Hamlet? Didn’t Mel Gibson “do” him not so long ago? Isn’t it just going to be Ken and pals poncing about in hosiery, projecting “Hey, nonny no” to the gallery and jabbing each other with daggers? Won’t it be four hours of iambic pentameter, rhyming couplet and poetic philosophy disguised as entertainment?
Well, yes, actually. What else was it going to be? The thing you’ve got to get your mind around, you see, is that none of the above necessarily makes it a slog. Hamlet – arguably Bill’s best-known play, certainly his longest – is going to struggle to appeal to a cross-section of people. It’s not exactly Saturday-night blast-’n’-reload fare, nor is it the sort of heart-warming sugar-puff to leave a gormless smile on your face. But if you’re willing to give it a go, you’re unlikely to regret your actions. As far as filmic Bardness is concerned, this epic re-telling – it sweeps and swoops through lavish sets, and fair glitters with stars – is an utter corker. Your piles will hate you, but see it anyway.
Just as Ian McKellan’s impressive Richard III dumped the customary tights and ruffs for militaristic uniforms, guns and tanks, Branagh’s Hamlet has plumped for a 19th century Phileas Fogg look, all haughtiness and starched collars. Blenheim Palace doubles as the Danish castle of Elsinore, while an enormous and opulent interior set – complete with marble-tiled floors, looming chandeliers, aerial walkways and full-length mirrors – serves as the principle backdrop for the play’s shouting, stabbing and musing. Filmed using 70mm widescreen film stock (very unusual these days), as much of the detail as possible is sharply defined on the big screen. Hamlet looks grand; it feels like a big film. But, while it has tremendous scope, its drama remains closely focused and personal. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark, and, so sensuous are the production values, you can almost smell it.
Branagh performs well throughout. His direction is breakneck, moving things along with a pace that’d be impossible to achieve on the stage – a concerted attempt to make this version as accessible as possible. He’s taken a few liberties along the way – principally in the form of adding new flashback scenes to illustrate some of the more confusing twists and turns of the story, rather than cutting the text – but these aid understanding rather than hinder it. Indeed, at their best his quick backward glances do a great deal towards explaining some of the key scenes, binding words to images so that the meaning underneath the prose isn’t completely lost on Bardic virgins. A few examples: the story of Fortinbras is told visually; a flashback shows Ken Dodd (complete with tickling stick, bless him) as the still-live jester Yorick; while the Player King’s speech about Hecuba is vividly brought to life when acted out by peerless peers Judi Dench and John Gielgud.
Has all this tinkering made the play Philistine-friendly? Not quite. If you’re unfamiliar with the text, there are still going to be times when the sheer quantity of words washes over you, leaving you unsure what exactly is going on. Because many lines are spoken fast, you sometimes find yourself watching the action on the screen and learning more about what’s going on from that than from the words themselves. That’s okay, though – that’s allowed. You either know what Hamlet is on about when he says, “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them” , or you don’t.
If you can stick with the film, you’ll be rewarded. All the usual Branagh cronies make an appearance: Richard Briers is excellent as the scheming Polonius, Derek Jacobi makes a likeably evil Claudius, while other big names have tiny cameos (Gerard Depardieu is restricted to a few “Yes, my lord”s and a quick squeeze of a wench’s bottom, while Billy Crystal turns up as one of two comedy gravediggers usually edited out of film versions of the play). And at the centre, Branagh cuts an imposing figure – if there’s a better cinematic rendition of the “To be or not to be” speech, we’ve yet to hear it.
Problems? It’s off-puttingly long, of course (four hours would get you halfway to Florida, or from London to Birmingham on the train twice), and it has a slight tendency to over-dramatise events. But we are being churlishly nitpicky. If this film doesn’t convince you that Branagh was born to speak the great man’s great words – that he liveth and breatheth them, that he communeth with Shakespeare’s spirit using a ouija board – then nothing will. His Hamlet is a fantastic, epic, eye-slapping film. But thank God for the interval...