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With: Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie, Richard Briers, Nicholas Farrell, Kate Winslet, Michael Maloney, Brian Blessed, Rufus Sewell, Billy Crystal, Jack Lemmon, Charlton Heston, Gerard Depardieu, Rosemary Harris, Timothy Spall, Reece Dinsdale, Robin Williams
Written by: Kenneth Branagh, based on the play by William Shakespeare
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violent images and sexuality
Running Time: 242
Date: 25/12/1996

Hamlet (1996)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Great Dane

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

There have been at least 35 filmed versions of Hamlet, and possibly a hundred more. The most famous three have been Laurence Olivier's 1948 Oscar winning version, the 1969 Tony Richardson version with Anthony Hopkins and Marianne Faithfull as Ophelia (!) and the 1990 Franco Zefferelli version with Mel Gibson and Glenn Close. Now, for the first time in 100 years of cinema, the entire four-hour version, the complete, uncut text of Hamlet has been filmed.

In 1989, Irish-born Kenneth Branagh directed and starred in Henry V. To folks in England, that was near blasphemy, to remake Laurence Olivier's definitive 1945 movie. (In America, it's pretty much the same as remaking Gone With the Wind.) But he pulled it off, it was a big hit, and he received 2 Oscar nominations (for both Actor and Director). Olivier's version was a bold, trumpeting Technicolor affair, very noble and haughty. Branagh's film was muddy, bloody and wild.

Olivier's 1948 Hamlet was a black-and-white, brooding ghost story. Branagh has one-upped Olivier again by making his Hamlet a bold spectacle: big and loud and colorful. He cast a large platter of international stars, some only on screen for a few minutes, and himself as the Dane.

There are flaws in this Hamlet, but they are, for the most part, forgivable. Some of the cast look a little lost (Jack Lemmon for example). Branagh himself is very loud, as if he were on stage projecting to the back row. The editing is very choppy. Sometimes you don't get an idea of the room, and the final swordfight is cut too fast. But these are trifles.

Magic moments and treasures include: Branagh's "To be or not to be" speech in front of the two way mirror; Charlton Heston's hammy turn as the Player King, and Billy Crystal devouring the character of the gravedigger, as if the part were written for him. Kate Winslet makes a sexy Ophelia (and we get to see a brief sex scene to enhance their relationship).

The others in the cast include: Derek Jacobi as Claudius, Robin Williams as (a gay) Osric, John Gielgud as Priam (in a flashback), Gerard Depardieu as Reynaldo, Julie Christie as Hamlet's mom Gertrude, Rufus Sewell as Fortinbras and Richard Attenborough (between Jurassic Park movies) as the English Ambassador. Brian Blessed plays the ghost of Hamlet's father, in a scene done with a strange theatricality. It's frightening, odd, off-balance, and yet effective.

The breeze of this Hamlet was enough to topple the throne of Mel Gibson's 1990 version, and with time, it may knock over Olivier's version as well. (Oliver didn't even include Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in his version.) After a string of disappointments Branagh shows his skills once more as a top director, and as a top actor as well. He was head over feet better than any of the other 1996 Oscar nominees for Best Actor, and it was a crime not to nominate him.

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