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on 20 October 2013
I heard this was based on the Lion King, but it's rubbish. 4 hours long - not a single musical number and absolutely no lions.
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HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERon 11 January 2015
"Hamlet" doesn't need any introduction -- the tortured Dane, the ghost, meditations on suicide and a climax full of death.

And for many years, the definitive version has been Kenneth Branagh's sprawling four-hour movie, "William Shakespeare's Hamlet." Branagh -- who both directed and starred in it -- sometimes bombasts his way out of scenes that deserve more subtlety, but the richness of the acting, the beautiful cinematography and the wells of powerful emotion make this a rewarding experience.

Prince Hamlet of Denmark (Branagh and his peroxided hair) is understandably upset when, only a short time after his father's death, his mother Gertrude (Julie Christie) marries his uncle Claudius (Derek Jacobi), who is now the new king. But when Hamlet encounters the tormented ghost of his father (Brian Blessed), he learns that his dad was murdered by his uncle. But he's plagued by indecision, since he's unsure if the spirit was truly his dad.

Over the days that follow, Hamlet's behavior becomes more bizarre and erratic. He treats his girlfriend Ophelia (Kate Winslet) horribly, arranges a play that mimics real life a little too closely, and generally acts like a loon. But when an argument with Gertrude ends in tragedy, Claudius plots to have Hamlet killed upon his return to England. And as madness and death fester in Denmark's palace, Hamlet is drawn back to have his final vengeance -- but doing so may destroy him and everyone he knows.

"Hamlet" is one of those plays that only really comes out two ways -- either you have a passionate, intense tragedy full of very human characters, or you have two boring hours of some whiny guy talking to himself. While "William Shakespeare's Hamlet" has some draggy bits (which isn't surprising, considering the FOUR HOUR length), the sheer passion and verve keeps it energized.

And Branagh stages everything like a play, set on a very elaborate stage. The forests and expanses of Denmark look faintly artificial, and the palace is a great black-and-white checkerboard with mirrored doors and scarlet carpets. Branagh follows Shakespeare's immortal writing faithfully, but also adds some wild, vivid spins of his own -- the action-packed duel, Ophelia getting hosed down, Hamlet's fantasies of stabbing his uncle.

The biggest problem? Sometimes Branagh gets too bombastic and flashy when he should show more subtlety -- when he mentions hell, the ground splits open and spews flame. And the final clash with Claudius is marred by a falling chandelier that seems more Errol Flynn than Shakespeare.

Branagh (and his peroxided hair) play Hamlet as almost bipolar -- when he isn't roaring with manic energy (guess what happens during the play!), he whispers unblinkingly with wire-taut tension. He clearly has an intense love for the material, and it becomes almost exhausting to see him pour so much passion and emotion into every line that Hamlet utters.

And Kate Winslet gives the most perfect Ophelia performance ever, descending into glazed-eyed, giggling insanity halfway through the movie. Branagh also managed to get an all-star cast for this, with some mesmerizing performances by Christie, Jacobi, Rufus Sewell, Nicholas Farrell, Richard Briers and Blessed (why did he get Brian Blessed playing a character who only whispers?).

There are also some smaller performances by A-list actors, who all seem very delighted with roles that are barely more than cameos -- Sir John Gielgud, Judi Dench, a clearly enthusiastic Charlton Heston, Billy Crystal, Robin Williams and Gérard Depardieu.

"William Shakespeare's Hamlet" is a powerhouse. While it could use a little less bombast, the rich acting and passionate delivery make it far more intriguing than most four-hour movies can be.
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on 6 February 2009
I am surprised at the good feeling for Branagh's 'Hamlet.' I and my friend laughed our way through this production, especially at the end with Hamlet throwing his sword across the room like a javelin, and the chandeliers behaving as if it were the Phantom of the Opera.

The supporting cast had a tendency to hyperventilate in every scene. Listen to them: even the most pedestrian of scenes is riven with over acting, symptomatic of a failure to comprehend the text. There is no subtlety or art in these performances, merely bombast.

Branagh was a dreadful Hamlet. He spoke so fast I could not understand a single word, which somewhat impedes understanding. Additionally, his interpretation of madness, whether feigned madness or real, was childish. He has no grasp of Hamlet's inner conflicts, instead making him into a clown. If you want to see how Hamlet is to be done, look at Olivier, and watch how, rather than playing someone with ADD, he plays someone consumed with his own introspection.

And as for directional quality: well, there was little of that, either. Why are there piles of burning coals around Blenheim palace in the middle of the day? Why is the picture SO bright? It more befits a comedy than a tragedy; there was no atmosphere to the place, just sterilty. Why is there lots of liquid nitrogen and bursting jets of fire when Hamlet goes to meet his father's ghost? It does not look supernatural it looks cheap and gimmicky.

Finally, the text. Anyone who wishes to do Shakespeare must realise that it is the TEXT that is the star of the show, not the actor filling the role. This whole project struck me as an exercise in vanity, for which Branagh cannot reasonably be applauded. It was a mistake to play the full script - four and a half hours is simply too long (and that is not merely my opinion: it is doubtful the text was ever played to full length even in Shakespeare's day (he himself was known by contamporaries for being long winded)). A sage interpreter knows what to cut and where, and for what effect; this cannot be said of Branagh.
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on 5 April 2010
Brannagh really makes the text clear. The film is a real achievement. I liked the 'comments' of the visual images intercut into the text. However, the central performance has very real contradictions in it and someone needed to direct Brannagh or at least challenge him over several points. His response to the Ghost is very strong indeed and he responds with real authority to swear to avenge his Father's death. However that clear decision and obvious real leadership quality and energy of a "doer" which clearly Brannagh must have as a person to achieve all he does, contradicts what is to follow in the play: Hamlet's inability to act instantly. We simply do not believe that the Brannagh/Hamlet we see in that scene has any connection with the "melancholy" we are told he suffers from. So,the speech after The Players moving Hecuba speech "Oh what a rogue.." as a result was just a lot of shouting without any real truth for me. He was miscast in my opinion and I think a Director would have got more truth out of him by shaking him out of his own competency and making him discover and explore a more incompetent side to himself by perhaps using some Meisner technique in rehearsal where he could have found a more spontaneous delivery. I think Olivier may have fallen into the same trap of acting without a Director or being cast, being in a position to cast himself and direct the whole thing.
Similarly the Ghost (Is is Brian Blessed with blue contact lenses?) needed to actually use his voice so that subtle intonations and inflections could be achieved instead of a horrible de-voiced sound that became stagey rather than authentic.
Derek Jacobi as Claudius was very good. However,showing him being cheered by everyone at the beginning made no sense because we are explicitly told by the text that it needed no Ghost come from the Grave to tell us he was no good so clearly others in the Court had reservations about him suddenly being on the Throne so the unreserved clapping was completely inappropriate.
There were contradictions for me in the film. However the DVD is really good value-wonderful quality and I am looking forward to viewing all the extras.
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VINE VOICEon 16 April 2010
One of the main reasons for watching Kenneth Branagh's production of Hamlet is to see Derek Jacobi's remarkable portrayal of yet another Claudius--in this case the venomous usurper of Denmark's throne. Jacobi makes this often-forgettable part his own, to such an extent that he practically runs away with the show; and in Branagh's stellar cast, which includes Julie Christie as Gertrude, Kate Winslet as Ophelia, and Branagh as Hamlet, this is no mean feat. The dynamics between Claudius and Gertrude as their relationship subtly deteriorates during the course of the play are fascinating. Far from being one-dimensional, Jacobi's portrayal of Claudius is as vital as it is nuanced, and one finds oneself waiting for his entrance with great anticipation.

Kenneth Branagh's Shakespeare productions are always innovative in respect to interpretation, settings, and cast. For example, he makes the subtext of the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia explicit in such a way that elucidates the rather salty lyrics of the songs in her mad scene. Most of Branagh's innovations work in this production with its opulent Edwardian costumes and mirrored sets, which make use of the exterior of Blenheim Palace as a background. While the manufactured snow sets a wintry mood for Shakespeare's metaphor for the sickness of the State, one must suspend one's disbelief when it comes to Ophelia's drowning with "fantastic garlands . . . of crow-flowers nettles, daisies" and other "weedy trophies," since Shakespeare's "weeping brook" as Branagh presents the mise-en-scene would have been frozen solid (But in an otherwise excellent production, who cares about such picky details?). One wonders, however, whether the rose-petals with which Branagh showers the actors in the court scene, as well as in "Much Ado About Nothing" and "As You Like It," are to be regarded as a signature, or as a cliche? The third time around, they are no longer an innovation. And although the swinging chandelier in the fencing scene seems rather Zorro-ish, since the scene calls for spectacle, why not?

Branagh always takes chances in his casting, and in most cases in "Hamlet", they pay off. Billy Crystal plays a delightful comic-relief gravedigger along with Simon Russell Beale (aka George Smiley), and Robin Williams in his role as Osric serves a similar purpose in relieving the tension before the duel; Rosemary Harris and Charlton Heston are convincing as the player Queen and King; and Jack Lemmon's appearance as a guard is charitably short. Richard Attenborough brings outstanding dignity to his brief appearance as the British Ambassador, and I was blown away by the glimpse of Judy Dench as the grief-stricken Hecuba and John Gielgud as the dying Priam in the vignette about the Trojan War. Branagh's imaginative use of sundry theatrical luminaries both contributes texture to the play and adds interest to what might otherwise be a very long evening, since he presents Shakespeare's play almost in its entirety.

The diction of the actors is superb, and the English subtitles ensure that every word of Shakespeare's text in this two disc-production will be understood. There is a lot to enjoy in Kenneth Branagh's highly inventive production of "Hamlet: Prince of Denmark."
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 8 September 2013
Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet is not only the longest version (just under four hours, not counting the credits), but also the most sumptuous version of Shakespeare's great revenge tragedy on film. With exterior shots of Blenheim Palace, in Woodstock, England, and interiors designed to reflect the English baroque style of that massive country house, Branagh's Hamlet shows the king and prince of Denmark in an opulent, luxurious setting.

This Hamlet pulls out all the stops. Not only is the setting lavish, but the cast is full of recognizable names. In addition to Derek Jacobi as Claudius (Jacobi notably played Hamlet in the BBC's television version of the play, filmed in 1980), this film features Julie Christie as Gertrude, Kate Winslet as Ophelia, Michael Maloney as Laertes, Richard Briers as Polonius, and Nicholas Farrell as Horatio. The cast also includes such well-known actors as Robin Williams, Gérard Depardieu, Jack Lemmon, Billy Crystal, Rufus Sewell, Charlton Heston, Richard Attenborough, Judi Dench, John Gielgud and Ken Dodd.

So, with big names and a big set, does this Hamlet work? First, you need to settle down for the long haul. At just under four hours, this is a long film. There is an intermission (at around 2:38), so if you can't plan to see the entire film in one sitting, you can split it at that point. Branagh based this film on a conflated version of the Hamlet text. (There is a book version of the Hamlet Screenplay, though it has no notes on the text. The best standard version is probably the Arden Shakespeare edition.) There are three main texts of Hamlet, the First Quarto of 1603, the Second Quarto of 1604, and the First Folio of 1623. There are a number of differences among the texts, and each one contains some lines that are not in the others. Branagh used all of the texts, rather than editing a specific version.

Branagh plays Hamlet splendidly, using the character's feigned (or real?) madness as a prop, and leveraging the luxurious sets and excellent actors. While there are some areas where you could call this film bombastic, it never quite goes over the top. Branagh is, at times, very moving (the graveyard scene), and a bit excessive (the play-within-the-play), but the overall impression is that of a character fully in control of his destiny, with no other option but to head toward his tragic end.

The cast is generally magnificent. Derek Jacobi is brilliant as Claudius, and Julie Christie is excellent as Gertrude, especially in the cabinet scene where she see's Hamlet's madness up close. Kate Winslet is sublime as Ophelia, and some of the smaller roles feature fine actors, such as Charlton Heston, Richard Attenborough, Judi Dench, and John Gielgud.

One element that Branagh introduces that is not in the play is flashbacks. He shows Hamlet making love to Ophelia; Claudius killing King Hamlet; Yorick playing with young Hamlet; and a number of flashbacks and flash-presents of Fortinbras, particularly as his army is preparing to storm the castle. This makes the film much more cinematic, though it does alter the story a great deal. When reading the play, or seeing it on stage, it's clear that Hamlet is in love with Ophelia, but showing sexual relations lifts the veil on any ambiguity about their relationship, which isn't spelled out in the play. On the other hand, showing Claudius poisoning King Hamlet is simply an illustration of what the reader or spectator knows has happened, and serves as a counterpoint for the dumb show that precedes the play-within-the-play.

Some elements of the play are a bit excessive. Kate Winslet, as Ophelia, seen in a straitjacket and padded room, seems to be a bit too much. Billy Crystal's New York accent - he's one of the gravediggers - is out of place. And the final sword fight almost jumps the shark, as Branagh kills Claudius by throwing his sword, then swings from a chandelier.

But none of this detracts much from the overall impression one gets watching this version of Hamlet. This large-scale approach makes the story much bigger, and instead of the king and queen being the rulers of a handful of people (as is the case on stage), we see them in a more realistic environment. There are many ways to direct Hamlet, and this, a Hamlet of extremes, is the best example of one approach. You may prefer others; there are several on film. But if you like Hamlet, you probably won't be disappointed by this version.
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on 31 December 2014
The chief virtue of Kenneth Branagh's 1996 Hamlet is that it's essentially complete, though this could be construed as a mixed blessing, given that Shakespeare is unlikely ever to have produced a complete production himself and that it may never have occurred to him that anyone would ever try to do so. Its key weakness, though, to my mind, is the other aspect of its ambition: Branagh has a tendency to focus on gorgeousness over interpretation (or faithfulness) in his Shakespeare films, and in this case, all the luxury and the focus on beauteous film-making distract both him and us from the substance of the play, and take the whole thing down several notches. The play, as written, has a heavy atmosphere of darkness and sickness and paranoia and claustrophobia, and this atmosphere is a key element of it; this film has too much glamour and glitz, too much space, and way, way too much light. It completely excises the flavouring that ought to overhang the play. (The film was shot at Blenheim Palace, which is, admittedly, gorgeous.)

I'm not sure that Branagh is all that strong an actor, either, and in this case his talent doesn't match his ambition; though there's nothing really wrong with his performance, there's nothing particularly right about it either, and you never get the feeling that he's really gotten to the heart of the character; he misses much of the nobility, as well as the existential angst; there's nothing underlying his antic, and you lose sight of the method and the seriousness, the melancholy and the profundity of the character -- and thus the point. Having said that, there are several good passages: he's strong in the scene right after the play within the play, for example, if not so good during it.

Hamlet and his friends also seemed to me to be too old for their parts; they're supposed to be university students (albeit oldish ones), and making Hamlet look older (not to mention Horatio, who looks like a prosperous accountant who should be at home with his very proper wife and his 2.7 lovely young children, not skulking around Elsinore with someone with issues like Hamlet's) takes away from the whole philosophical-university-student-suffering-from-melancholy-and-idealism thing, which is a pretty important context of everything he says and does.

There are other misjudgements. The sex scenes between Ophelia and Hamlet seriously distort their relationship and her character, and they're simply gratuitous. The fight scene at the end starts off ridiculous, passes through ludicrous, and ends up just plain laughable (think balcony, rope, chandelier...). Fortinbras is made to take Denmark by force, which undermines the character's role in the play, and seems to me to contradict the text explicitly. Music is frequently used poorly; it's often sentimental and well beneath the tone of the play, and sometimes the mood of the music contradicts the spirit of the scene it's in. Music is also sometimes used to add unnecessary emphasis to a scene, in keeping with Branagh's tendency to point up key scenes too much; it doesn't work, and just seems silly. The music in the Act 4 soliloquy struck me as ridiculous.

As for the other actors, Brian Blessed is absolutely fantastic in the role of the Ghost, once he starts talking in Act I (the film's almost worth watching for those few minutes alone, though again, one might argue that it's not quite the effect Shakespeare was going for); the initial appearances of the Ghost struck me as a little bizarre and incoherent, though. Derek Jacobi is fine as Claudius, though it doesn't look like a very difficult role to me. Julie Christie could have been a little wispier as Gertrude. Kate Winslet is strong as Ophelia, though perhaps a bit too strong; the character could do with a little frailty. As usual, the Americans can't quite hold up their end alongside the British actors. Billy Crystal seemed particularly weak to me as the Gravedigger; the fellow who plays his second fiddle would have been a better choice.

For all my carping, the film's probably worth seeing -- just -- because of its completeness; but it's certainly not a definitive performance, and I sometimes wonder how much Branagh really cares about Shakespeare; his Shakespeare films seem to be more about Branagh.
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on 6 August 2015
I am glad that the full text version of Hamlet has been filmed, it had to be at least once, nobody has ever done it or will ever do it again. Many people are put off by the fact that its around 4 hours long and that it will be difficult to understand because its Shakespeare. The thing I find with Shakespeare and watching various productions, is that if the actors understand what they are saying then the audience tends to as well. I preferred Olivier's 1948 version since I felt the atmosphere was right, it was eerie and dark and Olivier's Hamlet was spot on. That is why when I came to this version I had a few problems. I found Branagh's Hamlet very loud pretty much all the time, even in the quieter or comic moments. It was simply too much, but I know that Branagh could play this role in his sleep, the radio production he did was great. He certainly has an in depth understanding of Hamlet, especially if you watch with the commentary provided on the DVD, but it all seemed to get a bit lost throughout the film, which is disappointing.

However, I loved the set. The mirrors were extremely effective in providing that sense of paranoia. Branagh's take on the "To be or not to be" speech was one of the best parts of the film, I love how Branagh did it facing the mirror having Hamlet literally talking to himself, I also love how it was overheard. The set gave this feeling of entrapment, everything was closing in and it grew more intense as the film progressed.

Branagh assembled a top cast for this film which certainly did not fail him. There were great performances from Kate Winslet, Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie, Billy Crystal and the late Robin Williams.

Considering this film is around 4 hours long I sat through it all and found it very entertaining. It is also one of those adaptations that pretty much anyone can watch not just somebody interested in Shakespeare. I certainly recommend this to any Shakespeare fans out there, this has to be seen by them at least once.
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on 25 April 2014
Having read Branagh's introduction to the screenplay, I see with what love and knowledge he brings this to the screen. There's so much snobbery around Shakespeare, as if his work cannot be criticised and anyone who does so much be of little understanding. No-one is above reproof, and if holy books are critiqued, surely secular works can be?

My remarks are on this as a film. It is far too much like an opulent filmed play, and cinema and filmed theatre are not the same. The whispering of the RSC that I find so cloying on stage is even worse in a film, except for the few times that characters would really whisper (eg Hamlet near the graveside, not wanting to be heard by the group who's just entered). We often hear what we could see - and in the theatre where impending battalions or outdoor drowning would be difficult, one understands the choice to have it explained, not shown; but it felt odd to have Ophelia's death told entirely by her would be mother in law, wonderfully delivered as it is, and only the slightest glimpse of the image of famous paintings (ie Ophelia in the water).

There are a couple of exceptions - Fortinbras's army and Ophelia and Hamlet being lovers - where imagery adds insight and make the speeches effectively voiceovers.

The dialogue otherwise feels relentless; and the acting, although heartfelt and no doubt with great craft and understanding, felt overegged and entirely wrong for the cinema. Hamlet himself sometimes feels that he's acting against or obliviously to those around him - literal over or out acting. It's often sexist, with violent or controlling gestures towards women (and smaller male parts, such as grabbing their faces and arms and flinging them against walls and mirrors).

I'd like to single out Julie Christie and Kate Winslet, who manage to make their speeches sound more naturalised, as if if this poetic, antiquated language is what their characters would really say. On every other lips, it felt laboured.

I wondered if there are missing scenes around Ophelia's madness, as she seems to scream over her murdered father (understandably) and then be in a padded cell and then dying all too quickly, and her arc feels as if a large chunk of curve is missing, like a mismatched mosaic tile.

Although Kenneth says that before he really understood Shakespeare, he thrilled at the story when performed; I did not share this - a violent, vengeful end (for most of the remaining cast) is not my idea of a satisfying or exciting denouement.

Packed with most English 'quality' actors of the time (and a couple of foreign ones), it felt over filled, and it's strange that Billy Crystal and Robin Williams are credited on the cover but Brian Blessed and Richard Briars (who plays a longer part) are not.

I had little pleasure at this, although I tried my best to engage, apart from charting Kate Winslet's career progressing.

Just because it's the bard doesn't mean his work must be untouched when translated - the point is that no medium slips exactly from one to the other. It's not the length but that this feels more like the live satellite broadcasts to cinemas than an actual film.
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on 4 June 2017
I saw this film shortly after it was released. I was not sure about Branagh: as this film was very much his baby, I finally made up my mind about him. Branagh succeeded in reducing one of the greatest plays ever written to a monumental bore. The film prides itself on including the complete and uncut text, but as a film it doesn't work. It is simply not cinematic. Scene follows dreary scene in a Shakespeare by numbers way. Elsinore was set at Blenheim Palace: a very landlocked Elsinore: the real place is on the coast. The film of this dark and brooding play is lit as brightly as a motorcar showroom . . . just right for Hamlet, apparently. I was looking at my watch throughout and felt no sympathy for Hamlet at all. I was relieved when he died, as it meant that this dismal affair would end soon. Don't waste your time and money on this monument to futility. Olivier's Hamlet film is infinitely better, both in capturing the tragedy of the play and succeeding as a film.
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