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Branagh's 'Hamlet': Not to Be

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 24, 1997

In this era of style-over-substance, how a director dabbles with Shakespeare tends to garner more attention than the text itself. In the recent "Romeo and Juliet," an extended MTV video, and "Richard III," a World War I-era fascist fable, the stylistic affectations tended to eclipse the real fireworks: Shakespeare's poetry.

For his 70mm version of "Hamlet," director Kenneth Branagh may have reclothed the medieval court of Denmark in 19th-century dress. But he hasn't shied from the poetry. In fact, he has reprised the entire text, drawing from the scholastically approved versions -- the First Folio and Second Quarto.

There are good things about this. Branagh shows us how everything in this play -- from Hamlet's play-within-a-play to Ophelia's descent into madness -- matters in the ultimate scheme of things. We're also reminded that "Hamlet" is not the story of an indecisive, ineffective, chatty, loony prince. This story is all action; and every speech leads somewhere.

Unfortunately, we're stuck with Branagh's direction -- and there's the rub. You can be lifted by Derek Jacobi's intelligent interpretation of Claudius, Richard Brier's superbly stuffy Polonius and Julie Christie's subtly exquisite Queen Gertrude. You can be amazed by the pristine cinematography, particularly just before the intermission, when Hamlet vows bloody retribution while the camera pulls back to reveal a snowy landscape behind him full of advancing troops.

But there are many more instances when you want to run screaming from Elsinore Castle. Brian Blessed's otherwise respectable turn as the ghost of Hamlet's slain father is destroyed by baby-size spotlights on his bright blue eyes. He looks like a bearded Chucky, the murderous doll from "Child's Play." His loudly recorded exhalations suggest the aqualung rasps of Darth Vader; and his ghostly apparition is attended by earth-cracking, smoking scenery that suggests a low-budget disaster movie.

In his eagerness to open Shakespeare up to everyone, Branagh has loaded the film with casting surprises. In some cases, the effect is rewarding. Charlton Heston has undeniable presence as the Player King who appears in Hamlet's stage production.

But it's hard to accept whiny old Jack Lemmon as Marcellus, one of the castle's guards. Billy Crystal, who plays the gravedigger (the one who hands Yorick's skull to Hamlet) doesn't come out with "Hey, Hamster, how's it hanging?" but you half expect it from him. Robin Williams may be a scream in most movies, but in this context, he's an annoying distraction as Osric, the weapons supervisor for the climactic duel between Hamlet and his rival Laertes (Michael Maloney). When Hamlet's readying himself to fight to the death, do we really want Mork to perk up the show?

Finally -- and most ostentatiously of all -- there is Branagh's own performance. This is a role the Irish actor could do in his sleep. But the choices he makes are usually overextended. When it's time to be funny, he skitters over the top. When he's sad or touched, he makes a mechanical, catching noise in his throat.

As for his attempts to be sexy (see "hot" nude scenes with Kate Winslet's Ophelia for further details), well, going to the gym is simply not enough. He doesn't make the task easy by parading around in a tight tunic, mustache, dribble goatee and peroxide-blond mane. Surely, he wasn't going for the look of a butch Nazi.

It would be worthless for a play or movie not to reflect its maker. But we're forced into an uncomfortable relationship with Branagh's banally ambitious ego. When you emerge from this four-hour movie, somewhat older than before, the satisfaction comes from persevering through the whole thing. It also comes from Shakespeare's mastery, in spite of Branagh's direction.

HAMLET (PG-13) -- Contains sex scenes, nudity and violent swordplay.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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