If you were a high school student struggling with Shakespeare’s renowned tragedy Hamlet, then there’s a good chance that Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film version of the play was your savior. Unlike all the film adaptations that came before it, Branagh’s production is notable for being the first to put the entire unabridged text on screen. What Branagh sets out to do is deliver the full Shakespeare experience on the silver screen. Running just over four hours, the result is a dazzling spectacle that is massive in scope, as well as a celebration of one of the most powerful and influential plays in the English language.
If there was anyone that could dare bring the entirety of Hamlet and its complex and epic breadth, then it would have to be Kenneth Branagh. The classically trained actor jumped into the international spotlight in 1989 with his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V, where he demonstrated his ability as a triple threat (acting, writing, and directing). He was hailed as the next Laurence Olivier, for both his varied talents and his passion for Shakespearean texts. With Hamlet, however, he was attempting the significant challenge of producing a film version that was completely faithful to the text while still accessible to modern audiences who often have trouble with three hour films, let alone one that is four.
I know it’s a bit redundant to get into plot synopsis considering the story’s length, so I’ll be brief. Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh), Prince of Denmark, returns home to find his father murdered and his mother Gertrude (Julie Christie) remarrying the murderer, his uncle Claudius (Derek Jacobi) who is now King. A minor subplot involves Denmark’s long-standing feud with Norway, and the threat of invasion by Norwegian prince Fortinbras (Rufus Sewell). Other notable characters include Claudius’ chief counselor Polonius (Richard Briers) and his daughter Ophelia (Kate Winslet), who also happens to be the love interest of Hamlet.
Hamlet is notably the last film to use 70mm film, which is typically used in large-scale epics. The masterful art direction and gorgeous costume design give the film a distinct and highly stylized look. The cold exteriors are contrasted beautifully with colorful interiors in the Victorian era castle. While the film is extremely long and may seem like a chore for some, it’s also very accessible and represents a complete Shakespeare experience. Even if you don’t easily keep up with the Shakespearean language, you can understand the meaning given the emotive performances by the skilled ensemble cast. The large number of celebrity cameos often works (Robin Williams, Billy Crystal) but at other times feel forced and awkward (Jack Lemmon), given the context.
Much has been said about Branagh’s lead performance, which is typically seen as either breathtaking or over-acted bombast. Given the necessity to sustain interest over the extended duration, as well as the heavy and dramatic dialog, Branagh handles Hamlet fairly skillfully. There are times when he goes from chewing scenery to tearing it apart, but in general he conveys the right emotions. Jacobi stands out among the rest of the cast with a truly great performance as the murderous King Claudius. If you’re in the mood for an epic tale of murder, corruption, and revenge set in the 19th-century, then Branagh’s grand production is a perfect fit.
Warner uses its artful book-style packaging for the Blu-ray release of Hamlet. It’s a terrific aesthetic for the set, which contains director and actor biographies, film trivia, and beautiful production photo stills. The film makes a great case for the format because the sumptuous visuals really pop in 1080p. Unfortunately, the disc is scarce on new bonus features. The introduction by Kenneth Branagh was made for the last DVD release, except updated in HD. The bonuses in standard definition include commentary by Branagh and Shakespeare Scholar Russell Jackson, a production featurette with interviews by the cast, a short 1996 Cannes promo, and the theatrical trailer.