Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet (1996)

A half an hour a day for the past two weeks or so and I finally made it through the only complete version of Hamlet on screen. It now occurs to me, after umpteen years, that I've seen three or four film versions of the masterpiece, and of course read it a dozen times or so, but I've never actually seen a dramatical performance. I can hear chants of "Philistine!" "Wannabe!" and "Go back to Stephen King, you hack!" filling cyberspace as I make my confession. "Make thy insults bloody, or nothing worth."

No matter. I'll just wait until the Hanover Park community theater breaks out the performance. Or, barring that, I'm sure the YMCA will have a stunning adaptation in their summer youth group theater performance.

(Sarcasm, people. You ever hear of it? "How absolute the knave is...")

In the meantime, I've got Branagh's adaptation to chew over. What can I say? It's got as many pluses as minuses, and when you're dealing with both a Shakespearian actor (I hate to be snotty, but when you tour with the RSC, your experience is self evident) and Shakespeare himself, not to mention an all-star cast, the finished product is bound to be worth the four hours of your life you spend watching it. Besides, I'm just enough of a DWM worshipper to believe that any minus you come across in a Hamlet production is minimal, compared to the crap you find in contemporary film. ("Speak the speech, I pray you.")

Branagh plays the Olivier Hamlet: brooding, slight in frame, not a little bit whiny. But it works. Not all the lines are as how I would envision them: when Branagh confronts Gertrude (Julie Christie) over her dalliance with his uncle, he looks more like he's going to stomp on the floor and hold his breath than attack her. But then he does attack her, and, bereft of all the psychological luggage Ziffereli dumped on Mel Gibson in the corresponding scene in his 1990 production, we are free to experience Hamlet's justified rage instead of wondering whether he's working out an Oedipal fixation.

Kate Winslet (Ophelia) works well, too. When she needs to be smitten, she's smitten. When she needs to be sexy, she's sexy. And when she needs to be crazy, she looks crazy, demented, physically ill and even conniving. In short, she's great. Ditto Jacobi (Claudius), Michael Maloney (Laertes), Nicholas Farrell(Horatio), and Brian Blessed (the ghost). The bit parts are hard for me to appreciate, mostly because I'm getting too much of a kick out of American actors putting in their two cents on the Bard (Jack Lemmon, Robin Williams and Billy Crystal, especially), but overall I sucked up their performances like a Danish prince sucks up self-pity.

I can't necessarily say I was overawed with the filmic representations, but then, they were original. Branagh delivers his "to be or not to be" in front of a series of mirrors, casting infinite reflections as he ruminates on the death he wishes for. The swordfight at the end is more believable than any other I've seen--you almost expect them to break out lightsabers and jump ten feet in the air. And the tensions between the characters work as smooth as an oil slick. Gertrude looks like she wants to wash her eyes when she sees Claudius in the last two acts, and Polonius, so often played as a doddering do-gooder, comes off as the crafty manipulator many critics have defined him as.

So, while I'm no Shakespeare critic (just a humble Shakespeare teacher and reader), I know what I hate in a Shakespeare film. I hate it when what I see jars with what I've read. This version does anything but. Mr. Branagh, a divinity has indeed shaped your end: genius.

--Some Misc. Links

Hamlet to come out on DVD in 2006. Now I have to watch it again. This likes me well.

A Hamlet cheat sheet. I have no other reason to link this page except the fact that I stole their picture above. But if thou ever held literature in thy heart, absent thee from assholery a while and write thine own term paper, thou rump-fed runyon.