Blu-ray Review: Hamlet (1996)

Now Available to Own

The definitive version of Shakespeare's most famous tragedy performed from Act 1, Scene 1 right through the very end and clocking in at more than four hours, Kenneth Branagh's breathtaking adaptation of Hamlet bursts off of the screen in full old-fashioned 70mm glory like a David Lean epic from the '60s.

And although Branagh fast-forwarded the time-line a bit to set the play in the 19th century to take advantage of the impressive production and costume design, nothing about 1996's Hamlet is dated.

Rather everything about the work feels timeless, visceral, visual, and incredibly alive from Hamlet's introductory sequence captured alone in profile wearing all black as the camera panned away from a crowd up through Branagh's brilliant usage of mirrors in the famous “To Be or Not To Be” speech since his character is actually talking to himself and a scene at Ophelia's grave that could make one weep in an instant.

Dropping the affected rhythms of iambic pentameter to abandon clumsier line readings of the work altogether, while Branagh's wide-ranging ensemble cast varies in their knack for the now oft-quoted turns of phrase, he ensures throughout that the meaning of the lines is routinely enhanced by some truly imaginative wordless cinematographic sequences.

Knowing when to let the dialogue stand alone by not overpowering the scene with conflicting edits or quick cuts and when to color in the vagueness by depicting the precariousness of the situation with invading forces and the ways that characters are all plotting against each other, Hamlet becomes a complete sensory experience.

While it's inhabited by an auspicious cast, Hamlet features an absolutely mesmerizing turn by a young Kate Winslet as Ophelia who one year earlier had been Oscar nominated for her emotionally potent portrayal of Marianne Dashwood in Ang Lee's adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility that was penned by Branagh's ex-wife Emma Thompson.

Exploring new subtextual terrain by offering flashback evidence that Ophelia and Branagh's Hamlet had been involved in a sexual affair and additionally removing the Oedipal reading of the mother/son relationship as witnessed in various adaptations by Olivier and Zefferelli, Branagh therefore manages to truly build up the tragic figure of Ophelia in a way that makes her descent into madness seem less rushed and not without warrant.

While of course, he's assisted greatly by having the full text at his disposal, Branagh never relies far too much on the words alone to carry the work. However even when the characters swing for the fences, he anchors the saga of a man told to avenge the murder of his father by his father's ghost with authenticity through and through to make the rather extreme paths taken by characters in the play feel not only logical at times but also predestined.

And even though I am inclined to agree slightly with the charges of stunt casting as Branagh filled some of the smallest roles with “name actors” or celebrities including Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Jack Lemmon and Charlton Heston, I've never understood the criticism that Branagh's performance itself was “too stagey” which was leveled at the picture upon its release.

While in addition to Winslet, the film's most valuable supporting player is definitely Derek Jacobi's devious Claudius, seeing the film once more in its entirety for the third time with this Blu-ray premiere, I was dazzled yet again by the at incessantly shocking passion, conviction and intensity that Branagh delivered in every single scene.

And despite the fact that the film itself is greatly inferior to this production, I still feel that perhaps Branagh showed us his greatest work as an actor so far in Othello, his Hamlet is nonetheless the most convincing portrayal of the Danish prince that I've had the good fortune to see onscreen.

Given the tendency for the character to suffer from madness – either put on or real – along with his alternately manic and melancholic demeanor, Hamlet has always been the most difficult Shakespearean part to tackle since there are so many interpretations one could make of single lines let alone whole speeches.

An exhilarating picture that stands head and shoulders above all other Bard adaptations brought to the big screen, Hamlet looks better than it ever did in widescreen high definition with this back-to-school Warner Brothers release that could serve as a Shakespearean litmus test.

For, if you're not riveted by the action onscreen as well as the exquisite marriage of visuals with dialogue that warrants an examination of the film in cinematic editing courses around the globe, you either will never appreciate Shakespeare or you may be a ghost. "To Be or Not to Be..." indeed.

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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.