A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 223 – Hamlet (1996)

Hamlet (1996) – October 9th, 2010

This is really quite fortuitous. I learned this morning that today is the great Brian Blessed’s birthday, and so, since we do love Brian Blessed like burning, I thought it would be a fantastic thing to watch a movie with him in it tonight. And then, alas! We’d watched all of our Brian Blessed movies! But there was hope, since we’d bought Branagh’s Hamlet a little while back and just received an email saying it had shipped. And there it was. Waiting for us. A Brian Blessed movie for Brian Blessed’s birthday. And on a day when we have enough time to watch a four hour long movie.

Yes. Four hours. We’re watching the full version, not the shortened theatrical version. 242 minutes. This is because it is, supposedly, a “full” version of Hamlet, combining texts for the most complete possible play. And having checked at random intervals, it seems to me as thought the vast majority of the text is intact. Maybe there’s a word or line here or there that’s skipped over, but if so, it wasn’t of any real consequence. And really, when you’re past the three hour mark, are you really going to go cutting a line or two for the sake of brevity (even if it is the soul of wit)? No, I think not. This is a movie which revels in the text.

I feel a bit like a broken record, but really, Branagh has such a passion for Shakespeare and it shines in productions like this. Yes, it was long. Yes, it had every little moment kept in. Yes, it was really really long. But I’ll tell you this: It did not feel like four hours. Oh, I know I spent four hours watching it. I know it was a little after 7 in the evening when we put it in and it’s a little after 11 now that it’s over. I know that. And it’s a substantial movie. It doesn’t feel empty. There’s a denseness to it and a weight, and that’s as it should be, given that it’s Hamlet. But while I was watching it I swear I wasn’t really aware of the passage of time. I’d look up and an hour would have passed and I’d think “Wow. I know a heck of a lot just happened, but did it really take an hour? Really?” It’s not just a matter of the performances either, though the performances are amazing and I’ll get to them. A lot of the quick passage of time is in how the scenes flow from one to the next. The transitions and introductions and little bits and pieces that tie things together are pieced in so perfectly that it feels seamless.

To that end, I especially liked the constant reminders of Fortinbras and his approach. He’s not the focus of the play, certainly, but the way this movie slips him in here and there, he becomes a sort of spectre over the entire royal house. It widens the world the play takes place in, setting the implosion of the royal family on a distinctly threatening backdrop. It makes the end, with Fortinbras and his army, less abrupt and more inevitable. With so much focus turned inwards in Denmark, there was no one to oppose them. Well played.

There’s a particular gimmick used in this movie which I feared could have been overplayed but wasn’t in the end. There are several moments where scenes from other times and places, some fictional, some real, are played on the screen as someone in the present of the play describes them. Flashbacks to Ophelia and Hamlet in bed together, Fortinbras making plans, a scene from a play when the Players arrive at Elsinore. They could be so easily abused, and the voiceover technique could have been jarring and odd, but I really quite liked them. They’re peppered in throughout the movie, just enough to keep them constant but not enough to be overdone. And then too, they do introduce Fortinbras, and they also lend a lot more weight to the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia. And really, I can be rather judgmental about a production of Hamlet when it comes to Ophelia.

Ophelia is a role that could so easily be passed over in favor of the more manly bits of the play. After all, she dies off stage. As written, what is she really? A young maiden who’s dallied with Hamlet and then been used in the machinations of every other main character. Then she has one big scene where she babbles about flowers before we find out from Gertrude that she’s dead. It would be so easy to dismiss her. And many do. And many don’t. Fine, making a big deal about Ophelia might be somewhat cliched now. I don’t care. I think she’s a far more tragic figure than many of the others in the play because she is largely innocent. Much more so than the other major characters who end up dead. Even her father, though he could be said to be well-intentioned, partook in some of Claudius’s schemes. And so everyone else has plans and plots and Ophelia just has some love notes and memories and then it’s all gone and no one bothers to tell her why.

I have a personal favorite Ophelia (no, not the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s version(s) – we’ll get to my favorite in good time), but I think Kate Winslet has now claimed a tie. Her performance and the direction of it were so painful that I spent the whole of her big scene in tears. Her determined look just after is chilling, especially when one knows where she is headed. It is the tragedy that has always struck me. Ophelia, a young woman used by everyone and cast aside, broken and desperate and lost. Winslet did her justice. She made me hate everyone who brought her to that point. Really, Hamlet’s kind of a dick, isn’t he. When he finds out that she’s dead, Branagh as Hamlet does do a convincing job of being outraged that it should have come to this, but honestly, my problem here isn’t with Branagh. It’s with the play. Hamlet can get as pissy as he wants in the graveyard, but he doesn’t mourn for long as written, does he. Anyhow, that this production paid as much attention and care to the story of Ophelia made me love it. Everything else could have been garbage and I’d have loved it for Winslet’s Ophelia. It was that good.

Fortunately, the rest of it isn’t garbage. It is an amazingly lush production, which might seem an odd term to use given the snowy landscape it’s set in and the cold marble and glass of Elsinore’s interior, but it is indeed lush. There’s a sense of depth in everything. The castle is opulent in the extreme, full of expensive materials and secret doors. The materials speak to wealth and the doors speak to intrigue. That there is detail that lends itself to the story without anyone having to say a word. And then there are the costumes, which just strike me as fantastic. There’s something about the textures, specifically in Horatio’s coats and scarves and in Gertrude’s dressing gown in Polonius’ death scene, that makes me want to reach into the screen and touch them. And that’s all just physical set-dressing and the like. The performances are deep as well.

Apparently one of the conditions the studio made when they agreed to take on a four hour long Hamlet was that the cast had to have a number of well known actors. And what a cast they got in response to that. Holy crap. Of course Branagh’s got himself in the title role. I’d mock him for it but he really does know his stuff and performs Hamlet with relish. He shrinks when he has to and commands when he has to and rants and raves and mutters and produces an amazing Hamlet whose journey never felt false to me. But then look at everyone else. Derek Jacobi as Claudius, giving a wonderful performance of a character who’s quite good at playing politics. Richard Briers as Polonius, and a Polonius who isn’t a doddering fool but a very determined man trying to protect his daughter and keep his place at court. Julie Christie as Gertrude had a difficult role, playing a character who’s very much caught in the middle of the whole mess, either by design or accident. Kate Winslet, obviously, as Ophelia, and Rufus Sewell as Fortinbras. And while he’s not as big a name as some of the others, Nicholas Farrell as Horatio. And I have to say, Farrell’s Horatio was fantastic, standing firm with Hamlet to the last.

But then there’s a host of other big names in smaller roles. Richard Attenborough, Judi Dench, Gerard Depardieu, Charlton Heston, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Jack Lemmon, Sir John Gielgud, and of course Brian Blessed. They all pop up for a few minutes somewhere in the four hours. And what I love about it is that while I did go “Oh hey, look who it is!” for most of them, it didn’t detract from the roles they played. Oh, they weren’t all necessarily stand-out roles, but some of them were really superb. I really liked Crystal’s performance as the gravedigger, and was surprised to enjoy Heston so much as the leader of the players. But I have to give special notice to Blessed, and not just because it’s his birthday. I honestly didn’t know the man was capable of whispering, or really, of speaking in anything other than his usual foundation-shaking volume. Even having seen him as a very young man in an episode of The Avengers, and having heard him speak in something close to normal volume didn’t prepare me for how impressive he was when hushed. The man is simply amazing at any decibel level.

I’d always meant to watch this and never found the time. I think it’s understandable, really. Even the theatrical cut is two and a half hours, which is a substantial chunk of an evening. And so I understand why other people may shy away from this production. Why not just pop in the Mel Gibson version, or hell, read the play yourself, which will probably take less time. Or hey, go for something different and approach it from the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead direction. I get it. But truly, this was a treat to watch. It is an amazing rendition of a fantastic play, with all of the soliloquies intact and every scene set beautifully. The cinematography is breathtaking in places. The costumes are gorgeous. The performances are emotional and genuine and convey everything they’re written to convey and more. There’s a sense of scale here, and it does a great service to the play, and when you look at it that way, a shorter version really wouldn’t do it justice.

October 9, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Hamlet (1996)

October 9, 2010

Hamlet (1996)

Today is Brian Bessed’s birthday, so how fortuitous it is that a movie featuring the masterful actor arrived in the mail today. And instantly the 1996 Kenneth Branagh adaptation of Hamlet leaps into the lead as the longest movie we own (overtaking the extended cut of Woodstock.) I have been wanting to see this version of Hamlet for many years. It’s been one that I’ve often considered getting on VHS since up until just this week it was never available on DVD. I’m kind of glad that I held out for the DVD release though, since the movie is so rich and full of opulent detail that I fear it would be a disservice to it to watch a lesser version.

Early on in our movie project I proposed the idea of doing a Hamlet week. We could watch this, the Ethan Hawke version, the Mel Gibson, the Lawrence Olivier and round it out with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Amanda nixed that idea since she didn’t want to be overwhelmed and desensitized to the play, and ultimately I’m glad that she did. It’s a great work, and I do enjoy being able to compare and contrast different takes on the same source material, but it would be a real challenge to cram quite so much Hamlet into so few days. Besides, how do you follow up this production?

This movie is a monumental achievement. As we watched tonight Amanda was reading along and was impressed that unlike virtually all Shakespearean adaptations put to film this movie contains the complete and uncut play from start to finish. I’ve never seen a complete production of Hamlet, and given that this one clocks in at just over four hours long I can see why. That’s a significant time investment, and not one that most people in this fast-food driven day of instant gratification are willing to make.

There’s this thing that happens to authors when they start to get so popular that their editors lose the ability to reign them in. Their works start to get a little bloated. I see hints of this in Hamlet. There’s quite a bit of self-insert going on with Hamlet as he deals with the players for example. I could totally see Shakespeare himself giving the impassioned speech about how to put on the play. (Particularly the plea for the clowns not to extemporise or improvise their lines.) Still, I can easily see why Hamlet is such a coveted role for so many actors. Just how many oft quoted and iconic monologues does he have in this play? “To be or not to be” of course and “Alas poor Yorick.” But also “What a work is man” and any number of other great speeches. It’s not just that the play is named for him, I’d say that over half the lines in the play go to Hamlet. Shakespeare even spoofs it to some degree when Hamlet asks the lead player to do a speech for him and then proceeds to recite half the speech himself.

And oh, the wonderful performances in this version of the play. Branagh himself is of course great to watch as Hamlet. I found some of the parts where he was playing at being mad to be a tad goofy for my taste, but for the most part he was soulful and moving. His Yorick speech brought tears to my eyes. I know that Amanda is going to write at length about how moved she was by Kate Winslet as Ophelia. I found her performance heartbreaking and tender. She’s such a brittle and broken Ophelia and does a wonderful job of providing an emotional thread to her character’s arc even with very few lines. (Still my favorite Ophelia is Julia Stiles – but that’s for another review.)

My favorite performance in the movie was actually Charlton Heston as the head of the players. What made it moving for me was that you have Hamlet giving part of his speech, and it’s Branagh in his powerful scenery chewing best declaiming broadly and loudly and commanding the stage, but when Heston takes over he has so much more power and inflection that the very contrast makes it clear what a master of the craft he is.

It’s ironic that we initially put this in because Brian Blessed is in it, since his performance is so completely unlike what I would expect from him. Never once does he let loose with his booming voice and take full command of the screen. His portrayal of the old king’s ghost is so restrained and underplayed that it gives it that much more power for me, since it is such a contrast to what I expect from a Brian Blessed role. This is a ghost tormented and destroyed, a pale shadow of the mighty man he once was, and all of that is encompassed in Brian’s performance in a way that no other actor could have accomplished.

I was also quite struck by Richard Briers’ interpretation of Polonius. I’ve always read him in the past to be a long winded fool. Somewhat like the constable Dogsbody in Much Ado. (The way they come across on the page is so similar to me that I wonder if Shakespeare wrote both parts for the same actor.) This lends more power to his death for me, since when you kill off the comic relief you’re taking a big step into a dark and frightening world. Briers, however, takes the same lines and transforms the character into a devoted and caring father. It lends a great deal of power to both Ophelia and Laertes because this gives them a much greater source to explain their actions in the final acts. It actually manages to give the whole play a slightly different feel than what I’m used to, which I really enjoyed.

Clearly this movie was an absolute dream project to work on. There are so many iconic names attached to it. Jack Lemmon, Billy Crystal, Robin Williams (who had me grinning just with his silly accent and expressions – proof that he can be funny even when he’s staying on script.) Rufus Sewell, Derek Jacobi, even a small silent part for Judi Dench. Everybody on the planet clearly wanted a chance to take part in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, and it makes the whole production a richer thing that he was able to pack every single role with such great actors. It’s not often that even the little bit parts are played by big name actors, but that’s part of the appeal of a huge production like this. What The Longest Day was to WWII films and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was to ensemble comedies this movie is to Shakespearean adaptations. It’s a wonder-packed ensemble piece.

I’m so glad this finally came out on DVD and we finally had a chance to watch it. Both Amanda and I are delighted to have this movie as a part of our collection. Even if it will probably be kind of rare that we have enough free time to watch the whole thing from beginning to end like we did today. I might have mentioned that it’s a little long.

October 9, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment