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Blu-ray Review: Hamlet (1996)

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No film is more deserving of being encased within a book than Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, the first silver-screen adaptation to present Shakespeare’s entire play, including portions from the Second Quarto and the First Folio. Branagh made every effort to create a spectacular production worthy of what is arguably the world’s greatest play. He selected an international cast and shot it on 70mm, currently the last film to have done so in its entirety, to augment its grandeur.

The story tells the tale of Hamlet (Branagh), Prince of Denmark, who not only has to deal with the recent death of his father, King Hamlet, (Brian Blessed), but also the fact that his mother, Queen Gertrude (Julie Christie), quickly remarried his uncle Claudius (Derek Jacobi), who assumes the throne as the new King of Denmark. One night, Hamlet is visited by the ghost of his father, who reveals Claudius murdered him. Hamlet endeavors to expose this treachery, by pretending to be mad, and avenge his father’s death. Claudius struggles to not only keep Hamlet at bay, but the armies of Norway’s Prince Fortinbras (Rufus Sewell) as well. Hamlet has endured for centuries because Shakespeare created a fascinating, suspenseful plot filled compelling characters and brilliant dialogue.

Branagh delivers a very engaging rendition due in part because he takes advantage of the film medium to pay homage to epics of the 1950s and ’60s. He and his production team regularly fill the increased frame size with marvelous images. The scene when Claudius announces his marriage to Gertrude is a prime example. Everyone is decked out in magnificent and colorful costumes, except for the mourning Hamlet dressed all in black. White petals fall like snowflakes, showering the new King and Queen as they make their way through the hall. Also, rather than have the actors standing around reciting lines, as if he was simply recording the play, he incorporates flashbacks and shows events taking place elsewhere as the actors speak.

The British actors all give very good performances. Branagh, who does triple duty on the film, does such a good job as Hamlet acting mad that I began to question whether the character himself was always acting because of his intensity. Jacobi excels playing the many moods of Claudius from schemer to sniveler. Kate Winslet’s Ophelia commands sympathy as her storyline unfolds.

The Americans stumble and are the major flaw in the production. One of the best actors ever, Jack Lemmon (Marcellus) sounds very unnatural speaking Shakespeare, so it’s no surprise to learn this is his first time. On the commentary track, Branagh thinks critics treated him unfairly, but I regrettably disagree. Billy Crystal (First Gravedigger) sticks out because of his New York accent. He’s an interesting choice because the role is light, but it also didn’t work. Robin Williams (Osric) handles the language but plays his character effeminate, which is distracting. Keeping the Yanks from completely striking out, Charlton Heston is awesome as the Player King in one of his finest performances. He brings immense gravity and power to the role, proving the adage “There are no small parts only small actors.”

The Blu-ray is given a 1080p/VC-1 encoded transfer displayed at 2.21:1. The picture looks good but I was expecting to be wowed because of the source. The colors are well rendered with bright, rich hues. Blacks are inky. The skin tones skew toward pink. The objects are sharp and textures discernible, such as the costumes and the snow on the ground.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is serviceable. Naturally a play is dialogue heavy. The voices, which are always clear, usually come through the front center, other times the remainder of the system provides support. There’s a good amount of ambiance in large crowd scenes. The bass of the music and action rattles and distorts the subwoofer too often.

The extras are the same ones of the 2007 DVD release. Branagh introduces the film (HD, 8 min). An enlightening commentary by Branagh and Shakespeare scholar Russell Jackson finds the two talking about the making of the film and their thoughts about the play. “To Be on Camera: A History with Hamlet” (SD, 25 min) shows cast members praising Branagh’s talents and talking about the play being turned into the film. Kate Winslet talks about Americans being able to play Shakespeare but some actors in the film disprove her point. The “1996 Cannes Film Festival Promo” (SD, 12 min) is an extended trailer. The digibook has 37 pages of trivia and biographies. Because of a misprint there’s no section titled “Act III”.

Hamlet has a little something for everyone. It’s a ghost story and a romance.  There’s political intrigue, murder, and even philosophy for those who wish to explore the subjects covered. It’s a springboard to provoke thinking and discussion. Kenneth Branagh and his team do a very good job bringing the adaptation to the screen, and the Blu-ray team does a good job bringing the film to high definition, although I was hoping for a little more. Still, it’s well worth adding to the collection.

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS
  • http://www.themidnightcafe.org Mat Brewster

    I watched this in the theater when it came out. I remember three things: I liked it. It was crazy long. The people in front of me laughed maniacally when Hamlet died.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    I saw the four-hour version in LA, but they had a brief intermission as does the Blu-ray. They created a 2.5 hour version for smaller markets. I went with a gal I liked, but don’t think I saw her again.

    People laughed when Hamlet died? Must not have been sober.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  • http://www.themidnightcafe.org Mat Brewster

    I think they were laughing at the bombasity of it all. It was a bit over the top but I figure with a four hour long version of Hamlet, his death needs to be a bit over the top.