Hamlet (1996) dir. Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Kate Winslet, Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie
by Alan Bacchus
One of my most cherished cinema experiences is the 70mm special presentation of “Hamlet” in 1996 at Toronto's now-defunct Eglinton cinema. It was the first film exclusively-shot and projected in 70mm since Ron Howard’s “Far and Away”. It was a dying form of cinema and the “Hamlet” experience will likely be the last (we haven't had a 70mm since then). On the big screen, properly screened with a 70mm print, and in the wonderful gothic-style cinema it was a majestic experience.
Now Kenneth Brangh's "Hamlet" gets its long overdue Blu-Ray release for the first time. And though the small screen is never the best venue for a big film such as this, it’s still a wonderful movie and one of the best filmed adaptations of Shakespeare.
Shakespearian language is always a tough nut to crack, and though I've studied the play, seen multiple versions of the movie, and seen it on stage I still only retain about a quarter of the dialogue. Some characters speak more elaborately than others but it's Hamlet, the most psychological of the characters, who is the most complex. His metaphors, puns, similies and other witty jargon is almost incomprehensible. But Branagh is sure to use body language and voice emotion to convey the meaning of his words visually. At times, during his soliquies Branagh overacts, expounding loud, boisterous shouting, then seguing into quiet careful whispers. When performing this with no one around it can look like bad acting, but it's in service of making the film understandable and it works.
“Hamlet” is Shakespeare’s longest and densest play. And Branagh’s “Hamlet” is the first version to film the full, unedited text of the play. This resulted in a film with a 4-hour running time, one of the longest English-language Hollywood films of all time. But the full-text, 4 hour, 70mm aspects are not just gimmicks, Branagh delivers a truly epic film bigger than any filmed version of Hamlet.
Branagh sets his version in a bright and colourful late 19th century Russian-inspired estate – perhaps inspired by “Nicholas and Alexandra”. It seems to be a conscious choice to escape the usual dark and echoey medieval confines of most other Hamlet renditions. Branagh is aided by Alex Thomson's lush 70mm photography. Take a closer look at the shallowness of the depth of field. Branagh has remarked that on some closeups, depending on the camera angle, he often had to choose which eye to hold focus on - note: 'depth of field' refers to how much of a shot is in focus. The longer the lens length, the less depth of field, but also the bigger the format the less depth of field. This combined with the bulky 70mm camera can make shooting more time consuming, but for Branagh and Thomson the result was some amazing and sumptuous images. And with the extensive steadycam work involved someone must have developed severe back problems.
In making a full-text, 4-hour version Branagh has given us an 'epic' which the play was meant to be. The key addition is the inclusion of the Fortinbras subplot - the Norwegian counterpart to Hamlet who invades Denmark. The famous sword-play showdown is intercut with Fortinbras' massive army attacking the castle. For the first time we get to see how the melodramatic actions and events of Elisonor resulted in not just tragic death of a family but about the loss of kingdom and country. Enjoy.
Hamlet is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video