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Long-Awaited Pomp is a Proud Display of the Bard's Circumstance Hot

Tue Sorensen
Written by Tue Sorensen     August 31, 2007    
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Long-Awaited Pomp is a Proud Display of the Bard's Circumstance
  • Directed by
  • Released 1996
  • Running time: 242 min.
Overall 5

Opinions vary about how well Branagh’s somewhat pompous film version of Hamlet works. Like virtually every production of Shakespeare, it does indeed have problems and it has had to make hard choices, not all of which work out.

One of the major problems with the movie is that it frequently approaches melodrama rather than drama, owing to the fact that Branagh apparently over-dramatized it for commercial reasons, sadly focusing on the title character’s energetic rage rather than the intellectual pensiveness of the director’s powerful and critically acclaimed stage version. Hamlet should be a character that the audience finds sympathetic. If he’s angry and hysterical in too many places, he will not appear to be the hero of the play, who’s continually contemplating cunning plans and projects. It could be argued that he is indeed very confused and emotional throughout the first four Acts, but it is also a fact that byzantine schemes were set in motion in his mind ever since he first spoke to his father’s ghost, and he could not carry out such schemes without a great deal of emotional self-restraint. This is, of course, another of the original play’s inherent/apparent contradictions, where sundry interpretations must compete to make the most convincing case. Arguably, a modern peformance of Hamlet must focus chiefly on the character’s supreme (if flawed) cleverness, and Branagh’s movie misses its chance to do that, which is a shame.

Another problem with the movie is that it is simply too bright. White walls; bright lights; rich colors everywhere. A few years ago I had a chance to mention this to Dr. Russell Jackson—a scholarly text consultant on the movie—at a talk he gave here in Denmark, and he pointed out that instead of a dark, moody atmosphere, the Elsinore castle had secret doors everywhere! Granted, that point is well taken, and it is not a bad idea, but watching the movie again with this in mind, this element still does not make up for the sense of the unknown that should permeate this play. The “secret doors” element never achieves the ominous feeling of metaphor or analogy that it attempts, which results in the play being too gaudy and losing its trademark sense of a thousand mysteries looming. This is the biggest problem with this production. But while it's a significant problem, it is not fatal for the movie. Almost everything else works out absolutely beautifully. Is Branagh a mite too old for the title role? Perhaps, but this is by no means fatal, either. His acting carries the part.

Thus die my complaints. Even with the faults described above, grave as they are, the movie’s cornucopia of action and abundance of contemplation set it apart as a seminal Hamlet, and even if it's not quite as powerful a drama as it has the potential to be, it's still every bit the literary and pleasantly puzzling spectacle that it equally ought to be. A good performance of a Shakespeare play should not simply be melancholy recital; it should be an uproarious gamut of structured emotionality, with every character being visibly surprised at the outrageous power and shocking beauty of the words he or she both hears and speaks. Branagh understands this, and let us thank Fortune for that.

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