Hamlet

Hamlet

****

Reviewed by: James Benefield

With his Hamlet, Ken Branagh presents as uncompromised and unabridged version of Shakespeare's best-known tragedy as humanly possible. So at four hours, this longest of all of cinema's Hamlets is not for everyone but for those who love their Shakespeare, it's an essential watch.

This grand project has a grand cast to stud it – even its bit parts play host to otherwise, rather disparate, marquee-heading names such as Charlton Heston, Gerard Depardieu, Judi Dench and Robin Williams (camping it up spectacularly as Osric). And Ken Dodd. Some, of course, fare better than others – but with volume (and speed) often cranked to eleven, any flaws often don't seem to matter. Another scene, and another jaw-dropping piece of acting or cinematography, will be along soon enough.

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Ken Branagh directs himself in the lead role, as the recently returned home Hamlet. His Prince of Denmark is spitting feathers at the recent marriage of his uncle Claudius (Derek Jacobi) to his very recently windowed mother, Gertrude (a rather stiff Julie Christie). Hamlet's mourning of his father, the former King, is interrupted by the appearance of his father's ghost (Brian Blessed). The ghost warns him that all is not well, and that Claudius may well be responsible for the former King's death.

It's not like Hamlet doesn't have enough on his plate already. He has girl troubles in the form of the increasingly edgy Ophelia (Kate Winslet), and her over-protective father Polonius (Richard Briers). There's also the fear that the kingdom will be imminently invaded by Norway's Fortinbras (Rufus Sewell). No wonder Hamlet's sanity soon starts to get questioned.

This question of sanity is played up by a knowing performance from Branagh. Grandstanding, overblown and surprisingly physical, it would be perfectly suited in a large London theatre, where you'd see his every facial expression even from the cheap seats. It actually makes the question of whether Hamlet is going mad a difficult one to answer as there's not that much angst and handwringing, rather there's plenty of anger and gesticulating.

But this adaptation is, in some ways, all about spectacle, so this performance largely works. From the 'what piece of work is a man' soliloquy being twisted to a Henry V-like battle cry (complete with soaring soundtrack) to the beautiful locations filmed in clear, bright, luscious 70mm, it's hardly subtle but it's all consistently presented. The only actor who clearly hasn't received this brief is Derek Jacobi's Claudius, whose restrained performance acts as a relief to all this excess – but instead of jarring, it provides a nice counterpoint to Branagh's propensity to gurn.

By this point in his career, Ken Branagh had found his voice and a set of skills to match his confidence. It doesn't matter that he slathers on the directorial cliches (the use of mirrors meaning characters are conflicted, the soap opera-like use of slow zooms into extreme close ups for revelatory moments). It's a consistent vision and, more importantly, a cinematic vision. All traces of staginess are removed and we have a blockbuster of a Hamlet.

For those who thought Branagh's admiration of the excessive began with Thor, they need to cast their eye back to this 1996 effort – which still happens to be his most ambitious film to date. It's not particularly nuanced or sophisticated, but cinema needs something more grandiose and styled to make Shakespeare work. And, if you have patience for it, this works really rather well.

Reviewed on: 16 Jan 2012
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Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, returns home to find his father murdered and his mother remarrying the murderer, his uncle. Meanwhile, war is brewing.
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