Favorite Movies A-Z: Hamlet (1996)

It’s not necessary to sell the story for this film; it is the Bard, after all and one of his most acclaimed plays upon which this is based. Really, with Shakespeare it should only be necessary to sell the particular rendition of the story in question. We can talk about the actors, the performances, the set choices, etc. Even that, if you’re not for a tale of bawdry, etc., is simplified by this being the only feature film to use the entire text. (Hence the run time of just over four hours.)

Kenneth Branagh is undoubtedly our ages foremost interpreter of Shakespeare and this is his magnum opus. One might prefer Henry V for length, story, actors or anything else, but it’s beyond question that this is the movie that can only be made once; like the Russian epic of War and Peace. Someone else might tell the story, make the movie, and do a good job, but it won’t be on this scale. As a result, I think one must forgive Branagh for snagging the title role for himself despite being of an age slightly too advanced to play a truly convincing Prince of Denmark. Further, the actors which he cast around himself are a luminous constellation of great talent. From his regular collaborators like Brian Blessed and Derek Jacobi, to brilliant cameos from such actors as John Gielgud, Charlton Heston, Judi Dench, Billy Crystal, Gerard Depardieu, star turns by Julie Christie and Kate Winslet, to the excellent bit part players I’ve not seen elsewhere, the talent on screen is astonishing and superb from top to bottom.

The sets and costuming are likewise wonderful. Instead of tying it specifically to a distinct and identifiable time and place, it has instead a generic 18th or 19th century feel which allows for tremendous latitude in the color choices and costume details. The only other movie that comes immediately to my mind in which the colors are as luminous, lush, and delight in a similar degree is Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love.

The exteriors are shot at Blenheim in the UK, the residence of the Duke of Marlborough (who has a small part in the film; I wonder why?). The large interiors are expansive and truly enormous on a scale rarely seen on film this much in a single movie. While there is an exterior that marries a rather too obvious and unconvincing green screen with a set, on the whole the effects on a relatively low-budget film look amazing on the 70mm film. If only they would release it on 4k; I’d buy it for a fourth time (VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray to date).

Don’t be put off by the long runtime. (There’s an intermission!) With a willing mind, you’ll be entertained throughout. Even if you’re a Shakespearean novice, remember he has been acclaimed the greatest writer in the English language for hundreds of years for very good reason. He knew how to write a great story and fill it with great lines.

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