Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5. Castle Rock Entertainment, Turner Pictures, Fishmonger Films. United Kingdom/USA, 1996. Screenplay by Kenneth Branagh, based on the play by William Shakespeare. Cinematography by Alex Thomson. Produced by David Barron. Music by Patrick Doyle. Production Design by Tim Harvey. Costume Design by Alexandra Byrne. Film Editing by Neil Farrell. Academy Awards 1996. Cannes Film Festival 1997.
Kenneth Branagh has definitely bitten off far more than he can chew with this ambitious adaptation of William Shakespeare’s famous play that faithfully runs four hours and is photographed in glorious 70MM. To match the grandeur of the filmed format, the film is designed and costumed within an inch of its life, every scene popping out at you as if to distract you from the actors on screen. Trouble is, Hamlet is, for some of us, a private, moody family drama with a ghost story thrown in, and so doesn’t do all that well when it’s performed at what looks like the Moulin Rouge. Branagh’s screenplay is brilliant, adapting the dialogue well enough for even the least Shakespeare-abled audience member to understand (a gift he has previously shown with his adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing), but his direction lacks the steam to keep up with his wonderful writing, and his performance in the lead role is overdone and affected. Julie Christie makes a marvelous Gertrude (a worthy successor to Glenn Close’s brilliant performance in Zeffirelli’s 1990 version) and Kate Winslet is stunning as a ripe and innocent Ophelia. For actors, though, the film’s magic lies mostly in the advent of its supporting characters; some of them are so terribly cast (Jack Lemmon for instance) that they only make you enjoy the ridiculousness of it more, while others are so wonderful (Gerard Depardieu makes a rich Reynaldo, and Charlton Heston gives his best performance in recent memory as the Player King) that you will remember them the most. Unfortunately, the extremely long running time and shallow presentation will not keep you happily in your seat for too long.