The immediate arrival of Horatio and Marcellus introduces a far more grave flaw. While Horatio is portrayed by the relatively anonymous British actor Nicholas Farrell, Marcellus is none other than . . . Jack Lemmon! Branagh has chosen to cast every bit part in the play--plus several wordless parts not in the play--with a famous actor. In general this is a distracting practice, though, in some cases, notably Charlton Heston as the Player King, the performance overshadows the distraction.
But in many cases, it is simply silly. As the obscure and incredibly minor Reynaldo, Gerard Depardieu shows up to utter roughly 14 brief lines, most of them variations on, "Yes, my lord, I will do so." By the time you've gotten over giggling at this bulky, heavily accented French guy playing a Dane, Depardieu is gone, never to be seen again. In the world of inappropriate cameos, this one falls just short of John Wayne as The Centurion in The Greatest Story Ever Told.
Of all the famous players on display, however, none fares worse than Lemmon. What is shocking is just how awful his performance is. Even those who have had their ups and downs with his work will be stunned; he can be irritating and self-imitative, but he's always an intelligent actor. Here his line readings are so flat, so devoid of any meaning, that it's hard to resist the conclusion that he was heavily medicated at the time. He's that bad.
Billy Crystal is not my favorite Gravedigger by a long shot--Stanley Holloway in the Olivier version still holds that honor--but he's okay; and there's nothing inherently wrong with bringing a smidgen of the Catskills to the character. Robin Williams' performance as the foppish courtier Osric is fine but is ruined by the editing. Branagh, who seems to dote on Williams, inexplicably chooses to cut to close-ups of him whenever possible . . . even when utterly improbable. Osric is a minor character, yet during the film's final half-hour, we probably see his face more than anyone's save Hamlet himself. It's just . . . weird.
Richard Attenborough pops up at the very end as the English ambassador: Any number of lesser lights would have sufficed, but, as a rule, I support any employment that takes time away from Sir Dickie's directing career.
And then there are John Gielgud, John Mills and Judi Dench, whose roles barely qualify as cameos. One of Branagh's worst decisions has been to cut away during major speeches to show us stagings of what the speeches are describing. Some of these cutaways are passable: We get to see the Norwegian Fortinbras preparing his attack on Poland. Some of them are interesting if dubious: When Ophelia talks of her time spent with Hamlet, we actually see a discreet shot of them in bed together, presumably postcoital. This flies in the face of the usual interpretations of their relationship, but at least it's provocative. And it could be taken simply as Ophelia's fantasy--a consummation she devoutly wishes.
But Gielgud, Mills and Dench show up to no effect at all: Their casting was either the result of some kind of government senior-citizen make-work project or Branagh coveting the imprimatur granted by having the greatest living Shakespearean actors appear in his film, however briefly. A final cutaway during the "Alas, poor Yorick!" speech provokes as much unintentional laughter as Lemmon's arrival: Branagh shows us a flashback of the clownish Yorick, cavorting with an 8-year-old Hamlet (played by some kid in a hideous blond fright wig).
Others of Branagh's decisions work well. Scenes that are usually played for maximum laughs--such as Hamlet's feigned madness before Ophelia--are given far more emotional gravity. In his introduction of the Players' performance, Hamlet is like a slick emcee, driven increasingly manic by anxiety and anticipation. Jacobi is perfectly oily as Claudius and Christie is quite perfect as Gertrude. But, outside of Branagh, it's Winslet who leaves the strongest impression. Ophelia can sometimes come across as a pathetic wimp, but Winslet makes her deeply moving.
Given the care that went into the production design and the promise of the opening shot, the visual style is disappointing. In addition to the dubious cutaway strategy, there is some clunky, surprisingly amateurish editing. The wide 70mm frame is rarely employed to best advantage, and Branagh tiresomely repeats the one camera-movement trick in his repertoire. As in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, whenever in doubt, he covers the action with vertiginous circular tracking shots.
Patrick Doyle's score is memorable but not always appropriate. Its worst moment is right before the intermission: Branagh delivers the call to resolve--"How do all occasions inform against me"--as a grand monologue in the manner of the St. Crispin's Day speech in Henry V. The camera slowly tracks away as his voice rises, while Doyle's music swells in a manner that suggests patriotic fervor, rather than a commitment to revenge. It's rousing, it's effective, and it's just stone wrong.