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Hamlet (1996)

Warner Bros. // PG-13 // August 17, 2010
List Price: $34.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted August 24, 2010 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Oftentimes, I refer to Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet as the quintessential film version of William Shakespeare's play, but that's not necessarily because it's the one I favor. On a base level, this is one of the few instances, and easily the grandest, where the entirety of the bard's literary work has been captured on-screen. It sprawls over four hours in order to follow each beat and wording, with a series of stellar performances -- particularly the potent offering from Branagh in the central role -- adorning the expansive hallways, lush courtyards, and far reaches of the Palace of Denmark, Elsinore, in turmoil. Still, there's another side to this Hamlet apart from its faithfulness and the power behind its performances, namely the way that Branagh bolsters the rhythm forward as an actual motion picture. This he also venerably accomplishes, though the construction and artistic choices might not be as alluring as that of the more streamline iterations from Laurence Olivier and, more recently, Gregory Doran.

Shakespeare's play isn't so much about the events that unfold, but the way that the characters circling this tragedy react to the humanizing complications leading them into a downward spiral. During a time of celebration at the Denmark palace, Hamlet (Branagh) continues to lament the passing of his father; shrouded in black clothing and brooding over life and death, his melancholy disposition upsets that of his uncle Claudius (Derek Jacobi) and his mother Gertrude (Julie Christie) -- the two of whom are marrying following his father's death. Shortly after, the palace guards inform Hamlet that they've spotted the ghost of his father on the grounds. After reaching out to the ghost, it's here that the young, despondent prince of Denmark learns the details of his father's fate -- and begins a plot to publicly reveal the truth about his death. That, naturally, is just the core of Shakespeare's play, with the likes of Hamlet's lover Ophelia (Kate Winslet), daughter to royal consulate Polonius (Richard Briers), and her brother Laertes (Micheal Maloney) clouding the story.

Shot entirely on 65mm film (printed on 70mm) by Excalibur cinematographer Alex Thomson and utilizing a healthy $18 million budget -- though you'll ponder how Branagh enticed its star-studded cast with that kind of scratch -- Hamlet has its share of distinctions on top of its faithfulness. The director cites a three-and-a-half hour production of Shakespeare's play as the point when he really fell in love with the material, which happens to be the production where Derek Jacobi himself performed the lead role. And, on top of that, Branagh jams in a slew of then it-actors into the play's brief but pointed cameos, such as Billy Crystal embodying the "focal" gravedigger excellently, Robin Williams as Osric, Gerard Depardieu as Reynaldo, Charlton Heston delivering a gripping speech as the "king player", and a scattershot, out-of-place Jack Lemmon as Marcellus. Though they splash into the picture more like cannonballs instead of graceful dives in this literary pool, they do add their own distinctive flare within each of their performances.

While wearing the director's hat, Branagh constructs a singular sort of production out of these elements, a grand-scale adaptation that finds nimble balance amid ironclad reverence and cinematic panache. Shakespeare's brisk dialogue, fluctuating between deeply-cut drama and lively comedy, weaves together here with some extremely quick cuts and other, breathtaking long shots that frame the actors in stage-like scenes, crafting an accelerate-and-break rhythm. The mood they strike is unique, if not consistently winning; at times, the brusque edits can be a jolting creative component that, though throttling the pace forward, pairs oddly against the soliloquies and conversational set pieces. In most cases, though, they help to propel the 240-minute time in a gripping direction. Branagh also incorporates novel visualizations of "off-stage" occurrences -- allusions to Roman history, earlier mentions of Fortinbras (hey, there's Rufus Sewell), flashbacks to his father's death and his affair with Ophelia -- for storytelling fluidity.

Oddly, these same comments -- mixing grace with curt bursts -- can also describe Kenneth Branagh's turn as Hamlet, yet nothing but positive things can be said about this performance. As he gracefully acclimates us to the soupy melancholic verve of Prince of Denmark, the bleach-haired Irish actor keeps his eyes still yet brooding while his dialogue crescendos in piercing booms and unsettling whispers. He knows what kind of production he wants to concoct, which he does as both actor and director without any shades of pretense within his construction. In essence, Branagh desires a hybrid, not a film adaptation nor an elaborate stage version, but a distinctive picture that dwells on Hamlet's soliloquies and moves on with purpose -- and Branagh's sharp eye for this pours over into his delivery as the prince.

Branagh also has a clear vision of the amount of suspense that Shakespeare's play can generate, propelling forward as the energy stirs within the palace. In that, he essentially partitions the traditional five-act play straight down the middle into a time of build-up and a time of crashing suspense -- and it's in the latter half where the director really finds an incensed rhythm. He sees Hamlet exactly like a rollercoaster tackling a mammoth hill along its tracks, with the theatrics at its beginning steadily inching towards a peak that, obviously, has no other direction but a rapid rush downwards. Kate Winslet, sandwiched in between Heavenly Creatures and Titanic, brings the rapidly-maddening Ophelia alive at this point, with misty eyes and flushed cheeks in a skillful early showing.

But, as it cascades downward, Branagh also never loses his grip on Shakespeare's fierce reflection on mortality through Hamlet's eyes. Partly, that's because Branagh adheres to every stitch of the bard's tragedy, but it's also in the way he captures the delicateness in its overall contemplation. From the famous "To be or not to be ..." speech delivered in a hall of mirrors, the braying rage Hamlet exhibits at the close of the beautifully shot play-within-a-play, and the handful of sequences involving ghosts and graveyards in the outskirts of the palace, Branagh knows how to properly relish in these moments and make Hamlet's ponderings our own. Particularly in those last chaotic moments of the tragedy, with crossing blades, enraged verbose, and a slurry of collapsing characters amid the cheeky disbursement of riches and sips of wine, it's an inspired culmination of a filmmaker's deep passion for Shakespeare's original work.

The Blu-ray:

Note: Click each image for a slightly larger photo.

Warner Brothers have presented Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet in one of their ever-popular Blu-ray Digibook packages, with the disc itself attached to a fixture at the end of the hard-bound presentation. Inside the Booklet, the material is segmented into four sections, "acts", all brushing with depth in their context. It's really a beautiful, classy package. Shhhh, don't tell Warner, but there's a misprint in the book: there are two Act IVs.

Video and Audio:

Warner Brothers have crammed the entire length of Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet onto one Blu-ray disc, captured in its 2.20:1 aspect ratio within a VC-1 encode. Having the entire film -- along with the handful of special features -- all on one disc is an admirable move, and the cinematography certainly retains film-like attributes about its consistency and richness of palette, but the treatment isn't quite on the enthralling level as expected from a 70mm film. Scenes in the Elsinore palace hall, where upstairs and downstairs floors stretch to great lengths with ornate tiles and other adornment, carry an obvious depth to them, yet other, closer-quartered sequences and facial focuses are flat and somewhat bland. But what's disconcerting about this low-bitrate (infrequently getting up to ~20 mbps) visualization is the slight pink hue that pops up, rendering some rather reddish skin tones occasionally. Detail looks decent in quite a few sequences and some of the exterior shots are satisfying, but this rendering of the 70mm cinematography mostly skims along on marginally above-par levels.

Audio arrives in a DTS HD Master Audio that steps beyond the visual representation, though it's worth remembering that the major element in this Blu-ray audio treatment is, naturally, Shakespeare's prose. That's why it's with a great sigh of relief that I state that the quick-tongued dialogue remains exceptionally crisp, clear and very pleasing. Another key player comes in Patrick Doyle's complex scoring, which distinctly carries to the separate channels with respectable weight. A few outside sound effects -- the force of the ghost's voice, echoing voices against the walls, the clanks of fencing blades -- test the waters of the sound design to only subdued levels, though they sound fresh to the ears. It's a very front-heavy design, but it certainly serves the purposes for the production. Several other language tracks (French, German, Castellano, and Spanish) are available, while a slew of optional subtitle options adorn the release, which are: English SDH, French, German, Castellano, Netherlands, Spanish, Dansk, Suomi, Norsk, and Svenska.

Special Features:

Commentary with Kenneth Branagh and Shakespeare Expert Russel Jackson (from 2007 DVD):
Branagh and textual consultant Jackson have been working together since the first of the director's Shakespearean adaptations, Henry V, and it's obvious that the two are very comfortable with each other. That shouldn't, in the slightest, suggest that they're casual or flippant about their context, because that couldn't be farther from the truth; instead, their comfort with each other makes their excruciatingly steady stream of dialogue punchy, revelatory, and utterly brilliant to absorb. They're on the same wavelength, moving into their comfort zones for the extent of this vigorous, thorough track, while they discuss the fabric of adapting the full play, what elements were shot on-stage (you'll be surprised), how they navigate the monologues/soliloquies, time management, production design, framing faces, vocal delivery, editing on 35mm film, richness of definition ... everything. For them to hold steam all the way through and stay both conversational and expository is a real feat, easily standing out as one of the better commentary tracks out there. I know that re-watching a four-hour Shakespearean film adaptation with a commentary might be the last thing on your mind, but this is really something you shouldn't miss.

To Be On Camera: A History of Hamlet (24:34, SD VC-1; from 2007 DVD):
This piece contains interviews with the cast and crew about the production, starting at a base level on the text and branching outwards. Branagh reveals the roots of his obsession, while vintage interviews intertwine with a few bursts of footage from the film. Kate Winslet defends non-British actors as Shakespearean players, Billy Crystal and Robin Williams act out a bit of their schtick, while Derek Jacobi and Charlton Heston offer tamer conversational bits. This featurette also contains a lot of behind-the-scenes footage, with the cast and crew navigating around the sets -- which proves interesting for the hall of mirrors. It's a generic piece, but the classic interview material's certainly worth the time.

Aside from the Introduction by Kenneth Branagh (7:50, HD VC-1; from 2007 DVD) that adorns the start of the film, the disc also contains the puff-material Vintage Cannes Promo (12:07, SD VC-1; from 2007 DVD) and a Theatrical Trailer (1:39, SD VC-1; from 2007 DVD). Take notice that all of these special features appeared on the previously-released two-disc DVD, aside from the HD introduction, and nothing new has been added to the mix.

Final Thoughts:

Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet, a sweeping achievement, easily stands as one of the better adaptations of William Shakespeare's play to screen -- and easily the most faithful within its four-hour sprint to cover the entire story. With Branagh running double-duty as actor and director, he shows a firm control over the tone, flow, and dramatic integrity, heightened by a rich cast that includes Hamlet vet Derek Jacobi as Claudius and Kate Winslet as Ophelia. Some artistic choices, as well as the persistence of point-blank cameos, might take its sturdiness down a peg or two, but it's impossible not to be engrossed by the fine craftsmanship under Branagh's hand. Warner Brothers' have presented a suitable Blu-ray here, though the meager boost to high-definition and the lack of new supplements (aside from the textual info in the attached Blu-ray book) neglect to earn this beautifully-shot film enough of a leg-up to merit a higher mark of approval. Still, the visual and aural properties are satisfyingly sound and the commentary track alone is enough to sate even the most thirst of the film's fans, which earn this high-definition package of a grand picture a very firm Recommendation.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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