Saturday, March 5, 2011

"Hamlet" on film and Kenneth Branagh

Before we get into any particulars I think we should establish the fact that Kenneth Branagh is a genius of his trade.

There have been many, many movie versions of Hamlet and Branagh has been the only director to tackle the entire play.

He loves Shakespeare and it is amazingly obvious.

He works hard to pull in the meaning, themes, and life of all the plays he's done and his enthusiasm is contagious.

One thing I particularly appreciate about him is the fact that he does not take himself too seriously...but he is very sincere about whatever story he is dealing with. He is willing to make the production all about what is happening and what it is saying, not about himself or the other actors.

Of the versions of Hamlet I have scene Branagh's 1996 production is my favorite. Although there are several portions that are distinctly his interpretation, he stays with the complete text. I believe he is true to the story, leaving the questions that Shakespeare does not answer, still questions.

Mel Gibson, although a very interesting Hamlet, completely fails to stick with Shakespeare's most important themes and suggests a relationship between Gertrude and Hamlet that Freud imagined. Laurence Olivier is good, although mopey, but forces his own interpretations.
I do not remember other versions I have seen well enough to critique. I know there are at least two productions since 1996 that I have not seen.

When the character of Fortinbras is obliterated for a shorter film, the play is no longer Hamlet to me. I can still enjoy it as a movie, but as Shakespeare's Hamlet it falls short. (See this post.)

Branagh's interpretation of Fortinbras is my main question with his Hamlet...although he is casted as Rufus Sewell, which is something.

Branagh also portrays Hamlet and Ophelia's relationship as exceeding the bounds of honorable courtship. I believe this could be a legitimate, (if unpleasant) interpretation. Unfortunately this leads to unnecessary scenes in Ophelia's mind while she is speaking with her father. This, a few other similar quick scenes, and some disturbing and violent images give Hamlet it's much deserved PG-13 rating and make me hesitant to recommend it. If you have Clearplay, go for it. Otherwise, be cautious.

Kenneth Branagh puts together a star cast. Nearly every character that turns up is familiar and excellent.

And he still manages to use falling petals despite the fact that he is dealing with a tragedy.

The first portion does a wonderful job of contrasting Hamlet with the other sons of the play and the other characters, which are essentially acting (an obvious theme of the play along with painting of faces and false appearances).

Brian Blessed gets a abnormal role for him as Hamlet's father and the ghost.
He's pretty creepy...

There is a lot of fog, cracking ground, and bubbling that make his and Hamlet's talk very dramatic and hardly gives the ghost a favorable impression as coming from any where but down. (Compare this to Mel Gibson's.)

Rufus Sewell as Fortinbras.

"The play's the thing..."

So...about Horatio... I love the character of Horatio. He is amazing. I have seen Nicholas Farrell in other movies (think Amazing Grace, Twelfth Night, Chariots of Fire, etc..) and I think he does a great job.

When I first realized he was playing Horatio, I confess I recoiled. I couldn't stand it for the first half hour, but I got used to it and he does do an interesting and sympathetic interpretation. He isn't what I would have imagined, but I couldn't tell you who I would cast as this part.

Julie Christie plays Gertrude.

Branagh is very convincingly mad...
It is very funny, sad, and a little scary.

Polonius is quite amusing. The interchanges between Hamlet and Polonius when Hamlet is being mad/rude are very well done.
Here is a clip from the "words, words, words" part. Branagh's face flexibility is impressive.

If you are Shakespeare or Branagh fan you will be familiar with Richard Briers.
He does an excellent job as Polonius. (Not sure if that is a compliment.)

Kate Winslet an excellent Ophelia...although I think she's a little over-the-top at times when she goes mad. I don't know.

I think the part where Ophelia goes mad would be a fun one to play. ;-)

The scene with Hamlet and Ophelia talking is very heartrending. In this version, Hamlet seems to discover part way through that Ophelia is betraying him and others are listening. Branagh made me want to cry.

Rosemary Harris and Charlton Heston reenact Hamlet's trap for Claudius.

We love you, Charlton Heston!
You can see part of his speech, Aeneas' Speech to Dido as First Player, here.

Timothy Spall and Reece Dinsdale as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Billy Crystal as the 1st Gravedigger.
A hilarious, but thoughtful interpretation.

Robin Williams as Osric.

Very funny...perhaps goofy enough to be a bit out of place, but he does a good job.

Derek Jacobi does an outstanding job as Claudius.

I was happy to see him in this role because, although I know he is a wonderful actor, I have a hard time liking him when he's trying to be a good guy.

Throughout the movie they constantly show people practicing fencing at interesting times. Since Claudius and Hamlet are essentially fencing through the whole play and people keep getting in the way (or being pushed in the line of fire) this is a very interesting touch. I also love this checkerboard, chess-like floor.

Laertes and Hamlet's fight is very dramatic.

Michael Maloney as a dead Laertes...

And Fortinbras King of Denmark.

If you've seen the 1996 movie version, what do you think Branagh's conclusion was? Do you think he sees Hamlet as a hero?

What do you think about other movie versions?

Thanks for reading,
Miss Pickwickian


KatySue Pillsbury said...

I've never seen this one! I must rectify this at once, off to Netflix I go! =)

Laura said...

I must start by saying that I have only seen the 1996 version once and that was during a New Years Eve Shakespeare movie marathon and this one was near the end. So thus I did end up dozing off for parts.

I will agree that Kenneth Branagh does a good job with most of his interpretation of Shakespeare. Although I did not enjoy Love's Labour Lost as much as I was hoping. I find Branagh often adds unnecessary nudity. This was especially brought out in his version of Othello with Laurence Fishborne. The movie was R rated and deserved the whole rating. We watched large portions in fastforward with a blanket over the screen.

Overall I remember enjoying the parts that I do remember of this movie and I do want to watch it again sometime.

I enjoy Hamlet alot and have been researching Shakespeare's life and how it might have influenced his writing of Hamlet.

My family owns Mel Gibson's Hamlet and that is their favorite I believe, but I think that is because of the length.

I have seen the Laurence Olivier version but like you I cannot remember it much.

OldFashionedCharm said...

This film is so beautiful and I really enjoy it! I love the great amount of amazing actors, even filling their small roles, and some actors you wouldn't even expect to see in a Shakespeare (like Billy Crystal and Robin Williams). I also love the familiar faces of Brian Blessed, Richard Briers and especially Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet. I too was saddened that the nude scenes had to creep up when you least expect them. I remember watching this on TV once and they cut out all of those scenes which was very nice!
I have seen the Mel Gibson adaptation and it was better than I thought, but it wasn't the same. I loved Helena Bonham Carter's Ophelia (maybe a bit more than Kate Winslet's). I definitely love Branagh's version the best. I haven't seen it in a while otherwise I would have done a post on the Hamlet adaptations. I'm also not well versed enough on Hamlet to venture any critique on the play versus the film. This was a lovely post! I can't believe Shakespeare week has come to an end!

~Miss Laurie
Old-Fashioned Charm

Miss Pickwickian said...


Yes, it is very sad that Branagh tends to put a rather high level of objectionable content in his movies. I have not seen "Love's Labors Lost" and "Othello" because of these concerns... although if you have Clearplay, some of this can be helped.

I am also wary of "Love's Labors Lost" as a musical. :-)

Thanks for your comments.

Miss Laurie,

The "Shakespeare Giveaway" does not end until Wednesday and since I haven't even gotten to "Henry V" (which is the play I've been studying all week), I'll probably keep posting Shakespeare until then. ;-)

It doesn't have to be over if you don't want it to be... :-)

Anonymous said...

Kenneth Branagh is amazing but, ya, the nudity thing is hard for me to get used to. However, he IS a Shakespearean actor and that type of content is heavily endorsed in English Shakespearean drama schools. Also, from what I understand, England has a different view on nudity than us Americans. So I can forgive him :)