To See or Not to See

In many cases the star turns are simply silly. As the obscure and incredibly minor Reynaldo, Gerard Depardieu shows up to utter roughly fourteen brief lines, most of them variations on "Yes, my lord, I will do so." By the time you've gotten over giggling at this bulky, heavily accented French guy playing a Dane, Gerard is gone, never to be seen again. In the world of inappropriate cameos, this one falls just short of John Wayne as the Centurion in The Greatest Story Ever Told. Richard Attenborough pops up at the very end as the English ambassador: Any number of lesser lights would have sufficed, but as a rule I support all employment that takes time away from Sir Dickie's directing career.

Of all the famous players on display, none fares worse than Lemmon. It's shocking just how awful his performance is. Even those who have had their ups and downs with his work will be stunned; he can be irritating and self-imitative, but he's always an intelligent actor. Here his line readings are so flat, so devoid of any meaning, that it's hard to resist the conclusion that he was heavily medicated at the time. He's that bad.

Then there are John Gielgud, John Mills, and Judi Dench, whose roles barely qualify as cameos. One of Branagh's worst decisions was to cut away during major speeches to show us stagings of what the speeches are describing. Some of these cutaways are passable: We get to see the Norwegian Fortinbras preparing his attack on Poland. Some are interesting if dubious: When Ophelia talks of her time spent with Hamlet, we actually see a discreet shot of them in bed together, presumably postcoital. This flies in the face of the usual interpretations of their relationship, but at least it's provocative. And it could be taken simply as Ophelia's fantasy -- a consummation she devoutly wishes.

But Gielgud, Mills, and Dench show up to no effect at all: Their casting was either the result of some kind of government senior-citizen make-work project or Branagh coveting the imprimatur granted by having the greatest living Shakespearean actors appear in his film, however briefly.

Other Branagh decisions do work well. Scenes that are usually played for maximum laughs -- such as Hamlet's feigned madness before Ophelia -- are given far more emotional gravity. In his introduction of the Players' performance, Hamlet is like a slick MC, driven increasingly manic by anxiety and anticipation. Jacobi is perfectly oily as Claudius, and Christie is quite perfect as Gertrude. But outside of Branagh, it's Winslet who leaves the strongest impression. Ophelia can sometimes come across as a pathetic wimp, but Winslet makes her deeply moving.

Given the care that went into the production design and the promise of the opening shot, the visual style is disappointing. In addition to the dubious cutaway strategy, there is some clunky, surprisingly amateurish editing. The wide 70mm frame is rarely employed to best advantage, and Branagh tiresomely repeats the one camera movement trick in his repertoire. As in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, whenever in doubt he covers the action with vertiginous circular tracking shots.

Patrick Doyle's score is memorable but not always appropriate. Its worst moment is right before the intermission: Branagh delivers the summons -- "How do all occasions inform against me" -- as a grand monologue in the manner of the St. Crispin's Day speech in Henry V. The camera slowly tracks away as his voice rises, while Doyle's music swells in a manner that suggests patriotic fervor rather than a commitment to revenge. It's rousing, it's effective, and it's just stone wrong.

Directed by and adapted for the screen by Kenneth Branagh, based on the play by William Shakespeare; with Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie, Kate Winslet, Charlton Heston, Billy Crystal, Brian Blessed, Robin Williams, Rufus Sewell, Richard Attenborough, Gerard Depardieu, and John Gielgud.

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