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Hamlet (1996).

September 21, 2007

The Scoop:
“Hamlet” is — period, hands down — the greatest piece of drama ever written. It’s a stupendous achievement that was the keystone of Shakespeare’s larger revolution in humanizing the dramatic arts. Unfortunately, its navigations of the psychological terrain are so vast that it has rarely been performed on stage (and never on film) in its entirety. All of Shakespeare’s texts have been abridged and adapted over the years (and I’m a big advocate of uncut Shakespeare), but with “Hamlet” it has been as much a case of practical necessity as artistic interpretation. The play is just too long to expect an audience to get through in one sitting. Scholars say that even the very first performances by Shakespeare’s company were edited down to a manageable size. However, even the best cuts have done a disservice to the work.

Kenneth Branagh has tried to remedy that history with this film, the only complete and unabridged film version of “Hamlet.” The result, clocking in at more than four hours, is a treat. The cinematography is beautiful and extravagant, and the core group of actors (including Branagh, Julie Christie, Derek Jacobi and Kate Winslet) hit all the right notes. Most of the smaller parts feature familiar faces, and with the exception of Jack Lemmon’s uncharacteristically wooden take on Marcellus, they do their duties well, too. Charleton Heston is a particularly delightful surprise, in a role (The Player King) that usually doesn’t require much more than good diction. This adaptation is essential Shakespeare.

Best Line:
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Side Note:
Nicholas Farrell, who plays Horatio here, was in Franco Zefferelli’s “Hamlet” (1990) as Rosencrantz and in Branagh’s “A Midwinter’s Tale” (1995) as the actor playing Laertes in a stage production of “Hamlet.”

Companion Viewing:
“A Midwinter’s Tale” (1995).

Movie Links.
Read the play.

Take a Look:
The trailer:

Branagh asks the most famous question in literature in an odd aspect ratio:

I’ve always thought this was a better soliloquy than “To be or not to be”:

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