1996 – Hamlet

Hamlet - Castle Rock Entertainment

So, where were we again? Sorry for the interruption – I’m unlikely to try and maintain the one-per-day schedule of before – I’ve simply too much work on at the moment, but I’d like to get them finished before thirty-seven becomes thirty-eight…

Branagh’s last great slab of a film (Thor was great fun, but nothing like this) managed to do what Luhrmann didn’t quite in presenting us with a vision of Shakespeare that felt modern without being too far removed from the original source (although Romeo + Juliet has a lot of other things in its favour, it sometimes feels as if it’s trying a little too hard). Aside from the dialogue, there is little to tell us this is a near four hundred year old story (although it would be hard to argue about the quality of the script in this case…), this was thoroughly modern film making.

The true bravery of Branagh’s film was the decision to exercise absolutely nothing from the text and present a four hour film in a time when films were becoming routinely shorter (three years later they would start their move in the opposite direction until two and a half hours became the norm); presenting it on the sharpest, most expensive “conventional” film format possible (65mm) with breathing space for an intermission (taking presentation times to near five hours) and no attempt to simplify the dialogue, plot or historical aspect for a modern audience. Branagh instead turned to the natural language of cinema, the ability to step away from the primary action to show as well as tell what the characters are discussing, bringing to life the spoken asides in flashback, or even what is normally the bane of modern cinema, cross-cutting rather than falling into the trap of presenting a filmed version of the play (or, the more usual victim – the musical). Make no mistake, this isn’t Hamlet the play, it’s Hamlet as cinema.

Branagh’s strengths as a director are more apparent than his strengths as an actor with the film, delighting in all manner of visual tricks to enhance what (certainly for its running time & cast) was a low budget film – less than $75,000 per minute (the average summer blockbuster is in the region of ten-fifteen times that figure). Studio bound sets blend seamlessly with Blenheim Palace to create a stunning sense of space, all enlarged further than the eye can see by the numerous mirrors that reflect everything back at the actors. It’s at once an acknowledgement of the sources limited performance space and an attempt to expand outwards, never better than at the end when the direction descends into an almost grand guignol inspired pastiche of bad drama, just teetering on the edge of being a step too far (but crucially, never taking it). The film certainly felt exhausting to watch even without the massive running time. Branagh’s ramps up the tension and scale throughout, filming a drama as an action film, original dialogue as breathless quips between scenes.

This sort of film requires total commitment from its actors to be a success and everyone delivers faultlessly. With a cast this large and distinguished it’s difficult to single anyone out, but Derek Jacobi & Richard Briers deliver with their portrayal of (respectively) the calculating and banal face of evil. Briers in particular shakes years of typecasting as the good man to deliver a prototype vision of a spin doctor, all smarm and false smiles as he delivers more news of treachery. Both feel like genuine villains, far removed from what the rest of Hollywood was presenting at the time apart from being English. Indeed, Branagh himself may be the weak point (although it is not a weak performance), being slightly too old for the part – although it’s admittedly hard to think of an actor of the right age at the time who could have been a better fit for the film. Given the strength of the direction it’s not difficult to make the assumption that his priorities were focussed elsewhere.

It’s all too easy to point that the strength is in the writing (it certainly is the strength, but others have managed to screw it up in the past) that makes it so good, but that’s to do a disservice to the film. Far too many directors take well known works from other media and try to present a filmed version of events rather than a cinematic version (there is a difference, the first shares a language with cinema’s closest comparable television, the latter relies on participation from the audience – a willingness to be part of the action). Branagh understands the basics of the language (both types) and uses the strengths of both to forward his version of the story producing a work of cinema rather than filmed performance. It doesn’t always work – the monologue at the end of Act One feels a little off as the limits of the budget fall back on green screen technology, lessening the scale at a time when it should be near deafening – but even these (minor) failures should be applauded for the sheer balls of being willing to risk a venture like this. It didn’t quite succeed, and nearly two decades on no one’s tried to pull off Shakespeare at this scale again, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be applauded for what it is – a cracking piece of cinema utilising traditional craft and the most modern of film-making language.

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