Kenneth Branagh is one of the greatest cinematic populists of Shakespeare. Hamlet was Branaghs third venture into cinematic Shakespeare, following the success of his dazzling adaptations of Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing (1993) and would later be followed by his musical adaptation of Loves Labor Lost (2000) and As You Like It (2006). [He had also earlier directed a tv adaptation of Twelfth Night (1988)]. Kenneth Branaghs adaptations single-handedly reinvigorated Shakespeare on screen in the 1990s. Up until then, filmed Shakespeare had been more or less like filmed stage plays with the camera only following the action. There were one or two notable exceptions Franco Zefferellis Romeo and Juliet (1968) and Roman Polanskis MacBeth (1971). However, Branagh succeeded in firing Shakespeare up with a cinematic dynamism, accomplishing the difficult task of being both faithful to the play in question and also making it work as great cinema. Branaghs successes brought in a new vogue in cinematic Shakespeare and the 1990s saw a series of big-budget adaptations of various Shakespearean plays, all taking their cue from Kenneth Branaghs more cinematic interpretation Zefferellis Hamlet (1990) with Mel Gibson, Richard III (1995), Othello (1995) (which also starred Branagh), Romeo +& Juliet (1996), Twelfth Night (1996), A Midsummer Nights Dream (1999), Titus (1999), The Tempest (2010), peculiar updatings such as The Tempest (tv movie, 1998), 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), Hamlet (2000), O (2001), Gnomeo & Juliet (2011) and the BBC tv series ShakespeaRe-Told (2005), which redid a number of Shakespeare plays in modern setting and dialogue, as well as other oddities like Prosperos Books (1991), Al Pacinos documentary Looking for Richard (1996), Tromeo & Juliet (1996) and the entirely overrated Shakespeare in Love (1998).
Hamlet (1602) is considered by most to be Shakespeares greatest play, if not the greatest play ever written. Accomplishing it as an actor is akin to performing ones masterwork. Here Kenneth Branagh tries for a definitive Hamlet no less and very nearly achieves it. However, the problem with the film is exactly that. Branagh attempts a completely faithful Hamlet every other screen adaptation up to that point had abridged the play in one way or another. This results in a very long film four hours and two minutes in length. (The film was cut down to a 2½-hour version but this was promptly restored after public outcry). No scene is left untouched by Branagh and somewhat to his detriment. While certainly never uninteresting, the overall effect is of a long and talky film filled with sporadic moments of brilliance. Branaghs two previous Shakespearean films have been uniformly brilliant but here the length of the play slows the film down. Nevertheless, when the play is good it particularly picking up its dramatic momentum in the second half the film is exceptional. Branagh invests the classical overly familiar speeches Alas poor Yorick, I knew him, Horatio and To be or not to be with a reverence that makes them feel as though they are being uttered anew for the first time. Especially innovative is the utterance of to be speech, delivered in front of a mirror behind which Claudius and Polonius are hiding.
Hamlet has an epic sweep Branagh shot it in 70mm. The speech where Hamlet vows his vengeance is a breathtaking shot that pulls back from medium closeup to show him on a cliffside above a snowy plain across which an entire army is marching. The climactic fight with Laertes and the killing of Claudius by throwing a sword the length of the throne room and then cutting the chandelier to impale him is thrillingly good cinema. Elsinore is designed as an impressive labyrinth of mirrored ballrooms and hidden doors. Everything in the film is epic, including the remarkable cast that Branagh has marshalled he even uses actors like John Gielgud and Judi Dench to fill parts in a throwaway flashback that any other adaptation would only leave the characters as names mentioned only in passing. For all that, there are not any truly standout performances. Billy Crystal has a witty cameo as the gravedigger and Kate Winslet is good in the scene where she breaks down into madness. Other performances less so. Brian Blessed as the fathers ghost just does not work Blessed is far too melodramatic an actor and the scenes with him whispering loudly seem overly theatrical. Plus the fact that one keeps getting distracted by the obvious and piercingly blue contact lenses that Blessed has been provided with. Sadly, the film is let down most of all by Kenneth Branagh himself. Branagh is a stage-trained actor and on film he comes across more as an over-actor than a real actor. His Hamlet tends to come off more as a manic depressive leprechaun than a study in obsession and madness. For all its faults and unevenness, this is a near great adaptation of the play.
Kenneth Branagh has also directed several other films that are of genre interest: the reincarnation thriller Dead Again (1991); Mary Shelleys Frankenstein (1994), an adaptation of the oft-filmed horror classic; The Magic Flute (2006), an adaptation of the Mozart opera to the World War I battlefield; the Marvel Comics superhero film Thor (2011); the reboot of the Tom Clancy series Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014); and the big screen adaptation of Cinderella (2015).