Friday, July 6, 2012

HAMLET (1996)

(December 1996, U.S.)

The decade of the 1990s saw much in the form of Shakespeare on film. However, some of the films came with an updated twist of setting the story in a more modern time period than the original plays, most notably RICHARD III (1995) whick took place in the 1930s and ROMEO AND JULIET (1996) which took place in the present day. This, in my opinion, was not only a bold and original move, but it also brought the world of Shakespeare to a more modern and perhaps even a more comprehensible level to most audiences.

Kenneth Branagh's version of HAMLET is, without a doubt, the most ambitious Shakespearean undertaking I've ever seen on film. It not only follows the trend I mention above by setting it in the late 19th Century, but it's also the first unabridged theatrical film version of the play, running just over four hours, and features a huge international cast that includes Branagh himself as Hamlet, Julie Christie, Derek Jacobi, Kate Winslet, Jack Lemmom, Charlton Heston, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal and more. Frankly, this is the largest notable cast I've seen on screen since THE LONGEST DAY (1962) and THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974).

Despite using the full original text, Branagh's film is also very visual; it uses very long single takes for numerous scenes and also makes frequent use of flashbacks to depict scenes that are either only described but not performed in Shakespeare's play, such as Hamlet's childhood friendship with Yorick, or scenes only implied by the play's text, such as Hamlet's sexual relationship with Ophelia (played by Kate Winslet). You certainly can't argue with a version of HAMLET that contains female nudity! Special effects even come into play particularly when Hamlet is visited by the ghost of his dead father.

By now, having reached the third version of HAMLET in my film collection, there's very little I can say about the famous Prince of Denmark that I haven't already covered in my two previous posts. What I can say is that Branagh's film is, by far, my favorite version, despite it's four hour running time. Actauuly, I can say even BECAUSE of it, because the drama is so intense and so gripping, that time length barely matters.

What I can also do is tell you a story about my experience in seeing this film. This film was about as close as I ever came to experiencing an epic film in a limited roadshow engagement, much like what was popular in the 1950s and 1960s. When released, it played in only one movie theater in all of New York City, the Paris Theater located next door to the once famous Plaza Hotel. This was the only film that I EVER purchased advance tickets for over the phone. I went with a good friend of mine on a cold Saturday night in January 1997. We brought a bag into the theater with us containing a bottle of wine and various snacks, making a real epic evening out of it. It was one of those nights at the movies where not only the film itself was a true experience, but the movie theater, as well. This is a moviegoing experience that, in my opinion, simply doesn't exist anymore in large multiplexes that seem more like cheap amusement parks than movie theaters.

I should point out that just a mere four years after this film there was yet another version of HAMLET (2000) that starred Ethan Hawke in the title role and took place in the present day. While the film does possess many credible qualitites, particulary the use of a student film rather than a play to "catch the conscience of the King", it was not a film I chose to include in my collection. Perhaps I'd simply had enough of Hamlet in my life after three films. That being said and having just recently sat through more than eight hours of HAMLET in a row to bring you these writings, I have to say that I'm not only exhausted with the subject, but have very likely earned an honorary scholarship on the subject, as well. I practically feel intellectual now! Perhaps I'd better watch the sequel to THE HANGOVER this weekend on HBO just to bring myself down to a more common, perhaps even stupid, moviegoing level. On second thought...

And so...good night, sweet Prince!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Hamlet: "Oh, that this too too solid flesh would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew! Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd his canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O GOD! GOD! How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable, seem to me all the uses of this world! Fie on't! ah fie! 'tis an unweeded garden, that grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature possess it merely. That it should come to this! But two months dead: nay, not so much, not two: so excellent a king; that was, to this, hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother that he might not beteem the winds of Heaven visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth! Must I remember? why, she would hang on him, as if increase of appetite had grown by what it fed on: and yet, within a month-- let me not think on't--frailty, thy name is woman! A little month, or ere those shoes were old with which she follow'd my poor father's body, like Niobe, all tears:--why she, even she, Oh, God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason, would have mourned longer--married with my uncle, my father's brother, but no more like my father than I to Hercules: within a month: ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears had left the flushing in her galled eyes, she married. Oh, most wicked speed, to post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets! It is not nor it cannot come to good, but break, my heart; for I must hold my tongue."


  1. I've seen the Olivier Hamlet a couple of times but not in the last 18 years. He of course set the mark for the role though I think there is a Richard Burton Version that was recorded on stage which is supposed to be amazing.

    Gibson's Hamlet was a treat because it was muscular and creepy. I went with a group of friends when it was first in theaters, and I saw it one more time after that on cable. I remember liking it very much and feeling that it got to the crux of the story very efficiently.

    Branagh's version is complete. I always thought it was amusing that he was nominated for the Academy award for the screenplay when he basically used the text. Of course all of the staging and visualization probably adds to the effort that he put in to "polish" Shakespeare. I first saw this at the State Theater in Pasadena, Ca. This theater does not even exist anymore. It spent it's last few years as an outlet for upscale films that had no where to screen. Before that it had been a revival house. It was the place I took my wife to see Godfather and Godfather 2. The rainy day in Southern California that I saw Branagh's Hamlet, I was accompanied by my nine year old daughter. You might think that is a bit strange but she was the one who really wanted to go. She has been obsessed by English literature ever since. She is now a college graduate (in English Lit) and thinking of doing a Phd dissertation on Phillip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep/Blade Runner). She writes for and edits the design for a poetry magazine("A Few Lines" available on-line and for fun while in college she did a blog "Chaucer for College Students", translating the old English versions of Chaucer stories in a contemporary vein (also available on-line If I seem to be boasting a bit, I apologize but it was clear to me that the experience of seeing Branagh's version of the Danish Prince was key in launching her on a life path and I was happy to have been a part of that.

    It has been a couple of years since I saw the whole version from start to finish. I remember the staging of the famous soliloquy in front of the walls of mirrors. It was a brilliant way of visualizing the dueling fates that Hamlet is balancing. The cast is incredible, Charlton Heston as the Player King, what an actor to have for such a key minor part. Every time you walked into a new scene, there was another great performer, getting to do the Bard's words for the foremost Shakespearean director of our times.

    We saw a very amusing staging of the play a year or two ago. You might enjoy this preview:

    Despite the quality of the story and language, it must have been tough watching all three versions in a row. Thanks for taking one for the team.

  2. I remember watching a very inferior condensed version (just over 2 hours) on Pay-Per-View some months after the film's initial release. This was unexpected and I felt very cheated! Thank goodness DVDs don't screw you like that!