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'Hamlet': Kenneth Branagh's Inaction Flick

By Lloyd Rose
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 24, 1997

Kenneth Branagh's four-hour film version of "Hamlet" is intelligent, well intentioned and honorable -- and there's not a single thrilling moment in it. Branagh is smart and extremely hard-working, but he's not an imaginative actor or director, and he's produced the film equivalent of a lushly illustrated coffee-table book.

Of course, it's a book with a great text. Working from the uncut script, Branagh brings out the almost novelistic complexity of the play; it's worth every one of the 238 minutes plus intermission just to experience the sprawling power of Shakespeare's dramaturgy.

In particular, Claudius, the murderer of Hamlet's father and usurper of his throne, is revealed as almost as great a role as the Prince himself, and as the calculating killer who now wants only to enjoy his new life in peace, Derek Jacobi gives the movie's most interesting performance.

The rest of the cast is generally strong without being particularly exciting. Julie Christie is a beautiful, sensual, shallow Queen Gertrude, whose character darkens as she realizes the corruption to which she's turned a willfully blind eye. Nicholas Farrell's Horatio is as simply loving and nobly selfless as a dog. Richard Briers makes Polonius a tough, seasoned political infighter (though this makes his rambling, fatuous speeches seem out of character), and Kate Winslet goes mad quite prettily as Ophelia.

Branagh's celebrated, gimmicky casting of Big Stars in small roles yields mixed results. Billy Crystal is surprisingly effective as the First Gravedigger, a man who, for all his raw jokes, knows enough not to get in the way of the powerful when they're going mad. (The Second Gravedigger is Simon Russell Beale, a major English stage actor who has too little to do in this tiny part but does it well.) Charlton Heston takes to the role of the Player King with un-self-conscious dignity and rolls the phrases out of his mouth as if he'd been born speaking verse. Gerard Depardieu is a slouching, nasty, vaguely threatening Reynaldo, the courtier Polonius sends to spy on his son. (I didn't know what to make of Brian Blessed's Ghost, who is saddled with blue contact lenses to make him look unearthly and then, inexplicably, has the same weird eyes in flashbacks in which we see him alive.)

On the other hand, though the audience laughs in happy expectation as soon as he appears, Robin Williams doesn't seem to know what to do with the role of the court fop Osric. Jack Lemmon is completely out of his depth, even in such a small role as the guard Marcellus. John Mills and John Gielgud make such tiny appearances as Old Norway and Priam (characters usually never seen) that they hardly register. (But in an equally short blip, Judi Dench's screaming grief as Hecuba is the most powerful moment in the film.)

Elsinore Castle is played by Blenheim Palace, the ancestral estate of the dukes of Marlborough (and Winston Churchill's childhood home), and we're treated to several stately-home-tour views of the magnificent, snow-covered grounds. But the spacious, orderly palace isn't used either atmospherically or ironically, and it's awfully pretty for the story that unfolds. The interiors, designed by Tim Harvey, work a little better. When the brightly costumed court leaves the main hall, we realize how empty and cold its huge splendor is. Like Versailles or Charles Foster Kane's Xanadu, this Elsinore is filled with rows of mirrors: an ice palace, a maze of illusion.

As Hamlet, Branagh is straightforward and heroic, and seems entirely too competent to put off revenge as long as he does. By the time he says, some time in Hour 3, "I do not know/ Why yet I live to say this thing's to do," the audience is wondering too. Branagh charges at the role fearlessly; it's not courage he lacks but complexity. There's something a little hearty and dull about him. In the recent movie version of "Othello," he played Iago to Laurence Fishburne's Moor -- and in this vicious role he had what he usually lacks: mystery, force and threat. But his Hamlet is a Boy Scout whose tragedy is that he finds himself in a situation not covered by the handbook.

Audiences may wonder exactly what the "full script" of "Hamlet" consists of. The play exists in three early printings: the First Quarto (now dismissed as a patchwork put together from memory by actors), the Second Quarto (thought to be from Shakespeare's handwritten manuscript) and the First Folio. The Second Quarto has 230 lines that aren't in the Folio, and the Folio has 70 lines that aren't in the Second Quarto. Branagh has used the Second Quarto as his basic text, adding the lines from the Folio; it's quite possible that this complete a version has never been staged before.

Audiences will see the following rarely staged sequences: all of Claudius's masterly manipulation of Laertes; all of the gravedigger scene, including not only the Second Gravedigger but Hamlet's meditation on at least three skulls prior to Yorick's; all of the conversation between Hamlet and his friends as they go to seek the Ghost, including the "vicious mole of nature" speech; the complete accounts of the military maneuverings of Prince Fortinbras (whom Branagh depicts, on slim textual evidence, as an invader); everything involving the visiting Players, including a conversation about companies of child actors, a contemporary issue that today means nothing to anyone but Shakespeare scholars; and sundry added ends of speeches and restored lines.

The full play is itself so immense, labyrinthine, complicated, ambiguous -- such a sacred monster -- that this conventional production can't completely confine its power. It lurches about, confounding the tidy care with which it's treated. Still, Branagh's decorum keeps things from getting out of control and actually becoming disturbing or dangerous. When the Prince murders Polonius, the body lies in a huge, shiny pool of blood. As Branagh approaches the corpse to drag it from the room, his polished boots come dangerously close to treading in that blood, but at the last minute he swerves and keeps things neat and tasteful. This is not a Prince who means it when he swears, "Now I could drink hot blood!"

Hamlet is rated PG-13.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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