the tension between public and private at Claudius’ coronation. The camera tiptoes past the cheering crowd to an empty corridor just out of view, where a solitary figure stands waiting offstage. Later, on cue, an ostentatious blizzard of white petals showers the newly crowned king and his duplicitous bride, Queen Gertrude (Julie Christie). Not even that deluge of whitewash, however, can blot out a single black stain at the center of the screenthe form of the brooding prince Hamlet.
From there, the action divides neatly between the cavernous “stage” of the palace court and the tiny anterooms where treacheries are planned. The lavish sets provide an appropriately stylized backdrop, and yet they anchor the action so firmly that we know from the size of a room how the people inside will act. Indeed, the positioning of actors in the frame constantly conveys their inner thoughts. Nowhere is this more perfect than in Branagh’s filming of Hamlet’s soliloquy. Hamlet observes himself in a full-length mirror and begins to speak: “To be or not to be....” He appears at the far left of the screen, with his mirror image at far right; as he speaks, his divided selves move closer togetheruntil the camera focuses directly on the image in the mirror. This isn’t just inspired filming of a written concept; this is great moviemaking.
As might be expected, most of the performances are excellent, even revelatory. Instead of the nattering old busybody of previous Hamlets, Richard Briers makes Polonius a crafty, somewhat menacing figure; Michael Maloney’s Laertes tempers his hotheaded nature with a streak of odd tenderness. Rather than an ethereal waif, Kate Winslet’s Ophelia seems earthy and innocently sensual, which makes Hamlet’s “Get thee to a nunnery” all the more cruelly dismissive. Even the American actors are better than usual. Robin Williams smirks through his few scenes as Osric, but Billy Crystal is an unexpected success as the cigar-chomping First Gravedigger. And Charlton Heston, cast perfectly for the first time in his career, makes a wonderfully plummy Player King. Branagh shrewdly casts strong, distinctive actors in even the tiniest speaking parts, so that we always recognize their characters from scene to scene.
Any undertaking this ambitious is bound to make missteps, and this Hamlet is not flawless. The movie’s hysterical pitch becomes somewhat grating by the close of the first half, and the line readings, delivered at breakneck speed, are sometimes alarmingly out of sync with the actors’ lips. In closeup, this is maddening.
But from the image that precedes the intermissionHamlet bellowing that henceforth his deeds shall be bloody, while the camera pulls back to reveal a white expanse of snow-blasted devastation worthy of Fargothe movie hurtles forward with the suspense and dynamic momentum of a classic thriller. And the final swordfight between Hamlet and Laertes is a whale of an action scene: It’s staged not as a fencing match but as a full-blown Errol Flynn extravaganza, replete with leaps from balconies, hurled rapiers, and crashing chandeliers. There’s nothing modest about the risks Kenneth Branagh takes in this monumental Hamlet; its pleasures are just as enormous.
One final note. Branagh and his excellent cinematographer, Alex Thomson, opted to shoot Hamlet in the epic 70mm widescreen format. With its usual concern for the audience, however, Carmike has wedged this large-scale image into the smaller side of the Belcourt, where the frame bleeds off the edge of the screen. Consequently, this curious new edition of William Shakespeare’s Hamleta title that now appears onscreen as “Illiam Shakespeare Iamlet”joins the roster of previous Belcourt oddities like “He Crying Gam” and “Eservoir Dog.” Castle Rock Entertainment has prepared a special two-and-a-half-hour version for wide release, but apparently Carmike is still determined to trim the movie by a third. The effect would be funny if it didn’t ruin the meticulously composed widescreen images, thus blunting the impact of the material. If I were Illiam Shakespeare, I’d be pretty ucking issed.
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