At four hours, plus 15 minutes for intermission, Hamlet is for the faint of neither tush nor eye. Nevertheless the movie is fairly well paced and there is enough happening on screen, even in slow parts, to hold one’s attention. There is also the reward of seeing the entire play, uncut. Branagh’s version is reputedly the first film version to present all the dialog of Shakespeare’s masterpiece. Now that it’s been done (and done so well), it need never be done again, let’s hope.
Part of what makes this epic endurable are excellent performances both by Derek Jacobi as Claudius, Hamlet’s stepfather, and by Branagh himself as Hamlet. Jacobi’s Claudius is a loving husband and a not unjust stepfather. Though he killed Hamlet’s father, he is not portrayed as a purely evil villain; his character is well-rounded, understandable, and human. Branagh’s Hamlet is superb. So often I have heard the soliloquies from Hamlet (“To be or not to be . . .” and “O, that this too too solid flesh would melt . . .”) without understanding the depth of their meaning. Coming from Branagh, the words are profound and moving.
Much of the movie takes place in the main hall of Elsinore castle. This set is beautiful, with stark black and white tiles, vibrant red draperies, and mirrored doors leading to secret alcoves running the length of the hall on both sides. To top it off, the camera seems free to roam the entire hall. The camera circles the actors in an elaborately choreographed dance.
The camera movement in the hall reminded me of the Hitchcock movie, Rope, in which there are only three or four visible edits. The rest of Rope looks like one long, continuous take, and the camera is blocked and choreographed just as much as the actors. In Hamlet, the camera movement is more a technical wonder because you will never see a camera in one of the mirrored doors. Sometimes there are carefully placed screens, other times, the camera is angled juuuust right. I wonder how much footage ended up on the cutting room floor because of camera reflection.
In addition to its length, there are other marks against Hamlet. Hamlet is laced with cameos, and with only a few exceptions (Billy Crystal, for example), they are too distracting. Robin Williams steals the first scene he’s in (imagine, Robin Williams stealing a scene!) and it detracts from the mood and, for me, the comprehension of the Shakespearean dialog. I couldn’t tell you what transpired in that first scene with Williams. Jack Lemmon, senior citizen, plays a guard with night duty at the castle gates.
Still, in spite of its length, Hamlet is a relevant and moving film. I was able to empathize with Hamlet, and I even found myself being depressed by the things that haunted Hamlet. He looks at the skull of Yorick, twenty years dead and wonders where the life went. What of Hamlet after he dies, and what of us after we die?