Hamlet - Blu-ray Review
"Hamlet has the kind of power, energy and excitement that movies can truly exploit," actor/director Kenneth Branagh says. In this first full-text film of William Shakespeare's play – shot on 65mm film and exhibited in Panavision Super 70, power surges

Monsters and Critics, 20 August 2010
By Jeff Swindoll

Flights of angels sing thee to Blu-ray. Kenneth Branagh says that he’d use every blessed word of the Bard’s Hamlet, his most oft produced play, and he accomplishes the task in a big budget style that seemed an oddity in 1996.

The old king of Denmark is dead. However, watchmen have called the prince’s best friend Horatio (Nicholas Farrell) to witness something strange. About the time that the trio arrives, the old King Hamlet’s (Brian Blessed) ghost appears and silently beckons.

Meanwhile, Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh) is silently loathing the fact that his mother Queen Gertrude (Julie Christie) has quickly remarried to his uncle Claudius (Derek Jacobi) who has now ascended to the throne. Horatio tells Hamlet of the vision of his dead father and Hamlet insists on confronting the restless spirit.

When he goes to the location and sees his father, the ghost secretly confesses to his son that he was murdered by his brother for the throne and queen. Hamlet swears revenge against Claudius but feigns madness to bide his time till the opportunity for his revenge presents itself.

The king’s elderly advisor Polonius (Richard Briers) is seeing his son Laertes (Michael Maloney) off to France. Polonius’ daughter Ophelia (Kate Winslet) is soon courted by the mad Hamlet, but she is alarmed by his odd behavior. A war is brewing between Denmark and Norway and Hamlet’s quest for vengeance will bring a pox upon the house of Denmark.

William Shakespeare’s 'Hamlet' is one of the playwright’s most adapted plays. “Adapted” may be the apt term since the full performance can run up to four hours, so theatrical performances and movie versions have shorn bits to fit it into a more compact “bottom friendly, restroom break” running time.

In terms of the silver screen, 1900 Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) starred in a successful five minute short version of the fencing scene and in 1990 Mel Gibson starred in Franco Zeffirelli’s star-studded version that ran 135 minutes. Too numerous would be a listing of the famous theatrical versions.

However, 1996 had a sort of magic to it. Kenneth Branagh was the current holder of the adapting Shakespeare to the screen crown, no doubt inherited from Laurence Olivier whose 1948 'Hamlet' film ran 155 minutes, who roared onto screens with 'Henry V' (Henry the Fifth, not the sequel to Henry 4).

He was able to secure funding for a new version of 'Hamlet' and said that he would make a film that would use every line of Shakespeare’s text. Even better, he was going to shoot entirely in 70mm. The icing on the cake would also include a host of famous British faces and even some American stars to boot. What could go wrong? Much seemingly since although the film was “to be,” success was “not to be.”

Such large scale epics had not been seen since David Lean was behind the camera (and even his final epic, 'Passage to India', got a critical and box office drubbing). Hamlet was made for 18 million, only made 4 million in box office receipts, and had mixed critical reviews.

Much vitriol was put into the cameos of the Yanks (Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, and Jack Lemmon (probably Jack is the most odd since Williams and Crystal actually do well in their roles). There was also the length, of course. Branagh should count himself lucky that the stars crossed and the film was realized as I doubt that we’ll see such a venture greenlit again.

There’s much good to overcompensate with whatever bad you may find in the picture. The sets and setting are lavish and remind me of French royalty. The cameos are a who’s who of British theater (John Mills, John Gielgud, Judi Dench, Richard Attenborough) and film (Gerard Depardieu, Charlton Heston).

Branagh has a madness and vigor to Hamlet, Winslet’s a fine Ophelia, and the rest of the cast is aces. Students everywhere can thank Branagh that they have a four hour performance so they don’t have to read the play (nanughty, naughty) but you also get a wonderful show as well.

'Hamlet' is presented in a 1080p transfer (2.20:1). Special features include a fascinating commentary from Branagh and Professor Russell Jackson (Drama and Theatre Arts at the University of Birmingham), an 8 minute, high definition “Introduction” by Branagh, (the rest in standard definition) the 24 minute, vintage “To Be the Camera” making of, a 12 minute “Cannes Promo,” and the 2 minute trailer. The film is housed in Digibook packaging so you get 36 pages of pictures, essay, biographies, etc.

After re-watching 'Doctor Zhivago' not too long ago, I wondered to myself why they don’t make such epics anymore. Simply put, they don’t make money anymore. Sadly, Branagh’s attempt, fine as it is, may be the last epic that we see for a time.

However, Warner Brothers reminds us that they can be done… if the stars are in the productions favor. It may have some flaws, but Branagh has fashioned a fine version of 'Hamlet'. Even better is the informative commentary that accompanies the film.

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