“Murder most foul, as in the best it is, But this most foul, strange, and unnatural.”
1997, my grade 12 English teacher assigns us Hamlet to read. That is the second and last time I have ever read a Shakespeare play. But even now, almost two decades later, I still remember the story surprisingly well. It’s one of Shakespeare’s most famous works, it’s loaded with a huge number of iconic Shakespeare lines and quotes that people know even if they don’t know where those lines and quotes come from. Maybe my vivid memory is a result of being forced to discuss, analyse and dissect the play from every angle for weeks in class. Or maybe I remember it so well all these years later, because it’s just that good a story.
Outside of the Danish royal castle, two guards (Ian McElhinney and Jack Lemmon as Bernardo and Marcellus) and Horatio (Nicholas Farrell) see a ghost of their recently deceased King. Horatio immediately tells his friend, and son of the dead king, Prince Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh). Hamlet is already a bit pissed off with his mother (Julie Cristie as Gertrude) for marrying his uncle (Derek Jacobi as Claudius). But when he too receives a visit from his father’s ghost, who tells Hamlet that he was poisoned by Claudius, Hamlet becomes obsessed with exposing his uncle’s treachery.
When a band of actors come to town (including Charlton Heston who handles the Shakespearian dialogue surprisingly well), Hamlet convinces them to perform scene depicting the poisoning his father. Hamlet’s theory being, Claudius’ reaction to the scene will give away his guilt. As his obsession grows, Hamlet becomes more and more reckless, until it leads to accidental death of Polonius (Richard Briers). This death turns Polonius’ daughter, Ophelia (Kate Winslet), mad. Which sucks for Hamlet, because she’s his missus. It also turns Polonius’ son, Laertes (Michael Maloney), against Hamlet.
This is by far the best looking Shakespeare movie I’ve ever seen. It might be one of the best looking movies in general I’ve ever seen. It was shot on 65mm and Branagh wrings every little bit of style out of the format. The throne room, where a lot of the story takes place, is an amazing set that’s so complete, the camera can move around it’s every nook and cranny, and it always seems like the real deal, never like a set. And the fact that Branagh lined the walls with mirrors makes it even more impressive. How the camera operators never catch themselves in the mirrors is even more impressive than the set itself.
Not that Branagh’s version of Henry V wasn’t impressive, but Hamlet is definitely the work of a film maker with a little more experience. This is movie making on a much grander scale, and Branagh had clearly become a director who could handle that grandeur. That’s also evident in his decision to stick the original play in its entirety. Making a Shakespeare movie in the late 20th century that clocks in at almost four hours isn’t the kind of thing many directors could get away with. But Branagh dived in head first, and came out with a movie that has to be one of the best Shakespeare adaptations out there.