After the failure of Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein (1994), it seems impossible that anyone would’ve bankrolled a 70mm production of the full “Eternity” version of Shakespeare’s famous play, running a fat 4 hours, starring and directed by Branagh himself. (Although performed infrequently, the ‘uncut’ text was apparently offered to theatre fans once a year at Stratford until the First World War. For a précis of the long version, click HERE.)
The way Branagh explains in the disc’s making-of featurette, the creative success and low budget of A Midwinter’s Tale (1995), coupled with Branagh’s knack for adapting Shakespeare’s complex works for the big screen – Henry V (1989), Much Ado About Nothing (1993) – as well as his own stage performance as the Sulky One was a no-brainer for indie company Castle Rock; with the best cast at hand, the venture seemed logical, particularly since the full text had never been filmed before, which would make it unique among its venerable competitors, and of value to scholars and students.
Everyone was well familiar with prior efforts – specifically Laurence Olivier’s 1948 version (155 mins.), and Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 version (130 mins.) – but the big question was would anyone be willing to sit through a 4 hour epic play?
For commercial ‘safety’ purposes, a 150 min. edit was also released, but the 4 hour version was the real deal: the full spectrum of the Bard’s brilliant prose, compelling characters, sharp, humorous moments largely pruned from prior film versions, and Hamlet being far less mopey than prior interpretations.
The longer version allows one to absorb the tragedies over time, and see Hamlet progress from a son in mourning, disgusted with his mother for marrying his conniving uncle; to a son bent on revenge when the ghost of his father compels him to right the wrongs and purge the throne of Denmark of its most immoral elements.
It’s a fascinating balancing act that Hamlet must portray: remain a loyal son to his mother Gertrude (Julie Christie, brought out from self-imposed retirement); feign an affected ‘madness’ in order to erect a plan to expose the murderous machinations of new king Claudius (Derek Jacobi, who also portrayed Hamlet in his younger years); and fight off his sexual and emotional hunger for Ophelia (Kate Winslet), because any romance would muck up his focus and determination to remove Claudius and his cronies from the royal court (which include Ophelia’s father/Denmark’s Prime Minister, Polonius, played by Richard Briars).
Add a potential invasion from Norway by power-hungry Fortinbras (Rufus Sewell), and one has an epic drama of foul behaviour stemming from Claudius’ murder of Hamlet’s father (Brian Blessed, with piercing emerald blue eyes, and a whispering voice more chilling than a roaring madman).
Whether the kingdom would’ve been better under Hamlet’s fist is hypothetical; the play is foremost a fascinating character study of obsession, offence, and poisonous vindictiveness, and by transposing the time period to the Steam Age in chilly 19th century Denmark, there are enough contemporary and archaic elements for modern and Bard fans to identify with.
Moreover, the dialogue is delivered with beautiful emotional peaks, valleys, recitatives and cadences that one need not understand every element of the dense period poetry; the intonation as well as familiar keywords make the full version comprehensible to novices, or those who haven’t picked up the play since high school. Even the political conflicts are contemporary, since they address attempts at good governance, political missteps, and poor optics which ultimately make the country vulnerable to invaders.
The choice to shoot in 65mm for 70mm exhibition was smart for a number of reasons, but from a 2010 vantage, the high quality film stock, wide ratio, multi-track sound and stunning compositions ensures Hamlet is already prepped for the digital age, as is evidenced by this stunning disc.
On Blu-ray, the colours and deep shadows look lovely, and the uncompressed audio ensured Brian Blessed’s anguished voice ping-pongs across the surround sound spectrum with oomph. Patrick Doyle’s delicate score glides in and out of the meaty dialogue scenes, and the most discrete music tracks softly encircle the viewer, adding extra depth to scenes of feral anguish - such as Ophelia’s quiet song before she goes completely mad and offs herself in the local creek.
Alex Thomson’s cinematography is superb, and the $2 million castle interior, occupying three stages at Shepperton Studios, was designed to showcase the breadth, detail and colour range of 70mm. The palace centre imparts open-air grandeur, and serves as the main ‘theatrical’ stage for Claudius’ crowning/wedding ceremony (with raining confetti), the play-within-a-play sequence, and Hamlet’s final duel with Opehlia’s outraged brother Laertes (Michael Maloney).
Thomson’s camera is frequently in motion, yet Branagh doesn’t go Steadicam-mad as he did with Much Ado and (worse) Frankenstein: the camera only moves when necessary, although part of the tracking, crabbing, and roaming motions ensure the set feels like a real royal court. The long takes also preserve performances during intense, focused scenes, and Branagh seems to have eschewed the use of any ADR, making the performances fresh, and at times, brutally raw.
Much fuss has been made by critics about the casting of Americans Jack Lemmon as veteran guard Marcellus, Billy Crystal as the First Gravedigger, Robin Williams as fencing master Osric, and Charlton Heston as the Player King, but they eventually settle into their roles.
Heston isn’t really a problem, having performed and directed his own film versions of Shakespeare’s plays (Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra), and giving an engaging performance to what’s essentially a minor character. The others, in turn, give their respective characters necessary sincerity, which mostly overshadows their better-known comedic careers and personas.
The British cast is impressive, right down to virtual cameos wherein John Gieldgud and Judy Dench are seen in flashbacks, but never really heard. Sewell also says little until the end, John Mills has a few haggard scenes, and Richard Attenborough trots in at the end to display Britain’s disgust and sadness for the mess that destroyed the royal Danish family.
Perhaps the most poignant flashback is for court jester Yorick, whose name (and the famously misquoted line ‘Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well’) is standard fodder in Hamlet parodies. Branagh flashes back to a large clown-faced man (Ken Dodd) with an under-bite, clearly beloved by the young prince, and Patrick Doyle’s quiet music cue purges any humour from the scene, returning it to its intended purpose of affecting poignantly rendered grief in Hamlet, and the audience.
As Hamlet, Branagh just manages to glide through the role in spite of being close to the age limit, and he doesn’t devour the scenery. The counter-balance to Hamlet’s emotional vicissitudes is Horatio (Nicholas Farrell), the loyal friend who’s beloved by the prince, tolerated by Claudius, and lives to the play’s end to record the dour, destructive events he witnessed for future generations.
Perhaps the biggest surprise for naysayers to such a lengthy film is its brisk pace. Although both 3 hour films, The Right Stuff (1983) and Heat (1995) feel like tight 2 hours movies, and Hamlet feels like a 3 hour drama. The Intermission occurs around the 2.5 hour mark, after which things move quite fast. Hamlet’s first hour is gone in an instant, and that’s due to Shakespeare’s masterful character setups and a rock-solid structure.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray contains the same extras as the standard DVD (released in 2007), adding a Blu-ray book with some backstory on the production, and brief cast sketches. The book is actually the only thing one should read prior to the film, as Branagh’s intro featurette is filled with spoilers and scene clips that remove the surprise of the play, and shows too many highlights of Thomson’s 70mm canvas.
Howver, Branagh’s intro offers a compact history of the film’s genesis and production, and he makes note of the amusing parallels in which Jacobi’s performance of Hamlet convinced a teenage Branagh to become an actor and planted an ongoing fascination with the play. Branagh’s on-camera address to the home video audience was filmed at the post-production studio where the full-length audio commentary with Shakespeare scholar Russell Jackson was recorded.
That lengthy track actually runs for a full uninterrupted 4 hours, and portions were trimmed to fit scenes – which means the two uber-fans got along smashingly. In truth, the pair has been friends and colleagues for years, with Jackson collaborating with Branagh on other filmed Shakespeare classics. Functioning as a sort of a quality checker, Jackson also made sure any modifications to the play – the upgraded time period, scene details – were faithful to the Bard, and he functioned as part of the production’s on-set team, making sure the dialogue wasn’t altered or misquoted.
The bulk of the commentary has the two reflecting on the performances and the nature of the characters on a scene-by-scene basis (sometimes quoting dialogue at length), which is helpful for those challenged by the play’s mix of politics, social commentary, and intense character arcs. Frequently dropped scenes or truncated characters in shorter versions are also cited, and the Eternity version will perhaps influence how one enjoys the shorter film adaptations, depending on whether the edits and modifications in those films feel natural.
The rest of the BR’s extras come from the film’s promo archives, and include the theatrical trailer, the promo making-of featurette “To Be on Camera,” with on-set interviews with the cast and plenty of behind-the-scenes views of the spectacular set and Blenheim Palace; and a 1996 Cannes Film Festival promo that’s really a mix of the promo interviews and film clips, often set to music by Philip Glass and John Williams. The Cannes promo also contains extracts of Gielgud’s scene with the actor speaking his dialogue, and an outtake of the Hamlet-Ophelia love scene flashback (also glimpsed in the trailer).
In both commentary and featurettes there’s discussions of shooting in 70mm (the first British production in the format since David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter, in 1970), and how the scope complimented the uncut text in ways that may not have flattered shorter versions.
Branagh’s Hamlet should be experienced on the big screen, but with an HD version finally available, one can come a smidge close to being immersed in Shakespeare’s greatest work.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan