Retro Review: Hamlet
Kenneth Branagh has become a name synonymous with great acting, in particular with regard to Shakespeare, but as soon as the role of Hamlet is taken on, people start to worry. “No one will ever top Olivier’s performance”, is a line it’s not uncommon to hear. But it’s unfair to critically compare one Hamlet film against an earlier one (or a later one), as each individual work is an interpretation of the original play, not a remake of another version (and where do you draw the line? I personally feel that Simba was the best Hamlet).
Branagh is an energetic Hamlet to say the least; there’s room in the character for an actor to play him as almost lethargic at points, but Branagh has him dancing around Elsinore, leading characters who are desperately trying to keep up with him one way and then another, spinning around viciously to face them one minute and turning with equal force away from them the next. The body language employed is truly magnificent, and it blends the stage and cinema perfectly.
Line delivery is equally fast-paced at times, with conversations between Hamlet and Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Polonius being fired out at speeds that undoubtedly cause trouble for those unfamiliar with the text. There’s a silliness in it too, with Branagh pulling faces and warping his voice when saying “words, words, words” and barely suppressing the glee in his eyes when insulting those around him. However, when on his own, or with Horatio, this pace drops, the lines are either delivered with the same precise thoughtfulness of the concepts being considered, or with a serious fire and anger that takes him over completely.
In this way, Hamlet’s madness is interpreted as something put on to fool and confuse those ordered by the king to closely watch him (though it lingers as an act drawn from the power of the struggle taking place inside his mind). It is difficult to appreciate just how many different versions of Hamlet the play gives an actor the freedom to create, but it’s clear that Branagh’s is a man full of energy and passion, which is only held back by the intensity with which he feels the emotions of his situation.
The other actors are impressive, too. In particular Kate Winslet is brilliant as a scared and naive Ophelia, whose madness seems to come as much from her realisation of what the world is really like, as from the death of her father. This becomes more of an achievement when it is considered that it was her first Shakespeare role. Derek Jacobi is convincing as Claudius and contrasts the confidence in his words with panicked facial expressions and movements. Other notable performances are: Richard Briers, who embodies Hamlet’s description of Polonius as a “foolish prating knave”; Michael Maloney, who captures Laertes’ youthful rage; and Rufus Sewell, who, though not having much of a job as the barely present Fortinbras, has the perfect face for a period drama villain (proven in A Knight’s Tale and The Illusionist) and fits the film well. One bad decision was made, however, (and has been pointed out several times before) in picking Robin Williams as Osric, a character that has not nearly enough of a role for the surprise of seeing someone as famous as Williams to pass easily.
Branagh is an accomplished visual director (as we saw most recently with Thor) and there are many interesting cinematic techniques used to bring the story to life. When Hamlet is holding the skull of Yorick, flashbacks of the man when he was alive are used, which has (surprisingly) never been done before; the jester costume he is shown in is faintly ridiculous, which distracts from the power of Hamlet’s reminiscences, but the way his live face cuts perfectly over the top of the skull is an affective display of the transition from life to death that the scene examines. The “To be or not to be” soliloquy is kept fresh with the use of a two-way mirror – Hamlet stares at himself, the hidden King on the other side staring at him too, heightening the tension and significance of there being eavesdroppers on possibly the most crucial speech in the play.
This inclusion of things not in the text is at its most interesting when Branagh interprets Hamlet’s tirade at Ophelia (following “To be or not to be”) as happening alongside an attempt to discover where the King is hiding; in the play there is no indication that Hamlet has any idea that people are listening in on him, but here he has very definite suspicions and drags Ophelia from wall to wall, throwing open doors and almost spitting “get thee to a nunnery” (another example of the huge energy the character is given). Perhaps the biggest triumph is the way the court feels doomed from the start; those who know the story well are aware that at the end pretty much everyone but Horatio is dead, and Fortinbras of Norway marches in to take over Denmark – this is kept in everyone’s minds throughout with the clever use of occasional cuts to scenes of the Norwegian army marching toward Elsinore.
Final Verdict: Overall, there are very few mistakes – an astonishing achievement considering the vast scope of the play, which, when translated to film, becomes even grander. It is visually a spectacle without being overbearing and distracting from the words (rather, the visuals compliment them); the acting is powerful and immersive, managing to stay original despite the wealth of interpretations that have gone before it; most of all, it feels like Hamlet: the film, rather than Hamlet: the film of a play.