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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Glorious Film Does 'Hamlet' Justice




Shakespeare's "Hamlet" is the supreme achievement of the English language. There are better plays, better theater pieces ("King Lear" and "Othello" among them); there are works of greater beauty, more scope, sharper intellect. But nowhere else does the language, in all its vigorous, promise-crammed youth, roar and surge with such exuberance, raking through the bloodstream to foment a fertile chaos of meaning, mystery and emotion.


"Hamlet" is also Shakespeare's longest, perhaps most confusing, play, and Kenneth Branagh's 1996 film version, now showing at the American House of Cinema, includes every single word and scene. Yet the language -- these mere words, these sounds and symbols -- creates characters that blaze with a human reality that overpowers all the inconsistencies of plot, the archaic phraseology (some of it obscure even to Shakespeare's audience) and the burdens -- physical, mental and spiritual -- that the work imposes on player and viewer alike. These are vast heights to scale, and Branagh has come closer to the summit than any other filmmaker before him, including Olivier and even Kozintsev.


Not that he has achieved perfection. He stumbles with the beginning, in an awkward first encounter with the Ghost, and the only unsuccessful cameo by the many "name" stars who do small turns in the film: Here, Jack Lemmon is too stiff and obtrusive as the watchman Marcellus. Branagh stumbles more seriously with the ending, where his use of slam-bang spectacle greatly dilutes the tragedy's cathartic moment. But in between, we have almost four hours of glory.


Branagh's use of the full text tears the story away from the focus we've come to expect. While the prince is still clearly the center, the play is no longer a claustrophobic probing of one man's tortured soul, but a broader, deeper story of dynastic conflict and national ruin: the fall of the royal House of Hamlet, echoed by the no-less-wrenching fall of the House of Polonius. With this changed perspective, Branagh, in the title role, doesn't need to give a steeply angled "interpretation" to the part (such as Olivier's mother-obsessed Freudian zombie); Hamlet is once more, as he seems to be in the text, a normal if highly gifted man caught in extraordinary circumstances, improvising his way from crisis to crisis until at last the moment of "readiness" is upon him. Branagh plays the part with fierce energy, abundant wit and an often-surprising -- and moving -- subtlety.


But where he shines brightest is as a director, eliciting great performances from nearly the entire supporting cast. Kate Winslet is the first Ophelia this reviewer has seen in 20 years of Hamlet-watching who convincingly makes the transition from love-struck maid to grief-torn lunatic; it's a marvelous piece of work. Michael Maloney is equally good in the often wasted part of Laertes, giving him a tender, wounded passion that flares fatally into murder. Derek Jacobi -- himself one of the great Hamlets of the age -- is richly sinister yet charming, human, as Claudius; a worthy adversary to the prince. And Charlton Heston, as the Player King, gives his finest screen performance in at least 40 years.


The list goes on: Julie Christie's vulnerable Gertrude, Richard Briers' Polonius (far more substantive and menacing than the doddering fool we usually see), Gerard Depardieu as a decadent Reynaldo, and Billy Crystal, turning in an exceptional performance as the Gravedigger. This is a large and unwieldy collection of big names, but the play is larger than any of them, and Branagh's direction puts their star power to the service of the story; a remarkable feat in itself.


Above all, "Hamlet" is marvelous entertainment -- as Shakespeare no doubt intended. With the film's sumptuous 19th-century setting, its equal embrace of the text's melodrama and metaphysics, and the deeply emotional coloring Branagh has given the whole production, it provides -- despite its length and lapses -- a profoundly satisfying movie experience.