Kenneth Branagh Hamlet

Now Kenneth Branagh has directed “Thor.” But let’s go back to Branagh’s glory days, which correspond to the flower of my own personal youth.

I prefer Laurence Olivier’s clean-shaven Henry V to Branagh’s grimy one of 1989. I found Branagh and Emma Thomspon’s career-making 1993 “Much Ado About Nothing” a little silly and overly libidinous. Keanu Reeves stank, and Michael Keaton fumbled his lines.

But then: At the height of his prowess and caché, Branagh decided to roll all his dice and make a Hamlet movie with no abridgement whatsoever of the script.

Jacobi-an Richard II of 1978
Derek Jacobi, who rightfully occupies the throne of the Shakespearian-actor Mount Olympus, played Claudius. His queen Gertrude? Julie Christie, as beautiful as ever and thoroughly convincing.

Jack Lemmon portrayed one of the castle watchmen. Robin Williams played the foofy Frenchman.

Three incandescent movie stars of the time, Kate Winslet, Rufus Sewell, and Gerard Depardieu, hit Ophelia on the nose, fumbled through Fortinbras, and mouthed one unimportant line as Reynaldo, respectively.

The player king in “The Mousetrap?” Charleton Heston. King Priam and Hecuba in an illustrative cross-cut of Heston’s seige-of-Troy soliloquy? Sir John Geilgud and Judi Dench. And who dug Ophelia’s grave? Billy Crystal.

Some of these stardoms have since faded. But Charleton Heston for a bit part in his movie? Branagh was riding high. He carried brass in pocket. He swung for the seats.

Branagh referred to himself as the “egomaniac” who would adapt, direct, and star in an unabridged Hamlet.

The irony: Olivier’s Hamlet ego-trips its way to dud-dom. Mel Gibson’s Hamlet egomaniacs its way to “what in the heck is this?” Kevin Kline made a Hamlet movie once–weird from beginning to end.

But Branagh’s four-hour-two-minute eternity of a movie delivers the magnificent goods, stylishly packaged, with a humble smile.

Everything about the movie risks shallowness: The neoclassical castle, the Napoleonic military uniforms, the polished-tile floors–it could all be just a facade for swells flim-flamming their way through lines they do not understand.

But instead the style harmonizes with the content and makes it all the more interesting, because the actors deliver.

Jacobi’s Claudius is so believably in love with Gertrude, (and who wouldn’t be in love with Julie Christie under these circumstances!) you almost begin to root for him. But you can’t, because Branagh’s scholar-soldier Hamlet suffers compellingly, crisply, manfully.

I think the secret is that Branagh grasped the trajectory of Hamlet’s character. He did not just throw himself into speeches.

Sir Laurence
The plot of Olivier’s Hamlet makes no sense, because crucial scenes have been cut. But Olivier didn’t care–he just wanted to have the camera caress his face for the famed soliloquys.

Branagh, however, develops the character with a sure hand. Branagh’s Hamlet has a destiny: he glimpses it from a distance; he gets a grip on it; it lays its heavy weight upon his soul; he clarifies it; he fulfills it.

The melancholy Dane will live forever. The 1996 movie offers a significant infusion of life. May Kenneth Branagh get his props. I don’t know about Thor in 2011. But in 1996, the man worked a miracle.

…Just a bone or two to pick: the music. Why bother? Stirring horn and tympani to clue us in to the “profound” lines? Please.

And the one Hamlet soliloquy which Branagh completely flubs (somewhat as actor, completely as director) is his “may all my deeds be bloody” resolution in Act IV, which Branagh uses to lead into an intermission. Trying to turn “I do not know why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do'” into a Rocky-like trip up the Art Museum steps really does not work.

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