To know Shakespeare’s Hamlet is to know one of the great considerations of the human condition. Among the most widely read works of the English language, the bard’s timeless tragedy is also among those most commonly adapted for the screen (the earliest known version was filmed in France in 1900, while a threadbare TV adaptation from 1960’s West Germany once appeared on Mystery Science Theater 3000). None but Kenneth Branagh’s lavish 1996 adaptation, however, has yet dared to include the entirety of the original play unabridged, a trait used by many to argue his as the text’s definitive cinematic incarnation (though there remains something to be said for Michael Almereyda’s Manhattan-set modern-day reimagining, a superior film in my mind even if the omission of poor Yorick breaks my heart). A work of tremendous personal ambition equipped with a budget nearly equal in magnitude, filmed in rarely used 70mm widescreen stock (the last theatrical film to do so as of 2010) and clocking in at twice the length of the average theatrical feature, it is, in every measurable trait, a true epic.
Branagh’s Hamlet is the work of a prodigious talent drunk with inspiration, and as director, screenwriter, and the titular lead, Branagh’s reach here is at least superficially comparable to that of a young Mr. Welles. That being said, Branagh’s vision occasionally extends beyond the reach of his not-insubstantial talent, making this Hamlet a defining example of the necessarily flawed masterwork, in which relatively minor concessions are made so as to further the larger emotional and artistic impacts of the work (see also Apocalypse Now, a dual mess and masterpiece if there ever was one). Though Branagh’s vision comes up wanting at times in the short run, what is lost amid these slight creative vacuoles pales in comparison to what is gained through the riches of his exquisitely singular vision. Take, for example, Branagh’s insistence on keeping his performers at the center of attention, routinely opting for close-ups at the expense of more spatially defining medium and wide shots. Despite the commanding surroundings (this Hamlet is as gloriously staged and detail-ridden as any historical epic this side of Gone with the Wind), the frame fixates almost entirely on figures and faces, a choice that occasionally proves disorienting, but one that also gives the proceedings the same intimacy as a stage production in which props are only incidentally necessary.
In this manner does Hamlet walk a fine line between the cinematic and the theatrical, a path equal parts frustrating and rewarding, orgiastic and top-heavy. Counter to the film’s exhausting adherence to the source material is Branagh’s refreshing insistence on a distinctly personal interpretation thereof; passive emphasis on the political infrastructure better contextualizes Hamlet’s identity crisis, while an explicitly sexualized reading of his romance with Ophelia (Kate Winslet) lends fuller motive to his ambiguous fall from sanity. Sometimes difficult, always rewarding, it’s best to accept this filmmaking identity crisis as a given and instead make the remarkably talented cast the point of focus (not a weak link abounds, though Branagh and Julie Christie, as Hamlet’s mother Gertrude, are tops), though therein too lies the distinctive quirk of Branagh’s vision. Most curious is his reliance on celebrity performers for bit parts, another double-edged sword somewhat unique to the film. Distinctive celebrities such as Jack Lemmon (as Marcellus) and Robin Williams (as Osric), however skilled, prove distractingly anachronistic; the less recognizable are worked into the ether of the film with a manner approaching subtlety (Billy Crystal, as the first gravedigger, is an inspired choice). Certainly uneven, this relentlessly eclectic approach nevertheless feels suited to the all-encompassing scope of a text about nothing less than the worth of life itself and meant for the consumption of all from the highest balcony down to the cheap seats. Its superiority is arguable, but it is nothing if not an undertaking to give all others pause.
While the print used for this transfer has incurred the occasional imperfection over the past 14 years, the apparentness of such flaws here speaks to the pristine nature of the image being presented. Blacks could be deeper and flesh tones in particular are oversaturated, but edges remain crisp throughout and haloing is nil, which, given the demanding visual palate (film scholar Samuel Crowl refers to the Victorian-era setting as "film noir with all the lights turned on"), is nothing to sneeze at. Sound is superior. Dialogue is crisp and warm, while the mix unleashes fury during the film’s more action-laden sequences.
Disappointing. A promotional reel for Cannes ’97 and the original theatrical trailer are of interest for their insight into the marketing process for what a virtually unmarketable film (Hamlet only recouped $5 million of its $18 million budget), while the featurette "To Be on Camera: A History with Hamlet" is standard puff-piece material. Liner notes are a light read. Pulling the most weight is the centerpiece commentary track with Kenneth Branagh and dramatic scholar Russell Jackson. For as compulsively listenable as it is to hear these two go back and forth with insights and anecdotes for four hours, the experience is nearly unparalleled for sheer exhaustion (I, for one, had to lie down).
To be, or not to be. Kenneth Branagh’s seminal Hamlet is as conflicted and vital as life itself.