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It does seem somehow redundant to recount the plot of Hamlet, which is, after all, the most filmed of Shakespeare's plays, the best-known play in the English language, and, with the exception of the King James version of the Bible, the prime claimant to the title of Central Text of All Western Literature. The press material for Kenneth Branagh's new film version claims that the play has been filmed five times before; the actual number is roughly ten times that. The 1980 edition of the Guinness Movie Facts and Feats lists 41 adaptions and nine parodies, the first being a 1900 production with Sarah Bernhardt (!), and the book fails to include everything. All of which suggests the obvious question: Did we really need another Hamlet?
The answer is yes -- and, perhaps sadly, we still do, despite Branagh's often estimable efforts.
The most famous filmed Hamlet is, of course, Laurence Olivier's multi-Oscar-winning 1948 version, which -- despite some competition from Nicol Williamson's late-Sixties outing and the 1990 Zeffirelli/Mel Gibson take -- has remained the "official" edition ever since.
Branagh has been cursed (or blessed) with comparisons to Olivier since the start of his career. He certainly encouraged the talk by directing and starring in Henry V, exactly as Olivier had 45 years earlier. Now he's following in Olivier's footsteps again. (Is a Branagh Richard III inevitable as well?)
On the face of it, Branagh's version has several advantages over its forerunners. For starters, it's complete -- which may be a first. (A shortened version is being released in some cities.) Despite the play's revered status, it's almost never performed (and may never have been filmed) in its entirety. Branagh's clocks in at four hours and two minutes -- more than half again as long as Olivier's -- plus a ten-minute intermission, so be sure you've prepared the baby sitter. (Although every line is included, at least one of the best-known is changed in a way that significantly alters its meaning: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy," Hamlet says, instead of the rather more condescending "your philosophy" of the original.)
While the longer speeches may sometimes bog down, Branagh has, if nothing else, provided an educational service by preparing this full-length version. Hamlet really does deserve such treatment: Some of the "less important" material that has been cut in other versions is in fact crucial. It is, for instance, common to remove or shorten much of the fourth act, when the protagonist himself is absent from the action, traveling to England with his turncoat buddies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. While the story may seem on hold with Hamlet missing, his prolonged absence -- roughly a half-hour here -- is what gives his Act Five reappearance in the graveyard such power.
Branagh also has the advantage of shooting in an ultracrisp, panoramic 70mm format and the clout to enlist whatever actors he wants. Further, as he displayed in Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing, he has a knack for staging Shakespeare in a manner that makes the actual meaning of the words take precedence over their often hypnotic sonority. In short, even benighted Americans can generally understand what the hell the characters are talking about.
With all these advantages, why is it impossible to be wholeheartedly enthusiastic about Hamlet? The film opens well, with a wide exterior view of Elsinore Castle. It's a beautiful shot -- one of the very few, unfortunately, in the next four hours. The setting has been changed to the Nineteenth Century, a move that has little effect on things (though one might be struck by the incongruity of guards in such uniforms carrying spears instead of rifles). But the first bit of business, while dramatic, hardly makes sense: Bernardo, arrived to relieve Francisco, literally attacks his comrade and wrestles him to the ground -- a fine how-do-you-do. I mean, what is that?
Still, Hamlet has become so overplayed it's better to risk new or offbeat interpretations, even if some of them don't quite compute. And in general Branagh scores well on these counts. But the immediate arrival of Horatio and Marcellus introduces a far graver flaw. While Horatio is portrayed by the relatively anonymous British actor Nicholas Farrell, Marcellus is none other than ... Jack Lemmon! Branagh has chosen to cast every bit part in the play -- plus several wordless parts not in the play -- with a famous actor. To put it mildly, this is a distracting practice.
In some cases -- notably Charlton Heston as the Player King -- the performance overshadows the distraction. Billy Crystal is not my favorite Gravedigger by a long shot (Stanley Holloway in the Olivier version still holds that honor) but he's okay; and there's nothing inherently wrong with bringing a smidgen of the Catskills to the character. Robin Williams's performance as the foppish courtier Osric is fine but is ruined by the editing: Branagh inexplicably chooses to cut to closeups of him whenever possible, even when utterly improbable. Osric is a minor character, yet during the film's final half-hour, we probably see his face more than anyone save Hamlet himself. It's just ... weird.
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