Shakespeare Electronic Conference, SHK 8.0004. Thursday, 2 January 1997.
From: Norm Holland <
Date: Tuesday, 31 Dec 96 10:44:42 EST
Subject: Branagh's Hamlet: A Report
My wife and I were briefly in New York over Xmas. After buying a ticket a day
ahead and standing in line, in the cold, for forty-five minutes just to get a
seat, I was able to see the four-hour Branagh <CITE>Hamlet</CITE>. (A tip to
those of you headed for the Paris Theater: run to the balcony.) As a reader-
response critic, I'd like to report--in a purely personal vein.
I thought it one of the best filmed Shakespeares I've seen, perhaps the best.
I had thought no one could outdo Olivier's <CITE>Hamlet</CITE>, but this one
seemed to achieve just that, even though it is far less elegant than Olivier's
spare and stagy treatment. As always, I heard some old lines in new ways and
found new intricacies to the play. I was moved as if I were seeing the play
for the first time.
The rest of the audience was hushed throughout, with small laughs at
appropriate places. They gave spontaneous ovations at intermission and at the
end. There were many parent-child combinations in the audience and some
highschool kids on their own. The exit remarks I heard were all favorable and
It is is, to be sure, very much a <CITE>Hamlet</CITE> of the 1990s, baroque,
operatic, flamboyant, expensive. The setting is Blenheim Palace, roughly just
before WWI, although the Ghost is in armor. Both the palace and the period
seem to me to fit this overripe quality of the film, and, of course, they suit
the language as well. The invasion by Fortinbras at the end is a full military
coup and carries on Branagh's anti-militarist stance from his <CITE>Henry
V</CITE>. The swordplay is Douglas Fairbanks-like, complete with chandelier.
Yes, there are box- office stars in small parts, Billy Crystal, Robin Williams,
Gerard Depardieu, but I thought they were directed with discretion, indeed,
following Hamlet's recommendations for clowns. (I laughed with delight at
The handling of the Ghost owes much to <CITE>Don Giovanni</CITE>. I spotted
filmic <CITE>hommages</CITE> to Olivier's Hamlet, the famous still of Gielgud
staring at Yorick's skull, Eisenstein's <CITE>Ten Days That Shook the
World</CITE>. I spotted very few cuts, some rephrasings, and some of those
based, I thought in the quickness of the moment, on variant readings.
I felt the film techniques, even though very big, even overblown, did not fight
with the language. Yes, there are surprising flashbacks, like Hamlet in bed
with Ophelia, shots of Hamlet Sr., Gertrude, and Hamlet Jr. <CITE>en
famille</CITE>, Old Norway chiding Fortinbras, Priam and Hecuba. Nevertheless,
Branagh did not fall into what I feel is the usual pattern in filmed
Shakespeare, for example, his own <CITE>Much Ado</CITE>, in which the camera is
busy, then stops and language takes over, then the camera steps in again.
Rather than alternating visual and verbal, Branagh has them working
simultaneously. I felt the visual effects, even the flashbacks, gave the
visual imagination something to work on while the verbal imagination was
dealing with the language. Indeed, they would give a mind less familiar with
the lines than a professional Shakespearean a way of reading them. Similarly,
the close-up acting required in film never seemed to me to fight with the
language for attention. I thought cinematographer and director were absolutely
Faults? Of course. I did think the Fortinbras entrance was oddly read. In
this version, his military invasion is cross-cut with the fencing, and I found
that distracting. He is not a parallel to Hamlet, but a cold, militaristic
brute, excessively so, in my opinion. I don't think it's necessary to say
Hamlet slept with Ophelia (although Bill Godshalk's recent remarks on SHAKSPER
about her abortifacient herbs give me pause). Jack Lemmon is very weak in his
part. The final swordplay seemed excessive. I was not crazy about Kate
Winslett's heavily permed Ophelia. Why is Osric killed? Should Polonius be
To me these are minor faults, though, compared with the cinematography and what
I found to be the superb acting of the principals. Branagh in particular is
felicitously made up and cast. He does the great soliloquies with wonderful
understanding and feeling. I was moved to tears--but then I always am.
Jacobi's Claudius is a match for him, as is Christie's Gertrude.
In sum, I think it is a staggering achievement, and I want to see it again and
again, even if I have to stand in line another forty-five minutes. I won't
say, in the current idiom, two thumbs up (up what?), but as I used to say when
I was reviewing movies long ago for WGBH-TV, four stars. I would give it, as
we did then, an Anatomy Reward for Best Picture, but, of course, most of the
credit for that goes to the script.
Best wishes for 1977! Norm Holland