22 Kenneth Branagh

Hamlet played by Kenneth Branagh
Directed by Kenneth Branagh

One of my favourite moments in Hamlet as directed by Mr Kenneth Branagh is the reintroduction of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Timothy Spall and Reese Dinsdale, hanging from the side of a steam engine as it sweeps through the Elsinore snow to be greeted by their friend at the platform. For two characters usually at the bottom of the casting pecking order and whose entrance is too often treated less importantly than most others, it’s an expression of the film’s inclusiveness. It says, this film doesn’t just have a script that includes nearly every scrap of coherent text knocking about in which all of the characters are cast as though their the most important figure in the story, but each and every one of them will be rendered in a way which is more memorable than you’ve ever seen before.

I love Branagh’s Hamlet. It’s not just my favourite Hamlet film adaptation, it’s one of my favourite films period. I was already excited by the prospect on its release in 1996; having enjoyed both Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing and adored In The Bleak Midwinter and was so desperate to see it I travelled out to Manchester (a far rarer occurrence then) on the week of release even though the print was going to be moving to Liverpool within seven days. Sitting amongst the small audience in screen five of the now closed Odeon on Oxford Road I was in rapture from start to finish, so much so I almost forgot to eat the chocolate bread I’d taken along for refreshment (we ate some weird foods in the 1990s). It was in those four hours I fell in love with the play.

Which means I’m hardly in a position of offer the usually objective first-impression style review. I’ve seen the film many times since and even own a copy in the Video-CD format (were it’s spread across five whole discs). I suspect many of the prejudices I have about the play (the importance of including Fortinbras whatever the cost etc) were born out of my love for this film. It’s secretly been the yardstick against which I’ve compared all of these productions and watching it again for the purposes of the project (I’ve deliberately stayed away since I began writing this blog), I simply couldn’t find anything wrong with it. I tried, lord knows I did. But look – Ophelia’s in a straight jacket. How cool is that?

I was all prepared to even slam Branagh’s performance having seen or heard twenty other men and one girl say the same words. But I can’t. He’s brilliant. There’s no discussion here about whether the prince is mad. He’s sane. Deliberately so from the moment he first appears in the throne room to the duel. He knows he’s gone a bit too far now and then – the killing of Polonius – but everything is an act. And by eradicating that ambiguity, Branagh creates a skein of tension as thick as an undercover spy thriller as we hope and pray he won’t be found out until he’s able to reap revenge on his step-father.

And it's not just Ken. There’s not a bum performance here. Not one. And in casting, the director seems to have deliberately commemorated different levels and eras of acting. There are obvious contingents from Liverpool and Hollywood, from the RSC old and new. His usual repertory of actors are all there too, many carried over from In The Bleak Midwinter, but none of it is incongruous and over and over we see performers that would not share a scene anywhere else. Look it’s Richard Briers giving GĂ©rard Depardieu orders. Simon Russell Beale joking around with Billy Crystal. Perdita Weeks standing next to Charlton Heston.

On the dvd commentary, Branagh jokes that it’s become known as the eternity version and whilst it's true that at nearly four hours it can be an effort to sit down and watch the thing, the time snaps by and the viewer is rewarded with as clear an interpretation of the story as they’re ever likely to see. Nowhere else have witnessed the clarity with which Hamlet’s feigned madness is attributed to Polonius’s banning of Ophelia from seeing him been inscribed with such clarity. By seeing all of the political machinations we can interpret that once Claudius was a sympathetic figure who may have killed his brother to save the kingdom, the marriage to Gertude a way of suturing the throne rather than simply a power grab.

It’s all there. Indeed, there’s almost an overload of ideas. Most productions get by on a couple of good suggestions, whatever can be squeezed in by the director in the rehearsal period or shooting or recording schedule. Here, in every scene, every character has an angle, every line is laced with meaning. Tiny touches. Polonius dies with a smile on his face and somehow continues to be an active participant in the bedchamber even as the rest Hamlet’s encounter with his mother. It’s perfectly clear from the off during To Be Or Not Be that Hamlet knows he’s being watched, with Claudius and his chief counsellor almost filling in for the audience. The friendship between Hamlet and Horatio with the latter almost his madness valve, pointing out when the former has gone too far.

There have been criticisms too of the interpolations; the flashbacks to Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship before the play (which indeed could be her imagination but I don’t like to think so) including the tender moment post coitus when he speaks dialogue which is otherwise reported by letter. It re-engineers the meaning of the play, “they” say, applies ideas not Shakespeare’s own. Well, firstly, they’re less obtrusive than in Olivier’s version which in the main are generally illustrative and secondy isn’t the play’s meaning up for grabs? Doesn’t every director present an interpretation? Cut the opening battlements scenes and you can imply the ghost, revenge and all that really are just figments of Hamlet’s imagination, that he has been sent mad with grief and that his father died of natural causes.

The film’s also extraordinarily beautiful. Shooting on 70mm, Alex Thomson creates vistas about the exterior location on Blenheim Palace, making full use of the period detailing, underscoring the grand old royalty of the Hamlets. On the commentary, Branagh suggests that the best way to see the film would be projected onto an IMAX screen and he’s quite correct. Seems a tragedy that likes of Transformers 2’s 35mm print is blown up to that size, only really serving to increase the incoherence of the editing, whilst a piece with stately shots that repay extended scrutiny were until the dvd release left to languish on VHS. The clarity of the image helps to weight the actors performance, as even the tenderest of gestures, such as Winslet’s slight holding of Branaghs hand at the end of the throne room scene are magnified.

In those extras, Branagh is keen to point out that the film would not have seen a shiny disc had it no been for the internet campaign. It’s lovely, unstarry gesture, and a recognition that the afterlife of some films, even what seem like big studio productions rest in the hands of the viewers. The tragedy is, that while Hamlet’s out there now (and long enough to be relatively cheap to buy), In The Bleak Midwinter, the comedy he made just before hand about putting on a production of the play in a church (my review here) still hasn’t appeared. That’s a disaster. What do we think it would take for Warner Bros, the current rights holders, to give that the release it deserves too?

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