“Hamlet” has been called the most celebrated drama in the English language and some say it is William Shakespeare’s greatest play. The DVD introduction to director Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet” (1996) asserts that in the 400 years since it was written, there’s rarely been a time when it hasn’t been performed. Perhaps the play’s attraction is what Branagh says is its “panoramic view” of human nature. This special edition DVD features commentary by the director.
A number of screen adaptations have been presented over the years, but only Kenneth Branagh’s version features the play in its entirety. In bringing it to screen, Branagh said he wanted to create “an experience, an event.” This wide-angle view of human nature was shot in 70 mm, a wide-angle high-resolution film that lends itself well to the many sweeping shots used in the movie, whether of soldiers mustered outside a snowy Elsinore Castle, or a grieving Ophelia wandering along a hall of mirrors. The most amazing, and memorable, shot is a pan to behind the king and queen on their thrones to Hamlet lurking behind the wall, looking at the camera. We and the camera are shocked to find him there. Visually this is a stunning achievement.
But more than the beautifully composed scenes and elegant Victorian set design, this “Hamlet” succeeds with superb acting and direction. Brash, ambitious and talented, Kenneth Branagh was likened as the next Orson Welles or Laurence Olivier when he came on the scene in the late 1980s. A heavy mantle. Starring as Hamlet, he’s joined by Derek Jacobi, John Gielgud, Richard Briers, Julie Christie and others.
I think Kenneth Branagh’s real gift to audiences in his understanding of the text. One cannot appreciate the humor and wisdom in Shakespeare’s writings when actors don’t understand what they’re saying. In “Hamlet,” Branagh’s goal was to have the lines “spoken as clearly as possible, as naturally as possible,” and he succeeded. (This natural presentation is seen in his other film adaptations of Shakespeare, too: “Henry V,” “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Othello,” “Love’s Labour’s Lost.”)
I encourage you to experience this “Hamlet”: beautiful scenes, impeccable acting and brilliant delivery.