It does seem redundant to recount the plot of Hamlet, which is the most filmed of Shakespeare's plays, the best-known play in the English language, and (excepting the King James Bible) the prime claimant to the title of Central Text of All Western Literature. The press material for Kenneth Branagh's new film version laughably claims that the play has been filmed five times before; the actual number is roughly 10 times that, the most recent being the 1990 Franco Zeffirelli version with Mel Gibson. (See accompanying article.) One esteemed movie guide lists 41 adaptations and nine parodies, the first being a 1900 production with Sarah Bernhardt (!). But that list doesn't even include loose adaptations and updatings such as Edgar G. Ulmer's 1945 Strange Illusion, Akira Kurosawa's 1960 The Bad Sleep Well, Aki Kaurismaki's brilliant deconstruction Hamlet Goes Business (1987), Enzo Castellari's 1972 Western Johnny Hamlet, and--if you were really paying attention--the 1983 Dave Thomas-Rick Moranis film Strange Brew or related backstage stories such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1990), To Be or Not to Be (done brilliantly in 1942 and less well in 1983) and Branagh's own A Midwinter's Tale (1995).
All of which suggests the obvious question: Do we really need another Hamlet?
The answer is yes--and, perhaps sadly, we still do, despite Branagh's often estimable efforts.
The most famous film Hamlet is, of course, Laurence Olivier's multi-Oscar-winning 1948 version, which--despite some competition from Nicol Williamson's late-'60s outing and the Zeffirelli/Gibson take--has remained the "official" version ever since its release.
Branagh has been cursed (or blessed) with comparisons to Olivier since the start of his career. He certainly encouraged the talk by directing and starring in Henry V, exactly as Olivier had 44 years earlier. Now he's following in Olivier's footsteps again. (Is a Branagh Richard III inevitable as well?)
On the face of it, Branagh's version has several advantages over its forerunners. For starters it's complete--which may be a first. (A shortened version is also being released in some cities.) Despite the play's revered status, it's almost never performed (and may never have been filmed) in its entirety. Branagh's clocks in at four hours and two minutes (more than 50 percent longer than Olivier's), plus a 10-minute intermission, so be sure you've prepared the baby sitter. (Although every line is included, at least one of the best-known is changed in a way that significantly alters its meaning: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy," Hamlet says, rather than the more condescending "your philosophy.")
While the longer speeches may sometimes bog down, Branagh has, if nothing else, provided an educational service by preparing this full-length version. Hamlet really does deserve such treatment: Some of the "less important" material that has been cut in other versions is, in fact, crucial. It is, for instance, common to remove or shorten much of Act Four, when the protagonist himself is absent from the action, traveling to England with his turncoat buddies, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. While the story may seem on hold with Hamlet missing, his prolonged absence--roughly a half-hour here--is what gives his Act Five reappearance in the graveyard such power.
Branagh also has the advantage of shooting in an ultracrisp, panoramic 70mm format and the clout to enlist whichever actors he wants. Further, as he displayed in Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing, he has a knack for staging Shakespeare in a manner that makes the actual meaning of the words take precedence over their often hypnotic sonority. In short, even benighted Americans can generally understand what the hell the characters are talking about.
So, with all these advantages, why is it impossible to be wholeheartedly enthusiastic about Hamlet? The film opens well, with a wide exterior view of Elsinore Castle. It's a beautiful shot--one of very few, unfortunately, in the next four hours. The setting has been changed to the 19th century, a move that has little effect. But the first bit of business, while dramatic, hardly makes sense: Barnardo, arrived to relieve Francisco, literally attacks his comrade and wrestles him to the ground--a fine howd'yado. I mean, what the hell is that about?
Still, Hamlet has become so overplayed it's better to risk new or offbeat interpretations, even if some of them, such as this one, don't quite compute. (And, in general, Branagh scores well on these counts.)