I saw this in the theater when it came out. There are a few things that should be said about it to start with. It’s fully four hours long! It has everyone in Hollywood (and outside of it) in the cast. Richard Attenborough, Brian Blessed, Julie Christie, Billy Crystal, Judi Dench, Gérard Depardieu, John Gielgud, Charlton Heston, Derek Jacobi, Jack Lemmon, Kate Winslet and so help me even Robin Williams. And the cinematography is full of pomp and circumstance and beautiful settings. But it is unwatchable.
Branagh runs around doing his crazy act and shouting out his lines at a dizzying rate but the whole thing is annoying and after even a half hour becomes too tedious to endure. Some of the performances I did enjoy. Richard Briers as Polonius I thought was good. I liked Derek Jacobi as Claudius. Jack Lemmon as one of the watchmen I found unconvincing.
For a true devotee of Shakespeare who is determined to watch it, I suggest watching it in a scene by scene fashion. Probably twenty or thirty minutes is the sub-lethal dose. So taking it in eight to twelve bite sized chunks you could get through without losing your ability to appreciate the lines.
It’s a pity. Branagh was given a budget and an array of talent that is impressive. And a lot of the visual presentation is beautiful. But his vision for the title role falls far short of even such popular versions as Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 version with Mel Gibson.
So let me not go on beating it up. Let me just say I cannot recommend this version for an enjoyable experience of the play. Watch Olivier or Gibson.
Olivier won the Academy Award for Best Picture and directed himself to the Best Actor award too. That is still a unique circumstance. Despite this acclaim purists condemned the excisions that Olivier made to the plot eliminating the sub-plots involving Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Fortinbras. This shaved an hour and half from its length and concentrates the play into a personality study.
Despite Olivier’s modifications it remains a very formal telling of the tale from the aspect of the acting. Olivier spent a number of years in London’s Old Vic Theatre Company performing Shakespeare’s plays with the greatest living British actors of his generation. Comparing his portrayal with an American version such as Mel Gibson’s excellent 1990 version defines the two schools of acting. The American method acting version requires the actor to submerge himself into the personality he “discovers” for the character. He feels the part. The British actor learns the techniques needed to portray the character and emotions he desires to project to the audience. Olivier himself once described a circumstance that highlighted this difference. During the making of the film Marathon Man his co-star Dustin Hoffman tortured himself with various discomforts to help him feel the part of a man exhausted and at the end of his strength. When Hoffman noticed that Olivier was sitting comfortably in anticipation of his scenes Hoffman asked him how he could get into his part without some physical method. Olivier was said to have answered, “Dear boy, it’s called acting.”
So, all that said. I consider this the best version I’ve seen. The dialog, the acting, the staging, all excel the other two versions I’ve seen. The story flows and the characters live in front of us in a way that often escapes other performances of Shakespeare’s plays. Every little phrase and movement works the way it should. Olivier is a craftsman walking us through his weird world of pain and revenge. The lines are alive and sound like dialog and not museum exhibits. They fit perfectly with the action that attends them. They are poetry and human speech both.
And I actually have no complaints with any of the actors. All were skilled and none fell short that I can remember. That is not a small thing.
And despite the formal theater there are naturalistic touches that work well. My favorite is the gravedigger. When Hamlet comes upon him he fits completely with what you would expect of a son of the soil. He is contrary and defers not at all to the high-born questioning of his Lord and better. He is witty and authoritative in his knowledge of graveyard ecology. Another technical advantage of this version is the dagger and rapier duel in the final scene. Olivier and Terence Morgan who plays Laertes do an impressive job of simulating a sword fight. No special effects either.
My advice to anyone coming to Hamlet for the first time, watch this version first. Measure the other ones by it. It will actually make the others easier to understand and thereby improve them. Olivier is truly a master at his work.
Shakespeare’s strongest plays are the tragedies. The comedies have their merits and the pure histories have some very engaging characters like Falstaff and Prince Hal. But the heavy hitters are Macbeth, King Lear, Richard III, Othello, Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet and most especially Hamlet. Even the most ardent fan of the Bard will have scenes and characters that he dislikes even in his favorite play. In fact, some plays are favorites only because of some especially powerful scene or character. They are valued despite plot weaknesses or sections of dialogue or characters that disappoint. And Hamlet is no exception. I am sure every fan of the play dislikes some aspect of it. But I will say that overall, the plot and the dialog exceed the other plays in how they engage the audience. The characters are drawn in a lifelike way. Even the villain is real. And in the hands of a skilled cast, the play is fascinating to watch.
The character of Hamlet is famously defined by his indecision. He has been commanded by his father’s ghost to exact vengeance against his murderer. What could be more absolute than that? And yet he vacillates throughout the play and is only goaded into action by his own assassination. All this is obviously true but the action of the play shows us that this indecision is mostly due to his virtues and not his faults. He is a noble, loyal, virtuous, intellectual, pious prince. And all these instincts and talents work against his need to commit justifiable regicide. His tender love for his mother is an almost insurmountable obstacle to exacting vengeance on her villainous husband. His sense of justice prevents him from striking down his enemy when he believes that the timing, coming as the murderer is in prayer, would allow his victim’s soul to gain heaven instead of casting him down into hell. His intellect even forbids him from escaping his problems through suicide. He reasons through the consequences and arrives at the conclusion that possibly the afterlife might be filled with greater torment still. He is a man haunted by the wreckage of his family, his life and even his sanity. Think of what he has endured. He has spoken with his father’s ghost, a thing more harrowing than any mortal occurrence. His mother’s husband is his uncle, his father’s murderer and his king all at the same time and he must face him day in and out while his mother displays passionate affection for her husband’s murderer. In order to dissemble his intentions, he plays at being mad and in doing so he loses the woman he loves. There is literally no path available to him that doesn’t involve unthinkable crimes and madness. I suppose indecision might be excused under such circumstances.
But plot aside, it is the language of the play that engages me. Hamlet is filled with phrases and thoughts that we meet everywhere in cultured discourse:
- “Brevity is the soul of wit.”
- “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”
- “Sweets to the sweet.”
- “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
- “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
- “Get thee to a nunnery.”
- “The Play’s the Thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.”
- “Neither a borrower nor a lender be, for loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.”
- “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
- “This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”
- “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”
- “To be, or not to be: that is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them? To die: to sleep; no more; and by a sleep to say we end the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep; to sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub; for in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause: there’s the respect that makes calamity of so long life; for who would bear the whips and scorns of time, the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, the pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, the insolence of office and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes, when he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear, to grunt and sweat under a weary life, but that the dread of something after death, the undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns, puzzles the will and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of? Thus conscience does make cowards of us all; and thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, and enterprises of great pith and moment with this regard their currents turn awry, and lose the name of action.”
There is constant word play as Hamlet pretends to be mad and yet makes cunning and cutting mockery of his foes. All in all, it is an enjoyable two and a half hours (in the shorter versions) of highbrow art that yet could appeal to anyone if he were in the right frame of mind. I have seen three film versions of the play along with a stage setting. I’ll go into my particular opinions of those in later installments of this post.
Of late I’ve been looking forward to watching Mel Gibson’s Hamlet. I remember watching Branagh’s version in the theater and thinking it sterile. My plan is to watch them both on the same weekend and compare them. Maybe I’ll even throw in Olivier’s version for good measure.
Shakespeare, Hamlet Act 2, Scene 2
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust?