Hamlet

on December 25, 1996 by Kim Williamson
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"There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow," says the Danish prince Hamlet near the all exeunt end of this four-hour, full-length version, and actor/adapter/director Kenneth Branagh gives the words a fragilely melancholic understanding that makes it one of the film's most finely delivered lines from a play fraught with many famous utterances. (Among them, "To be or not to be," here done passably, and "Alas, poor Yorich," done so perfectly--with the aid of, believe it or not, Billy Crystal as the Gravedigger--it might be called the platonic form of all its renderings). Toiling in classical terrain he clearly "gets"--his best films have been retellings of Shakespeare's "Henry V" and "Much Ado About Nothing," and he's played the Dane 300 times onstage (as he's put it, it's been "in my blood over half my life")--Branagh makes that simple sentence read like a sentencing of life and the world. Indeed, his achievements in this sixth sound-era screen version of Shakespeare's 1602 tragedy return Branagh to the levels of that best work, which has always been powered by an existentialism that comprehends both a "sparrow's" rise and fall.
   The story, of the prince aggrieved by the unrighteous death of his monarch father (given a ghostly turn by Brian Blessed) and unseemly quick remarriage of his mother, the Queen Gertrude (Julie Christie), to his uncle Claudius (Derek Jacobi) thus become king, begins with a consummate first shot that, in a sense, imparts the whole tale. Shooting Panavision Super 70, the camera shows an exterior wall engraved like a tombstone with the name Hamlet; as the lens glides left, the stone gives way to a great frozen spread of snow that leads to more dead stone--the castle Elsinore--falsely given human enlivening by the yellow glow of windowlight. Something indeed is rotten in the state of Denmark. As the account of murder, lust, intrigue and madness proceeds, Branagh manages truly bravura sequences, weaving together (with editor Neil Farrell) impressive long single takes and shorter bursts of imagery; his decision to include via flashbacks material only referenced in the play--e.g., Hamlet making love to Ophelia ("Jude's" Kate Winslet, excellent once more)--also acts effectively in giving the audience visuals that make the text come alive with even greater passion.
   Like its complex lead, however, "Hamlet" is not without flaws. An updating to a 19th-century setting, supposedly to make the politics more historically germane yet not make the verse sound too archaic, seems inconsequential. More problematically, in certain cameos that might be called stunt casting, Robin Williams as the flabbergasted Osric is more distracting than comic, and the miscast Jack Lemmon plays his faithful Marcellus as though he's straining to keep up with the Bardic language. As the Dane, Branagh occasionally slips into the kind of onanistic overplaying--call it trumpet torture--that sank "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" and "A Midwinter's Tale." Elsewhere, Branagh makes Hamlet's complaints almost whiny--he might have lost all his mirth, but the lad doth protest too much. Moreover, Hamlet's grief sometimes is far too made of anger. Plus, narrative flow and character movement aren't invariably flawless, as in an early ghost scene (itself too full of bombastic eruption) in which midnight becomes dawn within moments and players in hailing distance seem to have no cognizance of each other or shared events.
   In the end, though, it's unlikely that the film's probable upscale audiences will leave the multiplex feeling defeated joy, as "Hamlet" boasts too many rewards. Along with those noted above, they include a topnotch supporting cast (e.g., Michael Maloney as Ophelia's brother Laertes and Charlton Heston as the Player King), longtime Branagh collaborator Patrick Doyle's symphonic score, and the grand yet precise 65mm cinematography of Alex Thomson. Experienced in the widescreen format since his work as a focus puller on "Lawrence of Arabia," Thomson--in league with production designer Tim Harvey, another Branagh constant--makes superb thematic use of both the icy exteriors shot at Oxfordshire's Blenheim Palace (standing in for Elsinore) and the mirror-laden, secret-revealing interiors filmed at Shepperton.
   Also, in a mid-December decision, production company Castle Rock perhaps wisely reversed course in their plans to first open the 242-minute version (just one minute shy of the runtime record for a modern Hollywood film, held by the 243-minute roadshow "Cleopatra") in major markets and later provide exhibitors in midsized and smaller burgs the option of booking a cut closer to two hours; expectations now are that all stateside plays will be the untruncated iteration, and in 70mm wherever possible. (Although that decision means theatre operators will be able to program only one screening nightly, audiences will have two opportunities for concessions; an intermission divides the film's 158-minute first section from the 84-minute conclusion.) Standing apart from virtually all other movie fare this season, "Hamlet" makes for a fertile promontory. Starring Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie, Kate Winslet and Michael Maloney. Directed and written by Kenneth Branagh. Produced by David Barron. A Columbia release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for some violent images and sexuality. Running time: 242 min. Opens 12/25 NY/L.A./Tor; 1/24 expands to top 20 markets; 2/14 widens
Tags: Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie, Kate Winslet, Michael Maloney, David Barron, A Columbia release, Drama, multiplex, Bardic, comic, grief
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