To cut, or not to cut, that was the question. When actor-director Kenneth Branagh finished his mammoth 4-hour, 2-minute unexpurgated version of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" last year, the idea was floated that maybe a version that was "merely" 2 hours and 40 minutes should be more widely released to theaters. Cries of "sellout" ensued - even though the abridged version still would have been one of the longest "Hamlets" on film - and the full version was the only one released. It's worth noting here that this is the play which immortalized the line "Brevity is the soul of wit."
The lengthy running time meant limited numbers of screenings, making most theater chains decide it was "not to be" for their patrons, and audiences - as well as Oscar voters - mostly overlooked the film.
That's too bad, because for my money, despite its formidable length, this flamboyant, fast-paced epic didn't seem nearly as long as the other English movie with the literary pedigree that cleaned up at the Academy Awards last spring.
This story of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (played by Branagh) - who may or may not have been driven mad by the fact that Claudius (Derek Jacobi), his father's murderer, has not only assumed the throne, but the royal bed, by wedding the widowed Queen Gertrude (Julie Christie) - has never been told with more gusto.
This version most completely tells the story of the people most ill used by the royal family's intrigues - that of the King's loyal but naive chief advisor, Polonius (Richard Briers), and his loving daughter, Ophelia (Kate Winslet).
As he did in "Much Ado About Nothing" and "Henry V," Branagh (who adapted the Bard's work himself) masterfully expands the settings of the story, making it seem much less stagebound than other versions. But his real genius lies in making Shakespeare accessible to modern audiences while remaining absolutely true to both the letter and the spirit of the play.
This gives the scene in which Hamlet explains his philosophy of acting to the Player King (Charlton Heston) an added sense of reality as this young turk of the classical stage interacts with the classic actor. It's a magical moment, and when the Player King nods his approval, one can almost lose track of the fact that these are characters in a role, and not the old school giving blessing to the new.
There are many remarkable scenes in this "Hamlet." The play-within-the-play designed to "catch the conscience of the King" is played to Hitchcockian suspenseful effect as the audience glances guiltily and meaningfully about. Hamlet's "get thee to a nunnery" confrontation with the distraught Ophelia is emotionally draining. And, of course, the final duel has never been staged to such effect, with a swordfight that rivals "The Adventures of Robin Hood" or "Rob Roy."
Branagh and cinematographer Alex Thompson bring some dazzling camera work and make full use of the 70mm Panavision format. The setting has been updated to the late 19th century, and with gorgeous Blenheim Palace standing in for Elsinore, virtually every scene sparkles.
Branagh's Hamlet is less brooding and more romantic and determined than many classic portrayals. In the famous suicide scene, for instance, Hamlet is putting on a show for Claudius and Polonius to convince them he is mad.
The cast is remarkable, though not all of the gimmicky cameos work. Jacobi is masterful as the manipulative Claudius, Christie very strong as the conflicted Gertrude. Briers is a revelation as the well-meaning Polonius, and Winslet ("Sense and Sensibility") adds yet another classic role to her young career. Her Ophelia is much more than just a pitiable victim.
The casting of Heston as the Player King was a stroke of genius, Billy Crystal is very clever as the gravedigger who finds the skull of "poor Yorick," and Robin Williams is quite comical but controlled as Osric, who brings Hamlet's summons to the duel.
The brief appearances of Jack Lemmon as Marcellus, Gerard Depardieu as Reynaldo and John Gielgud as Priam barely register and are more distracting than compelling. But those are insignificant flaws in a magnificent film, a big-screen experience that is not to be missed.