Revisiting Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996)

HAMLET (1996)

To view Hamlet click here.

Late last year I had the great pleasure of seeing Derek Jacobi perform MEASURE + DIDO (directed by Jacobi’s partner of 38-years, Richard Clifford), a modern update of William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure that includes excerpts from Henry Purcell’s chamber opera Dido and Aeneas. Jacobi was marvelous as Angelo, the lusty, scheming and very funny deputy to the Duke of Vienna. With apologies to the other players, Jacobi owned the stage and effortlessly commanded Shakespeare’s ornate language. I was in awe of his powerful performance and in the process, I gained a new appreciation for Shakespeare’s comedy. But if truth be told, I prefer the Bard’s tragedies to his comedies so with the experience of seeing MEASURE + DIDO still somewhat fresh in my mind, I decided to revisit Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996) now streaming on FilmStruck.

Like many film fans and Shakespeare enthusiasts, I was bowled over by Branagh’s Henry V (1989) when I first saw it on screen. The young director and star, who was just 29-years-old at the time, brought Shakespeare back to the people and out of the rigged confines of academia by breathing new life into the Bard’s poetry and prose. Henry V rightly earned Branagh many awards, as well as critical acclaim, and Hollywood took notice. In fact, Hollywood seemed to swallow Branagh up.

His subsequent Shakespeare adaptations including Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Love’s Labor Lost (2000) and As You Like It (2006), lost a lot of the urgency, raw energy, and edginess that had made Henry V so enjoyable. The films seemed to be ill-conceived, more bloated and less interested in the sumptuous language that defines Shakespearian drama. They were also weighed down by the stunt casting of popular Hollywood stars in unsuitable roles, often at the request of producers to boost ticket sales. Branagh’s Hamlet suffers from these problems as well and when I first saw the film 20-years ago, I was so distracted by its shortcomings that I overlooked its many virtues.

Branagh’s Hamlet is the first unabridged film of Shakespeare’s play and clocking in at just over 4 hours, it demands a lot from viewers. Concise and considerate edits could improve the overall execution and flow but the film’s length also comes with some benefits. There have been over 50 film adaptations of Hamlet but fascinating supporting characters such as Rosencrantz (Timothy Spall) and Guildenstern (Reece Dinsdale) are often given short shrift due to time constraints. That’s not the case here. The length of the film allows for the play’s subtle plot points to fully blossom and minor roles no longer feel minor.

Much of the film’s focus is naturally on Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, who is seeking revenge for the murder of his father (Brian Blessed), and Kenneth Branagh does a good job of balancing the dual roles of director and star. Branagh is a lively and energetic Hamlet who is constantly on the move. He clearly loves the language and could probably recite the play backwards while blindfolded, which allowed him to give a very animated performance. For better or worse, the character is typically portrayed as a somber truth seeker but Branagh’s Hamlet is more ferocious, replacing melancholy with rage and bewilderment with bravado. It doesn’t always work and during my rewatch I often found myself wishing he had dialed things down but his delivery is flawless for some of Hamlet’s more assertive soliloquies, particularly the lesser repeated ones such as “’Tis now the very witching time of night” and “How all occasions do inform against me.”

Hamlet was photographed in stunning Super Panavision 70, a favorite of David Lean who used the same stock while shooting Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Ryan’s Daughter (1970). Branagh’s film lacks the depth and breadth of Lean’s work, but it does contain some arresting visuals. The baroque set pieces are stunning, particularly the gilded ballroom with its checkered floors and mirrored walls that absorb and reflect all the action. It’s here that Hamlet delivers his seminal “To be, or not to be” speech and fights his dynamic and beautifully shot duel with Laertes (Michael Maloney). And during the film’s final moments Fortinbras (Rufus Sewell) and his invading army make a spectacular entrance while crashing through the ballroom windows accompanied by Patrick Doyle’s bombastic and moving score.

HAMLET (1996)

Hamlet flounders when the casting doesn’t work and Branagh seems to have difficulty with the play’s darker moments. This is particularly noticeable during the introduction of the ghost (Hamlet’s late father) where a painfully out-of-place Jack Lemmon struggles to portray the devoted sentry and in the gravedigger scene featuring Billy Crystal who appears to be on the verge of cracking an ill-timed joke at any moment. Julie Christie, who is normally one of my favorite actresses, was well-suited to play Gertrude but she seems lost or forgotten in the vast halls of the immense palace most of the time. Even Kate Winslet’s interpretation of Ophelia suffers under Branagh’s scattershot direction. Her scenes, which are some of the play’s most memorable moments, lack the resonance they should carry.

Despite my criticisms, the film does contain some wonderful casting surprises. Charlton Heston, in what is arguably his last substantial role, makes an impressive Player King. He may be American but his booming voice is perfectly suited for Shakespeare and it makes you wish he had abandoned Hollywood late in life and relocated to England where he could have had a second career with the Royal Shakespeare Company. However, the best performance in Hamlet belongs to Derek Jacobi as the conniving Claudius who murders his brother (Hamlet’s father) and sets in motion a series of horrible events that will eventually lead to the demise of Denmark.

HAMLET (1996)

Jacobi’s Claudius possesses a byzantine complexity and is so slippery that he defies any attempt to brand him a villain. Like Shakespeare himself, Jacobi paints Claudius in rich shades of gray, allowing us to sympathize with his despicable deeds. He leaves us wondering if maybe, just maybe, he would have been a superior king than his dead brother, a more loving husband to Gertrude and a better father to the inconsolable Hamlet. The master thespian doesn’t try to upstage the Bard’s words or chew up Branagh’s lush scenery, instead, he thoughtfully and effortlessly recites each line of Claudius’s dialogue as if he were merely breathing. It is an organic and fully formed portrait of a character typically eclipsed by his actions.

For all its faults, Branagh’s Hamlet impressed me more during my second viewing and I’m glad I made time to revisit it again. Due to a lack of interest on my part, I haven’t kept up with the director’s recent output but I’m looking forward to his interpretation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (2017) scheduled for a November release later this year. Like Hamlet, Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express has a diverse cast of players and with Derek Jacobi on board, it’s sure to be an interesting trip.

Kimberly Lindbergs

13 Responses Revisiting Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996)
Posted By Steven Flanagan : June 8, 2017 4:00 am

Have you seen the 1980 BBC “Hamlet” with Jacobi in the title role? It’s probably my favourite screen performance of the part, with all Sir Derek’s characteristic sensitivity. Perhaps some ingenious digital editor could splice Jacobi’s 1980 Hamlet together with his 1996 King. The family resemblance would be convincing.

Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : June 8, 2017 7:15 am

I enjoyed Branagh’s Hamlet, but not as much as his Henry V or Much Ado About Nothing (which I love despite the horrible decision to cast Keanu Reeves). And not as much as the 1980 BBC production that Steven mentioned. Jacobi was amazing as Hamlet, and Patrick Stewart was very good as Claudius. That production also managed to bring out all of the humor in Hamlet, which (if it isn’t excised) usually suffers both from the obscurity of some of the language, and from over-serious acting and direction. Branagh himself was guilty of that in his portrayal, which surprised me since he handled the humor in Much Ado About Nothing so well.

Posted By EricJ : June 8, 2017 2:17 pm

I’d seen Franco Zefirelli’s 1990 Hamlet with Mel Gibson (still the best) and hated, hated, HATED Kenneth’s version–Everything about it drops the ball:
Gibson’s own naturally insane edginess in the ’90 version plays up Hamlet’s impulsiveness that leads to his indecision, his already free-floating anger sharpens the disguised-hostility point on Hamlet’s “mad” double-talk needling of the characters, and Alan Bates as the King makes the conscience-of-the-king play scene absolutely electric.

Brannagh and Jacobi are too reserved and Royal-Shakespeare, but even worse is Brannagh’s “The Compleat Hamlet” gimmick of putting in -every- scene that was ever cut out of any production. And, like watching the deleted scenes on a DVD, we start to know WHY they were cut: Do we -need- to have Gerard Depardieu show up for a one-scene cameo as Reynaldo, so he can disappear from the rest of the play? Do we need to have Robin Williams do Shakespeare’s one other comedy-relief scene as Osric the assistant? Yes, Charlton Heston runs away with the film, but now you know why the Death Of Priam was always cut from most productions. (And Billy Crystal, surprisingly, can handle Shakespeare, but Jack Lemmon??)
Basically, Brannagh’s plays like one of those current remakes that protests-too-much that they’re going to be “closer to the original” than the last version, flails about in every wrong direction trying NOT to be the previous one, and misses most of the targets the earlier one/s hit correctly without trying.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : June 8, 2017 2:42 pm

I appreciate the lively discussion this post has generated & hopefully, we can keep things civil. I’ve seen the BBC Hamlet with Jacobi and Zefirelli’s Hamlet with Gibson and I think they both have lots to recommend them but suffer from their own set of problems. As does Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, which is another production I like a lot too along with Tony Richardson’s Hamlet also shot for the BBC. That said, all of them are lacking and I’m still waiting for the *definitive* screen adaptation of Hamlet to appear or at least one that hits all the right notes for me.

Posted By Doug : June 8, 2017 6:01 pm

A fine adaptation which I’ve boosted here before: “The Banquet” a Chinese production from 2006 starring Ziyi Zhang.
A great help for me in understanding Shakespeare- the book series “No Fear Shakespeare”-the original plays side by side with a modern translation.
Though he’s getting a bit old for the role now, I’d love to see what Sam Rockwell could do as Hamlet.
My opinion-Hamlet and Ophelia should be played by teenagers, not actors old enough to be grandparents.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : June 8, 2017 6:19 pm

I’ve never seen The Banquet so thanks for the rec, Doug. It sounds really interesting.

Posted By Doug : June 8, 2017 8:17 pm

Kimberly, I think you will like it-I don’t dare mention any of the scenes/differences, but it is cool.

Posted By George : June 8, 2017 10:03 pm

Too bad John Barrymore never filmed Hamlet. People who saw him on stage in the role said it was the greatest acting they’d ever witnessed. But, to be honest, Barrymore was a bit too old for the part by the time talkies came along.

At least he did a recital as Richard III in the largely unwatchable SHOW OF SHOWS in 1929.

Posted By Steven Flanagan : June 9, 2017 5:39 am

Doug might like to get hold of the Opus Arte DVD of the RSC’s 2016 production of “Hamlet”. Paapa Essiedu is a terrific and distinctly youthful lead, in attitude and delivery as well as appearance.

Denmark and Norway have been relocated to West Africa for this production. The only white faces are Rosencranz and Guildenstern, while Horatio is Asian – the casting reinforces the idea that what they have in common is being students.

It is, however, a recording of a live theatre performance, so the mise-en-scene is not always a good match for watching on a screen.

Posted By kingrat : June 10, 2017 7:30 pm

Thanks for mentioning the Branagh HAMLET, which I’ve never seen. I don’t care much for either the Olivier or the Zeffirelli version. Often Hamlet is portrayed as a sensitive intellectual, but the Mel Gibson version of Hamlet as a man of action pushed into matters beyond his ken is also a reasonable interpretation.

Zeffirelli’s underlining and italicizing of incestuous feelings make some of Glenn Close’s scenes as Gertrude rather ludicrous, to my taste. As Eric says, Alan Bates is a memorable Claudius.

The sword fight is my favorite part of the Olivier HAMLET, and Eileen Herlie, younger than Olivier, makes a sympathetic Gertrude.

Posted By Mitch Farish : June 16, 2017 12:31 am

Hello Kimberly, I guess the comments for your Cat People post were closed for obvious reasons. I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your insightful observations. I learned a lot I didn’t know about one of my favorite movies! I think it’s pretty clear that Irena is afraid of discovering she’s gay, and that’s the reason for her reluctance to consummate her marriage with Oliver. She tells Dr. Judd that her father met a mysterious death in the forest, suggesting perhaps that cat women kill males after mating. I didn’t know about the influence on the movie of Bodeen’s homosexuality, but I did know that Lewton’s aunt was the lesbian silent actress Alla Nazimova.

I also wonder if Lewton’s “The Bagheeta,” was influenced by another Weird Tale, “Ancient Sorceries” by Algernon Blackwood, about a hapless English tourist who’s transported in time to a medieval French villa and is drawn irresistibly to a beautiful young woman who, with the rest of the villagers, transforms into a cat to attend a black Sabbath in the forest. The plot’s not the same as Cat People, but I think there are elements in it that are similar to the film’s legend about the catwomen of Irena’s village. Thank you so much for such a great post!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : June 16, 2017 2:41 pm

Thanks, Mitch. Editors decided to close the comments on my Cat People post.

I agree with your observation as do a lot of other film historians and journalists. You can find plenty of gay subtext in Cat People if you want to look for it. As for Blackwood, in my research notes I made mention of his name so I believe he was an influence but I haven’t read “Ancient Sorceries” myself although I have read a lot of other Blackwood stories. I don’t doubt that he probably did influence the plot in one way or another so thanks for bringing up his name.

Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : July 3, 2017 8:49 am

I got an e-mail saying there was a new comment on this thread (it even included the comment), but it seems to have been removed. Have comments been closed on this too? I may not agree with EricJ’s political opinions or world-view (in fact, I couldn’t disagree more on some subjects), but I don’t like to think we’re being censored. The things that were said, both here and on the Cat People article, were civil. We were agreeing to disagree. It hadn’t devolved into petty name-calling or spiteful, mean diatribes. Please don’t censor the discussion, even if it does stray a bit from the film being discussed.

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