(United Kingdom/United States, 1996)

Since I first read Hamlet in a high school English class, I have seen more than a dozen productions of the play on stage and screen. For the most part, the movie adaptations have not impressed me. I was disappointed with the slow, plodding Mel Gibson version, disgusted with Michael Almereyda's incoherent treatment, and not even overwhelmed by the best-known Hamlet of them all - the one starring (and directed by) Laurence Olivier. The exception is Kenneth Branagh's explosive, epic version, which embraced the entire text, not selectively edited portions of it, resulting in a rousing cinematic experience on par with any of the great motion picture spectacles. This Hamlet is riveting from start to finish - an amazing and unparalleled experience. It also represents the first and (at least to date) only time I have seen a four-plus hour movie multiple times in a theater. I have since watched the film several times on home video without fidgeting or needing bathroom breaks outside of the intermission. (Sadly, the film has not yet been released on DVD, although it is available on both VHS and laserdisc. One assumes that Columbia will eventually get around to giving this film the digital treatment it deserves.) Missteps are few and far between (the most obvious being the casting of several out-of-place American actors in small parts), and almost completely obscured by the things this Hamlet does right. Have the confrontations between Hamlet and Ophelia ever been this intense? Has Claudius ever seemed so human? And has all the stuff with Fortinbras made as much sense? Truly a masterpiece, Branagh's Hamlet is not only the most accomplished movie brought to the screen by this talented filmmaker, but the best-ever motion picture adaptation of a play by Shakespeare.

Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
The story centers on Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh), a thirty-year old Prince of Denmark during the twelfth century, who is mourning the death of his beloved father (Brian Blessed) and the untimely (and, according to custom, unseemly) wedding of his mother, Gertrude (Julie Christie), to his uncle, Claudius (Derek Jacobi). Hamlet sees his mother's sudden re-marriage as a betrayal of her union with his father, but worse news is yet to come. An apparition, appearing in the shape of Hamlet's father, haunts Elsinore Castle, and when Hamlet confronts the ghost, it claims to be the true spirit of the late king, doomed to walk the Earth for a set time. It also states that, by using a fast-acting, deadly poison, Claudius committed murder to claim both queen and crown for himself. Hamlet vows revenge, and thus begins either his slow spiral into madness or his carefully orchestrated act to appear insane. The peripheral issues of Hamlet are no less interesting. Fortinbras (Rufus Sewell), the nephew of the King of Norway, is massing armies to attack Denmark. Ophelia (Kate Winslet), Hamlet's lover, has been forbidden to have any further contact with the prince. A group of traveling actors has come to Elsinore. And two old school mates of Hamlet's have been employed by Claudius to betray their old friend.

One of the things that Kenneth Branagh brings to his adaptation of the play is an amazing visual sense. From start to finish, this is a stunningly beautiful film, filled with vibrant colors, startling camera angles, and costumes and production values that are among the best of the year. Yet, even amidst the spectacle of the visual elements, the narrative is not upstaged. We are not so enraptured by the stunning appearance of Elsinore's terraced throne room that we lose sight of Hamlet's pain, Gertrude's uncertainty, Polonius' foolishness, or Claudius' guilt. From the moment it was first announced that Branagh would attempt an unabridged Hamlet, I never doubted that it would be a worthy effort. After all, his previous forays into Shakespeare have been excellent. Nothing, however, prepared me for the power and impact of this motion picture. Hyperbole comes easily when describing this Hamlet, decidedly the most impressive motion picture of 1996. This may be Branagh's dream, but it is our pleasure.

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