Hamlet (1996)
April 11, 2015 6:06 AM - Subscribe

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, returns home to find his father murdered and his mother remarrying the murderer, his uncle. Meanwhile, war is brewing.

“The play’s the thing”

Directed by Kenneth Branagh, screenplay by Kenneth Branagh, adapted from William Shakespeare’s play of the same name. This is a full text adaptation of Hamlet, which Branagh felt "made the story easier to follow."

Although the text is Shakespearean, the setting is the 19th Century. "I just felt it was very, very decadent, and it seemed to be very right for Hamlet, which I wanted to get right away from the kind of gothic, gloomy, glowering castles and things, which has been done, and done very well in previous versions."

The film was nominated for 4 Oscars (Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay), Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Original Score) and 2 BAFTAs (Best Production Design, Best Costume Design), the uncut version of the film runs 4 hours and 2 minutes. A 2 hour and 50 minute version was shown in some markets. The film is shot in 70mm.

The Making of Hamlet Part 1
The Making of Hamlet Part 2
The Making of Hamlet Part 3

"The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral; scene individable, or poem unlimited"

Hamlet – Kenneth Branagh
Ophelia – Kate Winslet*
Gertrude – Julie Christie*
Claudius - Derek Jacobi
Laertes - Michael Maloney
Polonius - Richard Briers
Horatio - Nicholas Farrell
Rosencrantz - Timothy Spall
Guildenstern - Reece Dinsdale
English Ambassador - Richard Attenborough*
Ghost of Hamlet's Father - Brian Blessed
Reynaldo - Gérard Depardieu
Lucianus - Rob Edwards
Francisco - Ray Fearon
Fortinbras - Rufus Sewell
Player Queen - Rosemary Harris
Player King - Charlton Heston*
Cornelius - Ravil Isyanov
Marcellus - Jack Lemmon*
Barnardo - Ian McElhinney
Osric - Robin Williams*
Priam - John Gielgud*
Old Norway - John Mills*
Hecuba - Dame Judi Dench*
First Gravedigger - Billy Crystal
Second Gravedigger - Simon Russell Beale

*denotes an Oscar winner; at nine this film holds the record for most Oscar winning actors in the cast (Attenborough's Oscar is for Best Director), although some of the roles are minor.

"Let me be cruel, not unnatural;/I will speak daggers to her, but use none"

The film has a 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Roger Ebert:
"His (Branagh's) "Hamlet'' is long but not slow, deep but not difficult, and it vibrates with the relief of actors who have great things to say, and the right ways to say them. And in the 70-mm. version, it has a visual clarity that is breathtaking."

Janet Maslin, New York Times:
"With a cast so big-name and polyglot that it could be assembled almost as reasonably for a celebrity roast, Branagh still gets dedication to the text, which is presented here in its convoluted, Machiavellian entirety. Of course when Robin Williams appears late in the relatively minor role of Osric, count on more than the expected number of close-ups to show Osric registering events around him.

Some of the star turns are here for blatant marquee value and stand out as gratuitous. "
Lloyd Rose, Washington Post
"Kenneth Branagh's four-hour film version of "Hamlet" is intelligent, well intentioned and honorable -- and there's not a single thrilling moment in it. Branagh is smart and extremely hard-working, but he's not an imaginative actor or director, and he's produced the film equivalent of a lushly illustrated coffee-table book...

...Branagh's celebrated, gimmicky casting of Big Stars in small roles yields mixed results. Billy Crystal is surprisingly effective as the First Gravedigger, a man who, for all his raw jokes, knows enough not to get in the way of the powerful when they're going mad. (The Second Gravedigger is Simon Russell Beale, a major English stage actor who has too little to do in this tiny part but does it well.) Charlton Heston takes to the role of the Player King with un-self-conscious dignity and rolls the phrases out of his mouth as if he'd been born speaking verse. Gerard Depardieu is a slouching, nasty, vaguely threatening Reynaldo, the courtier Polonius sends to spy on his son. (I didn't know what to make of Brian Blessed's Ghost, who is saddled with blue contact lenses to make him look unearthly and then, inexplicably, has the same weird eyes in flashbacks in which we see him alive.)

On the other hand, though the audience laughs in happy expectation as soon as he appears, Robin Williams doesn't seem to know what to do with the role of the court fop Osric. Jack Lemmon is completely out of his depth, even in such a small role as the guard Marcellus. John Mills and John Gielgud make such tiny appearances as Old Norway and Priam (characters usually never seen) that they hardly register. (But in an equally short blip, Judi Dench's screaming grief as Hecuba is the most powerful moment in the film.)"
Mick LaSalle, SF Chronicle
"But usually Branagh's instincts are right. His filming of the entire play is more than a gimmick or selling point. Scenes that usually get short shrift are given their rightful weight, and the story comes into greater focus. This is the tragedy of a humane, modern man forced into bloody medieval intrigue.

Branagh's casting of famous American actors in small roles either works surprisingly well -- e.g. Billy Crystal as a the gravedigger, Charlton Heston as the Player King -- or at least do no harm (Robin Williams as the fop Osric, Jack Lemmon as senior officer Marcellus).

The British also shine. Derek Jacobi plays Claudius as the perfect empty suit. He's a booming voice and a nice haircut, and he looks good in a uniform. But underneath, he's just a scheming sensualist and, in Branagh's version, rather ineffectual. The casting of Julie Christie is another inspiration. She does well, playing Gertrude as precisely the kind of wife you'd expect someone like Claudius to have -- easily impressed, tenderhearted but shallow, and none too bright."

Desson Howe, Washington Post
"Finally -- and most ostentatiously of all -- there is Branagh's own performance. This is a role the Irish actor could do in his sleep. But the choices he makes are usually overextended. When it's time to be funny, he skitters over the top. When he's sad or touched, he makes a mechanical, catching noise in his throat.

As for his attempts to be sexy (see "hot" nude scenes with Kate Winslet's Ophelia for further details), well, going to the gym is simply not enough. He doesn't make the task easy by parading around in a tight tunic, mustache, dribble goatee and peroxide-blond mane. Surely, he wasn't going for the look of a butch Nazi."
"Belike this show imports the argument of the play."

Some clips:
O that this too, too solid flesh would melt

Mad as the sea and wind when both contend

Not where he eats, but where he is eaten

Alas Poor Yorick

How all occasions do inform against me/And spur my dull revenge

They bleed on both sides
posted by nubs (12 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
This post is part of the Robin Williams Movie Club. Visit the discussion thread to see upcoming titles and see which films have yet to be discussed.
posted by nubs at 6:09 AM on April 11, 2015

I've seen Hamlet on stage and film a lot and, honestly, I find this film to be indulgent and uninspiring. There's a reason people don't do the whole text anymore, Kenneth. But, then again, I can see the appeal of doing the whole play on film just once.

That said, there's a two hour cut of this film and it's also a travesty. Hamlet lives at about the 3hr mark.

There are some amazing performances in this film - Winslet amongst the best.
posted by crossoverman at 6:48 AM on April 11, 2015

Like crossoverman, I've also seen Hamlet on stage (with British actor John Simm in the lead role). I watched the DVD of David Tennant's performance, and the difference between the two mediums is striking.
posted by Telpethoron at 8:15 AM on April 11, 2015

I sometimes give students the option of writing about this film when I teach Hamlet, and most of them find it tough going. Some of Branagh's directing choices are a little...odd. How many ways does Claudius need to get dead? That being said, it gets bonus points for remembering the existence of the Fortinbras subplot ("oh, look, a kingdom, how convenient").

Speaking of Simon Russell Beale, I saw him when the RNT brought Hamlet to the USA around 2001. The production itself was uneven--SRB and the late Peter Blythe (Polonius) were the only two actors who seemed entirely happy in iambic pentameter--but SRB was excellent.
posted by thomas j wise at 2:49 PM on April 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

I respect Branagh for trying to do the whole thing, but really...there's a reason why almost every production gets cut in performance. There are bits that can be streamlined four hundred years later. (For instance, Hamlet and Rosencrantz going on about the then-fashionable boys' companies of actors. It's just kind of tedious now.)
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 3:22 PM on April 11, 2015

Man, I got to see Beale in Lear last year and I'm super envious of anyone who caught his Hamlet. I have no beef with Billy Crystal, but casting him as Crystal's sidekick is...bold.
posted by thesmallmachine at 4:04 PM on April 11, 2015

My biggest problem with this version of Hamlet is the same problem I have with every version: Hamlet is cast too old. Look I know there's some goofy math in the dialogue with the gravedigger that suggests Hamlet is in his early-mid thirties. I've always figured that was supposed to be an in-joke about Richard Burbage (who first played it). Hamlet in the text does not come across as old. He's a student. He's philosophical. He's indecisive. He's a hipster. He can't be older than 25. But it's this major carrot of a role and actors have to pay their dues and prove their mettle before they're allowed to attempt it, so they're always too old by the time they get to do it. When Branagh did it onstage the first time (directed by Derek Jacobi, coincidentally) he was close to the right age. But by the time he got the clout to make this behemoth he looked better suited for playing Claudius.
The other actors do some great work though. Kate Winslet is the second best Ophelia ever (nobody out-crazies Helena Bonham-Carter). And I do like that he did the full text. I just wish he had cast someone else.
posted by wabbittwax at 5:04 PM on April 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

The only way Robin Williams could be more distracting in this movie is if there were the sound of a needle being ripped from a record when he first appears.
posted by entropicamericana at 2:44 PM on April 13, 2015

I think the notable thing about Robin Williams' performance in this is how much he looks like the gatekeeper from the Princess Bride, "Oh you mean that key."
posted by wabbittwax at 8:18 PM on April 13, 2015

I've also seen Hamlet on stage (with British actor John Simm in the lead role). I watched the DVD of David Tennant's performance,

That's an amusing pair to contrast. Nice one, brother.
posted by phearlez at 10:29 AM on April 15, 2015

(nobody out-crazies Helena Bonham-Carter)

One of the very few reasons to watch the Mel Gibson version. She truly was awesome.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 10:23 AM on April 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

« Older 12 Monkeys: Arms of Mine...   |  Star Trek: Metamorphosis... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments