Hamlet (1996)

“My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”

‘Hamlet’, directed by Kenneth Branagh in 1996, is a sumptuous and complete adaptation of Shakespeare’s masterpiece. It’s not the most interesting version, in many ways Olivier’s 1948 movie is more inventive with dark, labyrinthine sets and roaming cameras mirroring the tortuous psychological dilemma that the title character faces, but Branagh’s film is staggeringly cinematic rich with visual effects, atmosphere and filmed on 70mm stock. It takes place in an 18th century palace filled with cavernous formal rooms, intimate studies and libraries and mirrors everywhere. This is Branagh’s version of Olivier’s ‘brain-scape’ approach: the main character cannot escape himself, the mirrored surfaces forcing him to constantly self-analyse. In a way this replaces the intense gaze of the audience in the theatre giving Hamlet something to focus on in his soliloquies. It’s also packed with famous faces, although this doesn’t distract from the story. The best performances come from Branagh as the Prince, but also Nicholas Farrell as Horatio, a character who performs an essential role in the play as the audience’s way in to understanding the mercurial central character. It’s my favourite Shakespeare play. Branagh’s movies, from ‘Henry V’ to this were my entry point to the language and pleasure of the playwright, and ‘Hamlet’ is the culmination of this. The completist in me loves the fact that this movie is complete and whilst it is long, I can still watch it from beginning to end in one go.

Would I recommend it? Yes – probably not as a double bill given its length, but as a longer series of Shakespeare adaptations it is perfect.

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