A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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 | , , , ,

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