Branagh's Hamlet

By Michelle Mairesse

We're in nineteenth century Denmark when the film begins--badly. The late king's ghost, looming in the dark winter landscape, startles the watchmen, but Jack Lemmon, as Marcellus, is unable to express any emotion beyond his wonderment at being in the play at all. Then, when the troubled spirit appears to Hamlet amid fissures opening in the frozen ground, the dead king's voice woofs through a distorting filter that is usually reserved for space epics or witness protection programs. Nor is this the only instance of a gimmicky sound track. Patrick Doyle's intrusive background music sometimes swamps the foreground, forcing us to strain for syllables of the glorious language.

All that being said, this is the best Shakespearean film ever made. The cast works from a text that conveys the seamless flow of the action far better than do the usual truncated versions. The Second Quarto, now believed to be a pirated edition from an even ampler lost original, fleshes out the standard First Folio to four hours playing time. Investing their restored lines with passion and subtlety, an extraordinary cast projects the murderous ambition, guilty anguish, and moral exhaustion of the Danish court. Even Polonius exhibits a lewd streak implicit in the text.

Branagh flawlessly portrays the Prince of Denmark as a charismatic figure revolted by hypocrisy and surrounded by enemies. This passionate, multi-faceted Hamlet sweeps Olivier's irresolute neurotic off the stage. Under Branagh's sensitive direction, the British actors, grounded in the great English repertory tradition rather than the American star-oriented tradition, all perform at the top of their bent. Among the cameo actors, only Charlton Heston weaves his fine, nuanced depiction of the player king into the fabric of the play. The other cameos are patched in, but these unpolished bits would go unremarked in a less brilliant ensemble.

The sets, from the gloomy exterior of Blenheim Palace to the vast marbled and mirrored interiors, work on every level. As germane to the spirit of this production as the shocking visual of a straitjacketed Ophelia in a dungeon is the hall of mirrors, where Hamlet faces his reflection and intones the most famous soliloquy in the history of drama. Full of plots, counter-plots, dissembling and betrayals, Elsinore itself is a hall of mirrors.

Especially effective are the intercut visuals that body forth flashbacks (the love affair of Hamlet and Ophelia) (the adultery of Claudius and Gertrude), nostalgic musings (Yorick clowning), and narrated action at a distance (the approach of Fortinbras). Each time Fortinbras' helmeted visage flashes on the screen we feel the corrupt, glittering court at Elsinore totter a little, and we experience more deeply the final scenes: the gate-storming mob shouting Fortinbras' name; Fortinbras' stately appearance on the corpse-strewn tilting arena.

Fortunately, Branagh's respect for Shakespeare's language and dramaturgy did not cramp his audacious style. The Hamlet-Laertes duel whirls, slashes, leaps, and bounds over marble floors and balconies, sending shock-waves through the courtiers. Shakespeare would have loved it.

Branagh has translated a theatrical masterpiece into a cinematic masterpiece, a stunning achievement that adds new dimensions to the original.