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Home :: Archive :: 1997 :: February ::
Re: Branagh's HAMLET
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, SHK 8.0188.  Tuesday, 11 February 1997.

(1)     From:   John Velz <
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        Date:   Sunday, 9 Feb 1997 17:14:37 +0200
        Subj:   Music in Hamlet

(2)     From:   Billy Houck <
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        Date:   Monday, 10 Feb 1997 14:47:59 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: Branagh's HAMLET


(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           John Velz <
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Date:           Sunday, 9 Feb 1997 17:14:37 +0200
Subject:        Music in Hamlet

Like Troy Swartz, I have not yet seen the Branagh *Hamlet* nor heard its score
by Patrick Doyle.  Yet I want to jump in in response to Troy's comment:

>Granted, Doyle's music has won awards, but it still does not change
>the fact that the score is sometimes a bit too overbearing, masking the
>important events of a film, . . .

When I was a professor of English I told students hundreds of times that
Hollywood always gives the Academy Award to the wrong music; you can take it
out of its film and play it in Carnegie Hall.  The truly great music in a film
is seldom noticed by the conscious mind, but works subtly and subliminally.
You emerge from the theater commenting happily on the director, the principals
and the cinematography, and seldom say much about the music, unless it was bad.
 Good music is *background* music that contributes much and so much that is
unnoticed.  I said this to these hundreds of students because I was trying to
get them to see that good style in writing is like good background music in a
film: it does its work unnoticed.  The reader thinks he is making direct
contact with the subject you are writing about because nothing in the prose
calls attention to itself.

By these criteria, which I am still very keen on after thinking on them for
some 45 yrs., Boyle apparently did not deserve the awards his film scores
garnered.  I don't remember who did the music for the David Lean film
"Summertime" (1955) which had a rerun on Bravo on Sat. night 8 Feb. '97.
Whoever it was came up with a strong romantic swell just as Katherine Hepburn
and her lover-to-be laid eyes on each other seriously for the first time.  I
laughed out loud in my livingroom at the corny overstatement of the romantic
theme.  Bad style, bad style.

Yours for good style,
John Velz

(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Billy Houck <
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Date:           Monday, 10 Feb 1997 14:47:59 -0500 (EST)
Subject:        Re: Branagh's HAMLET

MR. BRANAGH'S OPUS
 by BILLY HOUCK

There's a problem with 'Hamlet.' It's widely believed to be the best play ever
written in the English language, but if one performs the whole enchillada, the
finished production runs somewhere between four and five hours. Every
generation has its 'Hamlet.' It's a milestone for actors and directors to have
"done Hamlet." It was just a matter of time until Kenneth Branagh, whose first
major film was a rousing 'Henry V' in 1989 with an anti-war twinge to it, set
his eye on the troubled Dane.

Branagh's 'Hamlet,' does, indeed run a full four hours (not counting the
intermission.) The length is significant for a number of reasons. Film studios
are reticent to make longer films, as a four-hour film can only be screened
half as many times as a 2-hour film. It is a testament to Branagh's tenacity
and star-power that this film has been released in the four-hour format.
Lawrence Olivier's 1948 film version ran 2 hours and 27 minutes, and Franco
Zefferelli's 1990 production with Mel Gibson as the Dane ran 2 hours and 15
minutes.

It speaks volumes that the length of the film is its most remarkable feature.
This isn't a bad film, but it certainly could have been much better. Every
frame cries out: "Look! We didn't cut a single word!" Branagh seems to have
lost the perspective he had when he directed himself in 'Henry V' and 'Much Ado
About Nothing.' There isn't much of an arc to his performance. He plays the
role at such a constantly intense level that he has to throw furniture around
to differentiate between being simply perturbed and really, really mad.

Branagh's problem lies with the fact that he wrote the screenplay, directed and
acts in it. He seems to lack perspective, and the whole thing begins to look
like its all about Branagh's ego.

That is why Narcissus drowned.

The whole thing becomes just too too precious, full of swirling camerawork that
is almost sickening with those damned checker floors everywhere, making
Elsinore look like a squared-off version of PeeWee's Playhouse.

'Hamlet' is set  in the same vaguely 19th century period as 'Much Ado About
Nothing.' It manages to work well, with the exception of Jack Lemmon's
inexplicably stupid-looking headgear.

The question of Ophelia's insanity is answered when she appears in a straight
jacket, then later banging her head against the padded walls of her cell.
Despite these rather clunky trappings, Kate Winslet manages to deliver a
wistful an Ophelia as you'd like.

Derek Jakobi is a snarling, bitter Claudius. He looks at Hamlet like he'd like
to smack him silly, and sure enough, he does. Charlton Heston is magnificent as
the Player King. Robin Williams is wasted in the role of Osric, but Billy
Crystal turns in a remarkably lucid  Gravedigger. Branagh even managed to
ratchet his performance down a few notches for the Yorrick bits. The fencing at
the end is played at super-speed, so it's hard to tell if it's really a
palpable hit or not. In the end we are treated to several wild interpretations:
we get Hamlet as superhero(complete with padded body armor for the duel) and
Hamlet as Christ figure as he's hauled off.

There's a brief Jan Kott-esque political turn to Hamlet when the brooding
Frotinbras (even the men of action brood in this version)  finally attacks
Elsinore from without as the royal family hacks itself to bits within. In the
final examination, though, what this 'Hamlet" is about, is Hamlet himself. The
tanned Dane.

'Hamlet' is in its initial release right now in Toronto, Los Angeles, and New
York, but it's coming soon to your province. You'll have to see it. That's the
nature of cultural touchstones. We have to experience them at least once, or
risk being left ot of important conversations.
 

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