I’m sure that my early experiences with Hamlet are not unique. I was assigned to read Shakespeare’s dramatic masterpiece my senior year in high school. After spending hour after endless hour of going through the text, I was still almost entirely in the dark about what was actually going on in each scene. I finished reading the play but I had to resort to the Cliff Notes to understand the plot. Then my teacher tortured our class even further by having us diagram the language of certain scenes and then write a ridiculously long paper. I’ve revisited Hamlet a few times since senior year, sometimes on the stage and sometimes on film but I never felt like I fully “got it” until this week, when I had the pleasure of watching Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation. The film was originally released in December of 1996 (ironically my senior year) and arrives on Blu-ray for the first time this week.
I’ll briefly summarize the plot for those who don’t already know it – and those who sort of know it but don’t quite understand! Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, is in a very bad mood. His father has recently died and his mother Gertrude has quickly married his uncle Claudius. The ghost of Hamlet’s father appears and reveals that he was murdered by Claudius! Hamlet vows to avenge his father’s murder but somehow he cannot bring himself to carry out the revenge. This inner conflict between action and inaction torments Hamlet and drives him to ask that now famous question, “To be or not to be?” And since this is a Shakespearean tragedy, there is plenty of the prerequisite death and drama before the final resolution.
This is a full-text production of Hamlet so the running time is a hefty 242 minutes. However, do not let this deter you from watching the film. It is long but not slow. I “cheated” a bit by watching it in multiple sittings and I actually believe this enhanced my viewing experience. That is the wonderful thing about watching a Blu-ray instead of going to see a play – you can get up, stretch your legs and ponder what you’ve seen before moving on to the next part!
What really sets this version of Hamlet apart from its predecessors are the performances of its many stars. Branagh is superb as Hamlet. He ignores the urge to “ham it up” that has ensnared so many other Hamlets. Not only does he play the dramatic scenes well, he really excels at the comedic ones. I found myself laughing at parts that I had no idea were supposed to be funny before watching this film! Also notable is Derek Jacobi who turns in an incredible performance as Claudius. On at least two occasions, I found myself feeling sorry for the murderous villain.
The supporting cast is solid from the largest role (Kate Winslet as Ophelia) to the smallest (Billy Crystal as the Gravedigger). Each actor delivers their lines like they mean them and like they understand exactly what they’re saying. The inflections in speech along with the non-verbal performance of each actor make most everything crystal clear, at least in context if not in actual language. I find this to be such a pleasant change of pace from other versions of Hamlet where the supporting cast merely rattles off memorized lines while the guy playing Hamlet chews the scenery to his heart’s content.
There were a few minor things I didn’t enjoy, like the fake “earthquake” when the ghost appears but these are just minor nitpicks. Overall this is an incredible production of the most performed English-language play in history. Kenneth Branagh should be proud of his work!
Hamlet arrives on Blu-ray with a 1080p VC-1 encode framed at 2.20:1. Branagh’s version of Hamlet could have been better, but regardless it looks decent when compared to the DVD version of the film. Colors have been upgraded, for the most part at least, reds stands out the most and black level look deep and inky. Skin tones appear oversaturated for the majority of the film. For all those that hate DNR, well I am saddened to tell you that Hamlet has been cleaned. The process of the noise reduction has affected the overall quality of the image. Close ups reveal nothing but waxy looking faces. Night time shots appear to have some artifacts in the image. However, when you look at things, Hamlet looks much better when compared to the aging DVD.
Hamlet arrives on Blu-ray with a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio lossless track. Dialogue is clean and well prioritized in the center channel never getting overwhelmed. Rears are used here and there for ambience, but it does become pretty much non-existent when the actors take the main screen. The bass only comes up during intense scenes and it is usually very powerful, but it feels very intermittent. The track is decent and I know it could have been better, but regardless it sounds good on Blu-ray.
The highlight here is the commentary. All the other features are essentially fluff pieces. However you must keep in mind that this was filmed long before it became routine to shoot extra material for subsequent DVD and Blu-ray releases!
Introduction by Director/Star Kenneth Branagh – Branagh gives a brief history of the play and how it has touched his life.
Commentary by Kenneth Branagh and Shakespeare Scholar Russell Jackson – This is a really wonderful commentary if you want to truly understand Hamlet. Branagh and Jackson lay it all out, scene by scene. I really learned a lot and would recommend this to any aspiring Shakespeare scholars.
Featurette – To Be on Camera: A History with Hamlet – This is more of a behind the scenes featurette than an actual history of Hamlet. Still there is a lot of footage here, especially for something filmed in 1996!
1996 Cannes Film Festival Promo – All of the footage here is taken from the featurette, it’s just shorter.
Theatrical Trailer “Hamlet”
If you like Shakespeare or are a student trying to grasp Shakespeare then I give Hamlet my highest recommendation. If you are not a fan but would like to be, please see this film and hopefully you will be converted! However be sure to go into it with an open mind and be forewarned that it was written over 400 years ago. Hamlet cannot easily be compared with the films of our time simply because it is of another time. Truly enjoying this film requires the viewer to take an active role in listening to and comprehending the archaic dialogue. You can’t just zone out and wait for the action scenes. But if you are willing to put in that extra work as a viewer, you will be rewarded!