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The RSC puts a modern-spin on Shakespeare's Hamlet, in this filmed for television version of their stage production. The Prince of Denmark seeks vengeance after his father is murdered and his mother marries the murderer.
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Hamlet, son of the king of Denmark, is summoned home for his father's funeral and his mother's wedding to his uncle. In a supernatural episode, he discovers that his uncle, whom he hates anyway, murdered his father. In an incredibly convoluted plot--the most complicated and most interesting in all literature--he manages to (impossible to put this in exact order) feign (or perhaps not to feign) madness, murder the "prime minister," love and then unlove an innocent whom he drives to madness, plot and then unplot against the uncle, direct a play within a play, successfully conspire against the lives of two well-meaning friends, and finally take his revenge on the uncle, but only at the cost of almost every life on stage, including his own and his mother's. Written by
John Brosseau <email@example.com>
Hugh Crumwell was the then-principal of the RADA in which Kenneth Branagh studied. Crumwell was on the set all the time; he came as a request by Branagh to give an objective critique for the performance of each take. See more »
The snow on Hamlet's boots and Rosencrantz's trousers, plus the cane disappear as they enter the castle. See more »
As a play, Hamlet is an anchor of civilization, and even moderately successful films are worth seeing. But in making the translation to film, the artist has two challenges.
The first concerns the work as drama. This is Shakespeare's most ambitious vision, one he tinkered with and enlarged both conceptually and literally. The purest choice, the only choice which can encompass the full weave of the work, is to include everything -- and that's what Branagh has done. Consequently, this work has extra dimensions of life. In doing so, he's included some nice touches:
--gone are superficial hints of mother-lust in the closet scene. These were never in the text.
--we are reminded that Hamlet's initial and sustaining anger is because his uncle jumped into the line of succession
--we see the hints that Hamlet was a student of Bruno in the book on witchcraft he consults after seeing the ghost. Also his book on `matters' (often thought to be Bruno's) is actually given to Ophelia. Nice. Shows deep research.
--Polonius is treated humanely, as more than a dottering fool. This makes Ophelia's loss (and earlier obedience) believable.
The second challenge is cinematic. The play was written for sparse settings; it translates naturally to audio tape and unnaturally to film. So the filmmaker has an open palette. Branagh makes some interesting choices. Many work extremely well, in particular the mirrors in the `to be' and Ophelia sequence. Others are strange:
--he introduces recognizable actors in secondary roles to jar us into the realization that this is a play. (One of these is really funny. How do you portray an actor among actors playing non-actors. Well, you get a noticeably BAD actor. I wonder if Heston knows he'll be goofed on for this for many decades as this film outlives his sandled perorations.)
--he introduces some almost satirical film reflections: a cheesy ghost, an Errol Flynn chandelier swing...
--he provides visual overlays for some of the images implied in the text: Hamlet's lovemaking, considerations in Norway, reflections of the players. This ruins a few of the important ambiguities but we do have a wealth to spend after all.
--in perhaps the worst loss of ambiguity, he makes Fortinbras an invader. This is done only to allow for some cinematic sweep at the end. Okay, I'll reluctantly buy it since the alternative is extended mugging in the death scenes.
I think Branagh and collaborators meet the first challenge nearly perfectly. As to the second challenge, this is our very best film version, in part because of extending the US tradition of playing the characters as real people (versus the UK tradition of characters as speechifiers). So far as the cinematic challenge, there are some great, really great visions here, but there are also some big cinematic misses which keeps this far from perfect. Until Greenaway attempts it, this is the best film Hamlet we have, and that simply makes it one of the best, most rewarding films ever. I'll bet Branagh tries again before he dies.
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