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I have to admit, I’ve really been dreading this review. It’s not easy for me to admit that I don’t understand something, and unfortunately, that’s the situation I find myself in now. Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, recently released on Blu-Ray, is probably an epic masterpiece. I mean, this is the first time that Shakespeare’s text has been filmed in its entirety. The story is legend, the characters infamous, and the dialogue classic. But after over four hours (!) of watching, I couldn’t even begin to recount what happened. Brilliant as it all may be, I just couldn’t follow it.
That’s not to say that I couldn’t appreciate what I was seeing. Shot in 70MM, the film is a gorgeous visual expierence. This is a lavish production; Shakespeare on a grand scale. After seeing Hamlet presented this way, I couldn’t imagine watching it scaled back to the stage. Branagh does a masterful job directing, placing the audience into the psyche of these characters. Although the Bard could have never comprehended his material being presented this way, the material almost feels as if it’s tailor-made for the cinema.
Although I never understood “what” was happening, I always felt as if I had a grasp on the emotional resonance of each moment. It’s obvious that Brannagh has an exceptional grasp on the material. I mean, as a director, he’d have to. But he never resorts to the “point and shoot” method of filmmaking. It feels as if every move of the camera is calculated, and every edit designed for maximum impact. This is pure cinema, perfectly suited to his talents.
I’ve always found it impressive when a director stars in their own film. As Hamlet, Brannagh did seem occasionally over-the-top, but I’m sure that’s the way the character is designed to be played. It’s a very theatrical performance, one that might work better on the stage. And yet, it still works here. It’s not the type of performance that I’m used to, but then again, this isn’t the type of film that I’m used to seeing.
Especially surprising is the ensemble he managed to put together. It’s quite the eclectic cast, with everyone from Robin Williams to Charlton Heston showing up. I was genuinely surprised to see some of the performances he got from people who I’ve never associated with Shakespeare. The only actor I didn’t care for was Jack Lemmon. Above all others, his acting felt recited rather than performed. But again, considering the material, even simple recitation seems impressive.
It’s apparent that there was a passion for the material from those involved. This enthusiasm comes through quite heavily in the bonus features. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that there is any new material, but rather, recycled features from previous releases. However, I still enjoyed seeing those involved elaborate on the thrill it was for them to make this movie. I found myself getting jealous of their enthusiasm for the project. It’s as if there’s a great story out there that I’ll never know thanks to my own inability to comprehend the nature in which the story is told.
The features include an introduction by Branagh, a feature on the history of Hamlet, and the theatrical trailer. There is also a commentary with Branagh and Russell Jackson, editor of “The Cambridge Guide to Shakespeare on Film” as well as the professor of drama and theatre arts at the University of Birmingham. When writing these articles, I almost always watch the commentary tracks; however, after four hours of watching the actual movie, I just couldn’t bring myself to watch this one. I’m sure it’s a fascinating listen for those interested. Unfortunately, that isn’t me.
Overall, I’m glad I had the opportunity to watch the film. I found it fascinating more than entertaining, and would highly recommend it to those who are already fans of the story. However, if you are like me, and struggle with Shakespeare to begin with, I can’t really recommend this film. Honestly, this is the first time that I’ve reviewed a film that felt like homework. And if it was, I’m afraid I would have failed.