Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh (based on the play The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare)
As a performance piece, Hamlet—which is to say, the complete text of the reading version of William Shakespeare's Hamlet first published in the 1623 folio—is younger than you'd think. (And this isn't necessarily "actual Hamlet," a whole other issue.) As the phrase "reading version" implies, performances of Hamlet are different, and almost invariably cut to around three hours, film versions typically being even shorter. I don't know if we actually know whether Hamlet was ever performed in its entirety before the banning of theatre by Puritan despotism in 1643, but the major productions of the 1700s and the 1800s did not do the full text of Hamlet. A lot of the time they didn't even just do abridgements; post-Restoration theatre was wild, and they had no fear of blasphemy to stop them from doing straight-up rewrites, sometimes for content, sometimes just because they felt like it. Almost paradoxically from our standpoint, the man most responsible for making William Shakespeare the God of British theatre, David Garrick, also hated large swathes of Hamlet and used an alteration of the play where, in a startling departure for one of the most famously lethal stories ever written, hardly anyone actually dies. Eventually, the text took on a far more inviolate character, something I'm frankly a little ambivalent about, and yet it took a long while for anyone to take on the challenge of all of that text: it is not until 1899 that Frank Benson finally staged a significant Hamlet without any cuts—a so-called "eternity version," which has the mien of a double-entendre, but is pretty much just a reference to how long it is, about four and a half hours.
It took three years shy of another century before movies caught up with him. That was when Kenneth Branagh pulled off a career miracle, emerging from the wreckage of the unfair commercial failure of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein—stopping along the way only for a microbudget comedy, In the Bleak Midwinter, whereupon he wondered aloud for 99 minutes if he had any career left, and to signal to other directors he would deign to act for them, in Oliver Parker's Othello—but somehow he managed the astonishing feat of going more-or-less directly from a costly flop to a costly magnum opus, an eternity version of Hamlet directed by him and starring him. For the record, Branagh's version, which is the First Folio version plus additional Second Quarto material, is only four hours, rather than four and a half (it's 242 minutes with credits), mostly because Branagh is a motormouth—I mean this lovingly—and his ensemble largely follows suit.
If we need to do it, though I doubt we do, the story Hamlet tells is thus: the young (or youngish) prince of Denmark, Hamlet, has returned home to Elsinore from university in Wittenberg upon the news of his father's death. Yet rather than a family to share his grief, what he finds upon his arrival instead is that his uncle Claudius (Derek Jacobi) is married to his mother Gertrude (Julie Christie), and that Claudius was elected king and Hamlet wasn't. Hamlet will have no opportunity to come to terms with this, for his father (Brian Blessed), despite the handicap of being dead, has been stalking the grounds of the palace, and when Horatio (Nicholas Farrell) and Marcellus (Jack Lemmon) bring Hamlet out to see, the ghost speaks to him of murder and adultery, and gives him his task—to kill Claudius. Hamlet promises he will. He doesn't, for several hours.
Instead, he alternates between acting weird and provocative in ways that seem actively counter to his stated desire to avoid suspicion and scrutiny, breaking up with his girlfriend Ophelia (Kate Winslet), attempting to acquire more proof of his uncle's guilt in addition to the testimony of a supernatural being, and accidentally killing Ophelia's father Polonius (Richard Briers) in a case of mistaken identity, thereby making a nemesis of Opelia's brother Laertes (Michael Maloney), whom he also accidentally kills, and between the two ultimately creating a situation that will compel Ophelia and Gertrude alike to take their own lives. Eventually, he kills Claudius on purpose. In the meantime, he gets his college friends Rosencrantz (Timothy Spall) and Guildenstern (Reece Dinsdale) killed too, but this is during one of his phases of greater resolution, so he doesn't care, and then he gets so busy that by the time he might've, he's dead too, the triumphant victim of his own suicidal design—if you don't mind a little interpretation—and, more proximately, the victim of an extremely complicated deathtrap previously arranged by Claudius and Laertes, while Fortinbras of Norway (Rufus Sewell), come to conquer Denmark, finds instead an empty throne. Or, in this staging, at least a throne where the occupant is conveniently already a corpse and so is his heir.
The obvious virtue of Branagh's four hour Hamlet is that it preserves every possible strength of Shakespeare's Hamlet, luxuriating in its dilatory richness—if it accomplished absolutely nothing else, if you have a favorite line that was cut from any previous adaptation of this source of half of the idioms in the English language, then it's not cut here—and accordingly, its weaknesses are basically only those inherent to the play itself. My recollection is that the way Shakespeare is taught in high school can make it seem like the "criticism" of Shakespeare, perhaps Hamlet above all, only ever touches on "so what does it mean?", rather than going into more basic questions of aesthetic or narrative quality, but until Bardolatry became the normative mode of engaging with Shakespeare people expressed all sorts of annoyances, perhaps as often as they expressed wonder and appreciation. Why, just look at Garrick's version—I was disappointed to learn we share a dislike of Act V specifically, but not the same parts and not remotely for the same reasons. In any case, inevitably Branagh's full-text Hamlet replicates anything you already dislike.
There are the little problems I don't really care about: the well-attested inconsistency posed by Hamlet's so-called "undiscovered country" when the second thing Hamlet does in the play is discovering that country for himself, getting handed a mission by one of its citizens; the significantly less well-attested needlessness of Hamlet's pretense towards an "antic disposition," which feels more like an artifact of Hamlet's source material, the Icelandic saga of Amleth, wherein Amleth's uncle actually was out to kill him, and only feigned madness stayed his hand; the abject terribleness of the incredibly-poorly-placed, momentum-halting comic relief figure that is Osric (Robin Williams, trying but not saving it); and, if you're an 18th century French critic, a certain perceived ignorance of the Aristotelian unities, though while I must misunderstand the Aristotelian unities because I think Hamlet comes pretty close to fulfilling them, the abortive sojourn to England and the off-stage pirate stuff does strike me as something of an unnecessary accumulation. As for Hamlet's apparent lack of faith in what he and his friends beheld with their own eyes, Branagh doesn't even minimize it—Horatio and Marcellus get their earful of Old Hamlet's bellowing too—but he does envision it quite nicely, their experience of Hamlet's father as so much a demoniac vision of his own statue in the courtyard that it feels like a group hallucination. Yet there remains my own big problem with it, the profound relational reset that happens after Ophelia's funeral so as to permit a "friendly" duel between mortal enemies, because Shakespeare really wants to have his over-convoluted, poison-happy ending.
These weaknesses—except the last one, which will annoy me until I die—are not particularly big deals, but oh, do those strengths shine like glittering diamonds. The plot of Hamlet isn't where it succeeds the best, but in the spaces between the plot, or at least to the side of the plot, and Branagh definitely gets that, and crucially he has the space to actually pursue that. This is why I expect it is the best of all film Hamlets and would probably remain the best of all film Hamlets by default even if there weren't a lot of other reasons to call it that. There are elements that are not needed for "the plot" that are, to my mind, still essential. Even if Branagh didn't have the same opinions about what those parts are at least they'd still be here, but I think we must agree on a lot of things given the absolute privilege he extends to two of them. (Though, in fairness, of course my opinion has been shaped pretty utterly by Branagh's movie.) Both concern Shakespeare's exquisite use of symbolic counterpoint to the prince, when a lot of versions only ever manage a Laertes. And now I wonder if I've gotten ahead of myself—one of the other things Branagh and I seem to agree on is that Hamlet rather sucks. But we can probably all agree that Hamlet sucks in particular at avenging his father, and the play seeds in two more avenging sons by which we can compare Hamlet and find him wanting: the son of Achilles is offered in a player monologue, given cinematic life by Branagh as it would exist in the mind of its listener, where we witness the revenge of Pyrrhus upon the city of Troy (Branagh even gets to fold in big-deal Hamlet-man John Gielgud as Priam, plus Judi Dench as Hecuba); this prefigures Fortinbras, whose father Fortinbras fell to Old Hamlet years and years ago, and Branagh threads Sewell into the proceedings as a structuring force outside the ambit of the play, directing him to glare most intensely at everything, a sort of brewing storm and grim, affectless force of history. To see how their absence impoverishes the play, we don't have to look further than the other most famous screen Hamlet, Laurence Olivier's Best Picture-winning 1948 take on the material, which I barely like and, curiously, mostly for its visuals, virtually never for its performances.
I pledged not to do homework and only to evaluate Branagh's Shakespeares as movies in their own right, and I suppose my worry that I wouldn't have the patience to do both things fairly might have been borne out, considering my ungenerous reaction to Olivier's Hamlet. Nevertheless, I'm glad I saw it, because it is very helpful to realize how much Branagh's Hamlet is a straight-up reaction to Olivier's half-century-old Hamlet, to the extent that if Olivier zigged Branagh clearly felt obliged to zag whether or not the zig was the one correct adaptational choice. Branagh being incorrect doesn't happen that often—take that as you will—but it happens in a big way when, despite cheerfully using cutaways (or "dissolve-aways" as the case may be) to render textual descriptions into filmic visuals almost everywhere else, our director stages Ophelia's report of her first encounter with Hamlet after the ghost as Winslet acting out what she's saying Hamlet was doing, seemingly solely because Olivier, making the obvious embellishment, already did it with an onscreen Hamlet in flashback. (On the other hand, Branagh manages to completely solve another minor problem of the play with his version of Ophelia's first scenes: by having her dual interrogations by the male members of her family regarding Hamlet now involve some actual imagery of freaking Hamlet, first viewed amorously from afar, then, in kniving erotic flashbacks that more-or-less lock in the interpretation that Ophelia, contra her assurances, is definitely getting plowed by the sweet prince played by the director—in fairness, I don't really hold this to be an ambiguity of the play in the first place—Branagh establishes some keenly-felt stakes to their relationship that would not have gotten established otherwise, given that their first scene together alone is not alone, and it's already delivering their relationship's irrevocable dissolution.)
Anyway: Branagh's Hamlet is effectively reacting to Olivier's in every frame, for where the latter was a dark and dreary dirge full of shadow, Branagh's Hamlet—and this is a reaction to many Hamlets—is all but suffused in light. There are exceptions—the horror film rendition of Old Hamlet's ghost, for instance, though even then the constancy of snow in this Hamlet's exterior production design makes this aggressively supernatural moonlit scene brighter than otherwise—but for the most part this is one shiny Hamlet, very much leaning upon "light" as almost the very core of its identity. Some of it's pragmatic—Branagh's shooting style benefits from lots of light—and some of it's just to put his own stamp on it—to take it out of gothy gloominess, though Hamlet maintains his now-customary black attire, a negative space of unfocused mourning sucking the life out of the white and red accoutrements that otherwise dominate. (I don't think there's a strict symbolic scheme to Alexandra Byrne's costumes, but there is striking, even anti-realistic aesthetic unity, and I do adore the black/red/white triptych manifested by grieving Hamlet, bloodstained Claudius, and Claudius's apparently-virginal bride in their first scene. And then we remember that the national colors of Denmark make this weirdly natural, too.)
There's more to it than that, and ultimately it comes down to Branagh's decision about "when" to set his Hamlet, for he makes the idiosyncratic choice to stage it as a fantasia upon Belle Epoque Europe, and production designer Tim Harvey renders an airy, open, downright opulent Elsinore, which does all sorts of cool things for Branagh's movie: for absolute starters, it is a right proper spectacle, very much the lavish epic of an MGM-in-the-30s event picture, from the loving indulgence of Byrne's costumes to the enormous palace set (supplemented by Blenheim Palace exteriors, bringing Hamlet architecturally into modern times all by itself), all the way to the forthright MGM-in-the-30s homage of what might be my favorite single scene here and, in its very straightforward emotional appeal, maybe my favorite Hamlet soliloquy. Right before the intermission—so at exactly the same moment, structurally!—Branagh nods directly, in his Hamlet's frozen-over register, to that other infamous day-killer, Gone With the Wind, essentially managing to combine the Confederate dead scene and "I will never be hungry again" into one flattening scene, as the camera pulls out into endless space and a ceaseless procession of Norwegian soldiers march grimly toward their own undiscovered country, and Branagh booms out, "my thoughts be BLOODY," all-caps for sure, "or they be nothing worth!" (Though my favorite shot is the lateral dolly that moves from Claudius and Gertrude's wedding celebration behind an obstruction to find, for the first time, our Hamlet, isolated, angry, and squashed into the very edge of the 70mm frame.)
But maybe the more interesting thing about it is how this emphasizes aspects of the play not usually emphasized on film, or perhaps even on stage, and not just as a generic "political intrigue" to serve as the backdrop to the plot; instead, it tends to foreground an interpretation of the play as a battleground for competing worldviews, first Catholicism and Protestantism—neither mentioned explicitly, of course, though the soteriology related by Old Hamlet certainly isn't strictly Anglican*—and, in turn, under a Christian veneer, the incongruous prospect of Amleth's pagan heroic quest dropped into the lap of Hamlet, ambiguously sectarian Christian and Renaissance Man, whose response to his divinely-ordained task is to equivocate and overthink it, and whose problem is too much light upon his inner doubts, and who therefore does ridiculous things like try to catch kings' consciences. I don't know if Branagh did this on purpose, or if this is just how it hits me, personally—I love it either way—but resituating this in the era that obliterated the very last vestiges of the world in which Hamlet was written underlines Hamlet's clash of irrationalism and modernity with bombastic style and the exact right balance of anachronistic artificiality. It allows for the importance of the story of Pyrrhus, an even older pagan hero; it allows for the all-importance of Fortinbras, son of a man Old Hamlet defeated, a corollary of the Young Hamlet but without his pathologies, and who enjoys his revenge as a matter of pure modernism, grounded in rationalism and policy, as a dish served (literally) cold.**
The extraordinary thing about having four hours to work with is that this is just one of the things that Branagh can do with Hamlet; he doesn't have to choose between political Hamlet, plot Hamlet, melodramatic Hamlet, philosophical Hamlet, even the Hamlet that occasionally exists beyond the character, Hamlet. They're all there—even Olivier's good old Oedipal Hamlet—and psychological Hamlet, more broadly, is still amply represented, curiously enough through the same production design that insists on allegory, with an Elsinore riddled like a rat's warren with the hidden passageways Hamlet and Claudius travel as they test their cleverness against one another, unified into both a single physical and psychological space by the honking big long takes that Branagh favors, that can suggest the facets of a manifold personality with the same facility it denotes a real structure in real space. (The other good reason for these long takes is to retain the theatrical flow of the dialogue, whereas Branagh's usual fevered mobility winds up a very practical thing here, married to his usual disciplined choreography of actors, serving the function of a cut, to italicize lines and moments and individual beats of a given performance, without needing to actually cut.)
Well, somehow even more obviously, there's the great hall of Branagh's Elsinore, imagined as a hall of mirrors, and the mirrors are also doors, by which Hamlet is continually confronted with himself***—and this is where that "pragmatism" I mentioned stops dead, for Branagh presented Alex Thompson with the kind of scenario cinematographers must have nightmares about—but it allows for one superlative "to be or not to be" and, elaborating upon it even further with the conceit of one-way mirrors, we get a maybe-even-more-superlative struggle between Ophelia and Hamlet, as she duplicitously attempts to sort out his "madness" while Claudius and Polonius helplessly witness her remarkably violent abuse. And then, almost too blatantly but deep enough into this eternal Hamlet that you'll have to accept it, we find that Ophelia is confined to a padded cell, fairly enough for any 1900ish-set Hamlet, except that this cell is directly off the grand hall, placed behind one of those mirrored doors, one more annex to the mind-palace of its prince.
Meanwhile, I don't expect any of this works without the melodramatic Hamlet, which Branagh unifies with philosophical Hamlet: the morbidity of this Hamlet and this Hamlet is terribly pronounced, reaching probably its apex in the gravedigger sequence—one of those apparently rare miracles where Shakespeare's avowed comic relief merges with both actual humor and actual character work, and in Billy Crystal's hands coming off the opposite of "dopey"—though it's maybe only the most forceful of Hamlet's many ruminations (it helps that he's talking to a skull), a pensive expression of a man who knows he's going to die, and not in just a philosophical sense, but indeed rather soon. For all Branagh and his crew's prodigious work behind the camera, then, this heart of Hamlet, of course, remains the creature of his actors. And by no means just the one actor, though Branagh is my perfect Hamlet, finding all the right manifestations of his extremes of abjectness and transcendence, terror and wonder, hatred and love, not so much by cleanly shifting gears between them but by recognizing when to suddenly and frighteningly swing to the opposite tack.
It's an embracing and agreeably contradictory performance, the kind that's a little exhausting to watch for four hours but in a deeply satisfying way, managing a character who is, by-and-large, monumentally awful, yet tends to win back your sympathy—and which all along involves some seriously impressive technique, as regards the clarity with which Branagh charts Hamlet's shuttle runs between "madness" and madness. The former is a self-amused asshole yammering away with flowery insult poetry and mugging as if, well, Hamlet knew he were starring in a Hamlet movie (he brings out the incipient comedy in Hamlet); the latter, though, always lurking underneath but still shocking when it erupts, is the actual lunatic, bursting forth with ragged howls of hatred towards everything in the whole world, not least himself, loathing above all his need to hide the real crazy inside this feigned, stagey simulation. I'm also incredibly fond of Branagh's droolingly-incoherent response to the reality of paternal ghosts, and fonder still of the heartstabbing smallness of his "I did love you once" as he snips off the loose end of his relationship with Ophelia in preparation for his death—this isn't a comparison review, but he makes Olivier look like a fucking robot—and fonder even more of the outright tininess of the prick of self-doubt when he responds to "twice two months" with a surprised "so long?", both a near-admission of his irrational hatred of his mother's remarriage and, in the way time works here, self-reproach for taking so long to act on that hatred. But it's a big performance, spanning four hours, and we cannot treat with every intricacy. I do want to dwell, as briefly as possible, on a moment where Branagh's filmmaking and Branagh's performance are at their most indivisible: the whole Murder of Gonzago sequence, one more example of "what did Olivier do? this is the opposite," but where Branagh again demonstrates he knows how to use significant formal breaks to communicate enormous shifts in tone, his customary long-takes now fragmenting into the most aggressively-deranged editing of the film, while Branagh-Hamlet takes lines that I don't think are usually shouted to the entire crowd—I'm very confident Hamlet does not usually physically take the stage with the actors—with Branagh understanding on our behalf how fundamentally manic Hamlet's grand strategy to catch Claudius out really is.
But there is, after all, a whole cast here, and there's scarcely a bum note in the bunch (if I did have to pick one bum note, it's Christie, perhaps slightly forgetting there's a dead body on her bedroom floor); of the true supporting cast, I will say only how immensely gratifying the casting of Charlton Heston as the Player King is to me, and that Blessed is commendably terrifying. The whole ensemble meets Branagh pitch-for-pitch—the apparent effort to do this long Shakespeare at speed winds up working terrifically, imposing a natural breathlessness upon the sometimes overly-complex language that, even as it feels organic to its speakers, can transform the language into as much a vehicle for sensation as for meaning. And thanks to Jacobi—baby Branagh's own very first Hamlet, so there's that, too—we even get a seventh or eighth Hamlet to consider, with Jacobi so plainly never conceiving of himself as this movie's villain that even in the very finale there remains the constant, tantalizing threat that he and Christie could turn this into The Tragedy of Claudius and Gertrude, a romantic noir that almost, but didn't quite, come off in the end.
It's one of those towering stacks of a movie, then, perhaps an inevitability here; even talking about it becomes its own marathon, so my apologies. But it leaves us, as it left Kenneth Branagh, in an unusual situation: Hamlet represents, in very cut-and-dry fashion, the end of his early career—after seven films in eight years, Branagh had earned some rest, not directing again till 2000—but unlike practically any other filmmaker I could name, you get the distinct impression that Branagh genuinely wants you to call a movie he made three decades ago and that never made any money his unambiguously best work; and it is, as far as that goes, one awfully persuasive argument.
*I've never seen it developed, but what Old Hamlet achieves in the end is setting in motion a chain of events that, in addition to killing his brother, ensures his unfaithful wife is indeed "[left] to heaven" and, by the rules, condemned to damnation. Pretty fucked.
**Which I always think is from Hamlet, but it's from Star Trek II.
**Bringing to mind Christopher Plummer's statement on the matter: "We don't want to admire anybody else's, we want to admire ourselves as Hamlet."