Mark Olshaker's late 1990 documentary, "Discovering Hamlet" is perhaps the most difficult, documentary I've had to review. It's in no way, an obtuse program, in fact it's quite inviting, so much so, it's friendly, brisk nature threatens the seams with an unraveling. Running only 53 minutes, the program, narrated by the legendary voice of Sir Patrick Stewart, brings viewers into the world of a stage production of Shakespeare's "Hamlet." The most curious piece though come from the identities of the director and star: Sir Derek Jacobi and Kenneth Branagh, respectively. It's a curious program, especially when viewed in the context of Branagh's own epic, film adaptation of the story, where in addition to helming the director's chair, Branagh also played the titular character, while Jacobi faced off as the villainous Claudius.
"Discovering Hamlet" is not a program that talks down to its viewers, despite any preconceptions one might have about the subject matter. However, that is not to say someone unfamiliar with the story can fully enjoy the program. Olshaker does a magnificent job of editing down 30 hours of raw footage, into a cohesive, 53-minute encapsulation of the creative process. At the base level, the program provides an appreciation for the time, effort, and love put into a stage production. However, the deeper value comes largely from the look at Jacobi's role in the staging.
Already a renowned, classically trained actor, Jacobi is a man who fully understands the source material and is not merely content to put on a paint-by-numbers production. He refuses to sit idly by, in the shadows, barking orders. Instead, he's a man of action, on stage, providing constant insight and suggestions to his cast. Olshaker captures an intelligent, thoughtful man in Jacobi. When midway through the program he comes up with the shocking suggestion of having Hamlet deliver his famous "To be, or not to be," soliloquy to Ophelia, the idea is accepted because the actors have faith in their director and his experience. The result is sheer brilliance that is a true improvement on an already perfect play, making the fact that Jacobi never directed another production a travesty.
Slightly disappointing, but only in retrospect is how little insight we get into the young Branagh. He, like the other actors takes a backseat to the focus on Jacobi and thus renders "Discovering Hamlet" a slightly skewed documentary. It is not the end all, be all look at Shakespeare on stage, but is still a very fine, very fascinating program. Olshaker could have very well gone the opposite way and produced an exhaustive and bloated macroscopic examination of the production. Instead he sacrifices definitive for accessibility and in the process, turns out a product that invites all viewers to gain something from the program, rewarding those familiar with Hamlet more than those who aren't, only at the cost of leaving those fans wanting much more, a small price to pay for a greater understanding of the stage.
The 1.33:1 original aspect ratio transfer has the distinct look of a production shot on video. Color levels are far from being spot on, and detail is below average. The production is not a pleasing film to look at, but considering it's a documentary on the production of a stage play, one shouldn't expect stunning cinematography.
The Dolby Digital English stereo audio track is a perfectly acceptable offering. Narration and interviews are clear and distortion free, while footage of rehearsals is almost always understandable and the expanse of the setting is caught with a slightly hollow sound. English subtitles for the hearing impaired are included.
Those wanting more will be deservedly rewarded for their patience, as the bonus features of "Discovering Hamlet" are nearly four times the length of the main feature. On the first disc, a newly filmed, 30-minute interview with Jacobi confirms many suspicions about his role in the production and is the best companion piece to the program. A text-based biography of narrator Patrick Stewart is included as well as a look at major stars of historical productions of the play.
On disc two, a gallery of vintage interviews with Jacobi and members of the cast and crew are included.. Of great interest to Hamlet fanatics is the over two hours of raw, unused footage ranging from a meeting with Jacobi and the crew, to fight rehearsals. For those wanting more, unfiltered insight into this particular production, your goldmine is here. Last but not least, is the standard Athena booklet providing notes on the program and subject. A very exhaustive set to say the least.
"Discovering Hamlet" is a unique, rewarding look at one specific adaptation of Shakespeare's legendary play. For those wanting an insight into the creative process of adapting previous material to the stage, it's a great starting point. For others, it's a program that deserves at least one viewing. This particular release's value is tremendously increased by the bevy of bonus features, aimed at the Shakespeare or stage fanatic alike Recommended.