Alas, poor Hamlet. I knew him, Horatio. He was an amusing, if melancholy, fellow until Kenneth Branagh turned him into Stanley Kowalski.
Branagh's new unexpurgated "Hamlet," all 4 1/2 hours of it (including intermission), co-starring a palace (Blenhiem) to say nothing of Charlton Heston and Billy Crystal, is vast, opulent, wide and dispiriting. It should have been called "Kenneth," instead of "Hamlet" for it's more about its star and director than Shakespeare's flawed noble. At the end, you're thinking "Good riddance, sour prince."
Filled with so many good things, it's even fuller of one bad thing, which is Branagh's ego and his refusal to correct or rein himself in. He has achieved a rarity: a "Hamlet" where you hate the hero. ("Go, Laertes!" I'm cheerleading in the dark.)
I suppose each age gets the Hamlet it deserves and I suppose we deserve this one. We get it, too, right between the eyes: a vain, abusive peacock, complete to beach-boy blond hair and hipster's blond goatee. He's Hamlet as Nazi calendar boy, a droog Hamlet, loud, aggressive and in your face. Branagh's is by far the most physical Hamlet ever performed, which is great for the actor and will get him a sure Oscar nomination in February, but plays havoc with the work he pretends to respect but actually trashes.
This Hamlet makes very little psychological sense. The classic inner dichotomy, between the man of intellect and the man of will, between the man who wanted to act and could not and the man who did act, is obliterated. Far from repressed, he's the boy who lets it all hang out. And since his repression drives the play, this version has no engine: This Hamlet is a screamer, a ranter, a cryer, a sobber and a grabber. You can't figure out what's holding him back in the plot, since nothing is holding him back in the performance.
Worse, a lot of what in a more persuasive actor's performance might seem witty seems in this production cruel: When Hamlet sports with the poor gravedigger, or poor, dumb Polonius, he comes on as incredibly snide and self-absorbed, the upper-class twit making fun of those lower in the birth chain than he. I wanted Liam Neesom's hulking Rob Roy to wander in and run him through.
In fact, the much that is being made of Branagh's "courage" in restoring the "original" "Hamlet" is ado about nothing. He had to destroy it to restore it. Setting it in the dead of winter in the middle of the 19th century in a Blenheim disguised as a lost outpost of the Austro-Hungarian empire is only part of the crime.
But he works other extra-textual violence. For example, if you're going to set the play in winter, with snow on the ground, how do you have Ophelia drown in a pond throwing flowers at her would-be rescuers as she sings and sinks? Why does Robin Williams play Claudius' minion Osric as a flaming gay poof?
And how can you say you "respect" the text if you add to the climactic fifth-act duel a completely extraneous plot strand, which is the arrival of Fortinbras' army and its anachronistically modernist, bloody assault on the castle?
Some of the performances are excellent. As the Player King, Heston brings majesty to the role. Crystal is very funny in his spin as gravedigger; Kate Winslet breaks your heart as Ophelia. Michael Maloney makes a terrific Laertes, come hot from hell for his revenge. But others are weirdly off. Derek Jacobi's avuncular, flattop-wearing Claudius seems more like Eddie Albert in "Green Acres" than the wicked puppeteer behind the plot; Nicholas Farrell's Horatio is an idiot cast not to deflect attention from our preening star; and Jack Lemmon is a simple disgrace.
The biggest question of all though is why is this movie four hours long? The answer would seem to be not that we'll understand "Hamlet" better (we don't) but so that -- lord, what fools we mortals be! -- we get to enjoy four hours of Ken! That's his precious gift to us. We're so darn lucky!
Starring Kenneth Branagh, Julie Christie, Derek Jacobi and Charlton Heston
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Released by Castle Rock
Sun score: ** 1/2
Pub Date: 1/24/97