Great Dane

Let's give Kenneth Branagh credit, shall we, for the breadth of his good sense. At 35, this Irish prodigy is the foremost cinematic interpreter of Shakespeare in a time when everyone just short of Jackie Chan and Jim Carrey seems to be cooking up a new movie version of Macbeth. Not only that, he is patient with the efforts of his inferiors: After Franco Zeffirelli (a director who never met a Shakespeare play he couldn't screw up) and Mel Gibson (an action star who never met a work of substance that didn't overwhelm him) got their hooks into Hamlet, Branagh discreetly waited six years before getting up to speed on his own reinvention of the melancholy Dane. He's wanted to do it for two decades.

Alas, poor Mel. In the face of Branagh's magisterial, fascinating and impeccably performed Hamlet--all four hours of it--the pinched and puny Zeffirelli/Gibson effort seems destined to suffer the same fate as the 114-minute wisp of a thing Tony Richardson put on the screen back in 1969--with pop star Marianne Faithfull as Ophelia, no less. With all due respect to Laurence Olivier's dark Hamlet of 1948 and Grigori Kozintsev's rarely seen 1964 Russian version, it is unlikely that we'll see a richer or more resonant interpretation of the Bard's most famous play in, say, the next forty years. Four hundred years might be a different issue.

Like ill-fated Polonius (Richard Briers), Branagh clearly holds his duty as he holds his soul, and his duty has been to unburden the prince and the rest of the players of some of their traditional self-absorption and a good deal of their famous melancholy. "The film is bright and full of--wherever it can be--hope," the director/star said in a recent interview. Indeed, there's a little less indulgent brooding here than there is acute awareness of crises personal and political. Why, even some of the rooms of Elsinore are well-lit these days, and the final, fatal swordplay we all know is on the way has about it, well, some play.

This is not to say that Branagh has turned Shakespeare into Neil Simon--despite the startling appearance of Jack Lemmon in the little role of Marcellus. It's that this director, with sublime film versions of Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing under his belt, has sailed into Hamlet confident and vibrant--and far more resolute, perhaps, than his subject.

Some Shakespearean "purists," if such a breed can be said to exist in a world of meanings so vast, may get rankled by another array of popular touches. They range from the presence of distinctly non-classical Hollywood stars such as Lemmon, Charlton Heston, Robin Williams and Billy Crystal in minor parts, to a nineteenth-century setting in enormous Blenheim Palace, to Branagh's reliance on spectacular setpieces to dramatize some of the play's crucial turning points.

No sooner has the ghost of Hamlet's murdered father (Brian Blessed) appeared to him, blue eyes blazing, in the chill mists of Elsinore, than hell itself seems to bubble up from the ground. The wedding of Gertrude (Julie Christie) and scheming Uncle Claudius (Derek Jacobi) is enacted under a dazzling snowfall of confetti. When Branagh's black-clad, blond-coiffed prince, acting his unsweetest, vows just before the intermission that "my thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth," he lets fly that fateful line before a huge backdrop of snowy plains and distant peaks that suggest the dangerous terra incognita into which he's about to venture. In Branagh's vision, mad Ophelia (Kate Winslet) now sports a straitjacket and is locked in a padded cell, and when the army of Fortinbras (Rufus Sewell) bursts into the castle, the men are caught in the same trompe l'oeil of mirrored doors that earlier framed Hamlet's pivotal soliloquy. Orson Welles, himself a dedicated student of the Bard, would be flattered by this gorgeous homage to The Lady From Shanghai.

Branagh stops just short of the big action-movie gestures that linked Shakespeare to, say, Schwarzenegger in Richard Loncraine's recent Richard III, but he seems no less interested in jazzing up the bloody melodrama of his piece and keeping whatever portion of the mass audience he can shoo into the multiplexes focused on the screen. To be visually enthralling or not to be, that is the question. Just do it, we say.

Meanwhile, no one devoted to text (or texture) will be able to fault Branagh's linguistic and dramatic ambitions here. This unabridged Hamlet employs the First Folio, along with the Second Quarto--in other words, all the words. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but the huge sweep of language, event and character Branagh brings us are less daunting than inspirational. One example: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, those unlucky messengers, have been restored after mysteriously vanishing from some earlier film versions. Even the justly famous Olivier Hamlet, with all its cuts and condensations, seems now a bit like Cliffs Notes.

Branagh's sunnier-than-usual reading of the prince may have a scholar here and there tearing his/her hair out, but over four centuries, actors, directors and scholars have come up with hundreds of Hamlet intrepretations, and there's no reason to stop now. There's lechery, treachery and revenge aplenty here--and no shortage of either poison-tipped swords or madness, real and feigned. Branagh's full-blooded essay of the part, rich with the contemplation of human nature and the consequences of human action, reminds us in spades of what most twentieth-century Shakespearean critics have long asserted--that Hamlet is "the first modern man" and that his deepest quandaries are also ours. Sitting four hours in a movie theater is a significant undertaking. So is shedding light on the dark corners of the soul.

Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh, from the tragedy by William Shakespeare. With Kenneth Branagh, Richard Briers, Julie Christie, Derek Jacobi and Kate Winslet.


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