A Few Jewels of Brillance Grace Long-Winded `Hamlet'

By Arnold, Gary | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 24, 1997 | Go to article overview

A Few Jewels of Brillance Grace Long-Winded `Hamlet'


Arnold, Gary, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Despite epic trappings, Kenneth Branagh's uncut, four-hour, star-studded "Hamlet," playing exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Avalon, fails to duplicate or surpass his powerful, revelatory 1989 remake of "Henry V."

Long presumed to be "definitive" as filmed by Laurence Olivier in 1944, "Henry V" acquired a fresh dynamism and coherence as revived by Mr. Branagh, then an upstart of 28.

The Branagh "Hamlet" - while sumptuous and often impressive - is more of an endurance test and classical chore.

It also fails to top the 1948 Olivier version, an Oscar-winning condensation of 153 minutes that excelled at expressionistic stylization and Freudian undercurrents. The same admirers who felt stirred by Mr. Branagh's "Henry V" and then enchanted by his "Much Ado About Nothing" will now need to weather some lavish lulls.

Approaching its 400th anniversary, "Hamlet" relies on eloquent rumination to sustain a ghostly revenge plot about the medieval Prince of Denmark, whose scruples keep him from taking prompt reprisals against his Uncle Claudius. The uncle has usurped the crown by murdering Hamlet's late father, the king, and then swiftly marrying his widow, Queen Gertrude.

The ghost in question, the restless spirit of the slain king, returns at intervals to remind Hamlet of his dreadful obligations. Ultimately, they are appeased in a calamitous duel scene that resembles Mr. Branagh's flamboyant staging of the finale to his contemporary murder thriller, "Dead Again" - in part because he and Derek Jacobi, cast as King Claudius, are again the chief antagonists.

Putting pictorial and stylistic distance between his production and the vintage, honored Olivier "Hamlet," Mr. Branagh rejects Gothic and Scandinavian features almost completely. Blenheim Palace is borrowed for the exteriors of Elsinore Castle, and the spacious, ornate interiors have been dressed by production designer Tim Harvey and his associates to recall the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the late 19th century.

Mr. Branagh makes his entrance standing still, in the background of a gala festival in the packed State Hall, where the assembled court celebrates the marriage of Claudius and Gertrude (Julie Christie). Also differentiated by his black mourning garb amid the colorful scene, Mr. Branagh's Hamlet has a slightly foppish and sinister air, with platinum hair and a mustache and a little triangle of beard between lower lip and chin.

These superficial oddities don't long hinder the willing suspension of disbelief. Moreover, for the first-half or so, Mr. Branagh's trademark concentration on precise line readings and intimate, live sound recording makes you dizzy with anticipation of presumed literary bliss to come. …

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