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Prince of Plots

Hamlet
The Mirror Has Two Faces: Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet contemplates the course of his revenge.

Photo by Peter Mountain



Kenneth Branagh's monumental 'Hamlet' turns Elsinore into a festering palace of intrigues

By Richard von Busack

A MAN STARES into the sockets of a skull, reminding it of what it once was. The skull looks back at him, telling him what he will be. The image sums up Shakespeare's--and the English language's--most famous tragedy. Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of Hamlet is at least the 30th film version of the play since a celluloid scrap of Sarah Bernhardt in the duel scene was photographed in 1900. Talents as different as George Méliès, Claude Chabrol, Aki Kaurismaki and Tom Stoppard have added their ideas to a story that's survived the centuries--not to mention uncountable parodies and infinite jests.

Branagh's Hamlet comes on the heels of the underrated Twelfth Night, the aggravating Looking for Richard and the Australian nightmare William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. According to critics ranging from Anthony Lane in the New Yorker to Judith Lewis in the LA Weekly, the new Shakespeare movies prove that Shakespeare survives even when violently cut, poorly acted or dressed up with visual shocks.

Such optimism reminds me of the Randy Newman song about why God loves mankind: because we bounce back no matter what He does to us. When critics are ready to do publicists' work, when they refresh readers' memories by reminding them that the entertainment industry has to trim its sails to the audience, what hope is there for movies to get any better?

Significantly, in Leonard Maltin's Movie and Video Guide, the most famous screen Hamlet, Laurence Olivier's 1948 version, comes right after Hamburger ... The Motion Picture. Money-making crap is the lifeblood of the movie business, but acknowledging that an evil exists doesn't mean you have to like it. Should we take comfort in the triumph of popular taste? Should we celebrate the fact that our record of Laurence Olivier in King Lear and Richard Burton in Hamlet exists only on cheap videotape but that our record of Olivier in The Betsy and Burton in The Klansman had all of the necessary cameramen, extras, lighting and production values?

Branagh deserves praise for having got his Hamlet presented on a grand scale, with all of the technological trimmings: the 70mm format (in cities lucky enough to have properly equipped theaters), the expensive sound and the famous names. A big budget guarantees nothing in and of itself, of course. There have been cinematic Shakespeare triumphs with minimal production values: Orson Welles' bath towel­clad Venetians in his great Othello; the papier-mâché crown in Olivier's Henry V.

Still, there shouldn't be a backlash against Branagh's production precisely because it's expensive; there's nothing automatically shameful about having this kind of money for Hamlet. (Despite the papier-mâché, Olivier's Henry V was the most costly film made in England up to its time.) The very idea of presenting a full-length Hamlet that runs four hours (plus a 20-minute intermission) demonstrates a willingness to risk it all--a gambling spirit that huge movies don't seem to possess anymore. Branagh's name carries enough weight by now that the debunkers are lying in wait for him, and most film producers would prefer to admire his work at a distance.

The key to the praise lavished on the new pop-culture interpretations of Shakespeare is the reminder that the Bard wrote for the groundlings. The true elitism, however, is thinking that modern groundlings are interested, as Hamlet puts it, in "nothing but dumb show and noise."

Youthful Gothic rage and passion aren't enough to carry Shakespeare. On the Internet, I've read messages opining that Johnny Depp would have been a better Hamlet than Branagh--Branagh's too old. (Branagh is 33, and the First Gravedigger tells us that Hamlet is at least 30--likely a little older, unless the Gravedigger had been digging graves as a toddler.)

When I interviewed Branagh a few years ago, I asked him for his opinion on Mel Gibson's then-proposed Hamlet. He said, without malice, "He's a very brave man." It takes more than youth or bravery to play Hamlet; it takes the control of breath, the understanding of every line and every word. Claire Danes has a fresh little face, but did anybody think that her Juliet even knew what she was saying?

Monumental Subject

IN THE FILM'S first shot, Branagh acknowledges that he's wrestling with a monumental subject: the name "Hamlet" is engraved in stone on the monument at the base of the statue of the old king. Moving quickly, Branagh establishes a late-19th-century time period (the age of power politics dominated by Germany's Chancellor Bismarck), a location (landlocked Elsinore, played by England's Blenheim Palace) and a season (dead winter).

On the throne sits the new king, Claudius (Derek Jacobi), royal weakness incarnate, broad of waist and short of chin. Claudius is newly remarried, biblically enough, to Gertrude (Julie Christie), the wife of his dead brother, the former monarch. The king is addressing his multiculti court. (Expect howls for Branagh's decision to fill the court with people whose forebears came from Asian and Africa. The play has gone 'round the world at this point--why not allude to that journey visually?)

In the wings, in mourning, stands the dead king's son, crown prince Hamlet, lean, blond and short-haired, with the type of beard called an imperial--an adornment bound to make anyone's face look neurotic. Soon, Hamlet will be apprised by his father's ghost that his uncle, the reigning monarch, is a murderer; soon also, Hamlet will destroy his family, his lover and himself in a search for revenge.

The story is familiar, but by giving really first-tier actors even the smaller parts, Branagh illuminates corners of the play most people don't know exist. The celebrity cameos that grate at first sight turn out to be inspired.

When Jack Lemmon appears in a coal-scuttle hat as the guard Marcellus, titters break out. The titters swell when Lemmon pronounces the line "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark," but they stop when Lemmon flashes that pleading look that's made his name and fortune.

Marcellus tells how ghosts are quiet at the winter solstice ("The nights are wholesome"). With this little speech of eight lines, Lemmon expands an incidental character into a deeply moving cameo--a snapshot of an uneducated old lag of a soldier, confused and terrified, stuck on the lobster shift.

Similarly, Charlton Heston doesn't ham up this Hamlet. Heston's 150 percent bravura (he's been doing Shakespeare movies since 1946) works perfectly for the Player King. The character of the skidding actor is just right to display Heston's crumbling grandeur. The distance adds the proper artifice to the play-within-the-play theme and to the rhyming couplets urging his wife (Rosemary Harris) to remarry if he should die. (It's the Player Queen's virtuous wifeliness that spurs Gertrude's "The lady doth protest too much, methinks.")

Billy Crystal's Gravedigger is his most appealing onscreen work to date; he's thoughtful instead of abrasive. Timothy Spall (the gentle photographer in Mike Leigh's Secrets & Lies) plays Rosencrantz, murdered for his eagerness to please. Most surprising of all, Richard Briers' Polonius is not just an old fool as usual but a hypocrite and plotter.

Hamlet
Life Sucks, Death Lasts

THE PLAY'S fatalism has aged well. The notion that the Alexanders and Caesars of our world are going to end up in a box full of bones is as poignant--or, maybe, comforting--as ever. This essential theme--life sucks, but death is worse--informs all of the variegated interpretations of the play.

The 1948 Olivier Hamlet was a film noir, as Anthony Lane argues--a mixture of existentialism and pulp. After Olivier (and the spread of Freudianism), directors and actors emphasized the adolescence of the Dane in versions that suggested he was a rebellious mad teen with an Oedipus complex. The Mel Gibson Hamlet played this angle well because of the casting of Glenn Close's Gertrude, a Mommy for whom it would be well worth killing Daddy.

Besides its scope and completeness, Branagh's Hamlet differs from its predecessors in its slant as a political story, a tale of palace intrigue. This Elsinore is riddled with secret doors and passages and spy-holes. Hamlet's famous soliloquy is delivered to a two-way mirror, turning the scene into Hamlet's simultaneous threat to himself and to his spying uncle. Though Hamlet doesn't know King Claudius is there, the soliloquy then takes on the implication "I'll either kill myself or you."

Branagh's vision of Elsinore as an observation ward has historical resonance. The various Renaissance Faires have convinced us that Elizabethan England was all bodices and beer. But in Elizabeth's last years, England was an early model for the police state. The Queen had reason for fear--she'd raised the fury of Catholic Europe by executing some 60 priests as part of her campaign to solidify her position as head of both the church and the state in England.

Numerous plots were discovered against her, some real, some imagined. There was even a miniature Stalinist-style doctor's purge: Elizabeth's Jewish court physician was executed for taking a Spanish bribe to poison her; the resulting anti-Semitic rage in London may have given Shakespeare the idea for The Merchant of Venice.

Scholars, including Al Rowse in The Annotated Shakespeare, believe that Hamlet alludes to one of these threats: the Essex plot. The Earl of Essex was a popular noble, a general who was perhaps Elizabeth's lover and certainly her passionate friend.

Essex was urged to force the childless Virgin Queen to appoint her successor; the royal succession was important to a nation that had endured civil wars over the matter. Still, the earl couldn't make up his mind to act--exactly the fault Olivier ascribed to Hamlet when summing up the story at the beginning of his Hamlet. (That Hamlet does make up his mind later was irrelevant to Olivier's purpose.) Essex ended up executed, his head hung on the Tower; the Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare's devoted patron and "Essex's right-hand man" (according to Rowse), was himself imprisoned until Elizabeth's death.

On film, Polonius' role is customarily torn down to make room for expansions on the character of Hamlet. The paternal old man is most often seen as a harmless coot whose famous advice scene is, after Olivier's lead, usually played as ironic--an example of how in Shakespeare's time the words "fond" and "stupid" meant exactly the same thing.

J.D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, for one, was an admirer of the way Terence Morgan's Laertes in Olivier's Hamlet was "horsing around with his dagger" while Felix Aylmer's Polonius gave out the advice; the gesture made the old fool look more pompous. In the Branagh version, the advice speech is scored to organ music, to bring out the churchly cadences like "To thine own self be true"--and then to underline the surprise of a subsequent scene in which we get a look at the other side of Polonius as he coaches a French spy (Gerard Depardieu).

The scene with the spy, usually clipped from Hamlet movies, bolsters the theory that Polonius is something of a caricature of Lord Burleigh, Elizabeth's gray eminence and spy master. The hints are there on screen: Polonius may be an accessory after the fact in the assassination of the old king.

Olivier's Hamlet was considered subversive enough to be banned in Communist Bulgaria. Of course, the secret police there were so industrious that they used to license typewriters; still, they were right about the play's subversiveness. The midnight burials, the official lies and the secret treaties all have mirrors in the world of totalitarian politics.

As critic and novelist Mary McCarthy writes, "Hypocrisy, broken faith, play acting, imposture are the characteristic norm of reeling Elsinore. The fissure between is and seems cracks the world open." In Branagh's Hamlet, the fullness of Polonius restores him as a major character. When Hamlet gibes at Polonius as an ugly and disgusting old man, he's not just being mean for the fun of it--he's showing an indelible picture of the artist in conflict with the security apparatus. From the evidence of Hamlet, Shakespeare knew how much double-talking goes on in a police state.

Polonius & Ophelia
To Thine Own Self Be Devious: Richard Briers' Polonius plots and schemes with the unwitting help of Kate Winslet's clueless Ophelia.

Eloquence's Escape

SHAKESPEARE'S language is the essence of his plays, as historian Will Durant describes in The Age of Reason Begins:

The language is the richest in all literature, fifteen thousand words, including the technical terms of heraldry, music, sports and the professions, the dialect of the shires, the argot of the pavement, and a thousand hurried or lazy inventions--occulted, unkennelled, fumitory, burnet, spurring. ... If he names a flower he must go on to name a dozen. The words themselves are fragrant.

These days, we're not accustomed to eloquence, to the well-spoken; our leaders are considered good sports if they can reach for an advertising tag faster than their opponents. Whither, oh, where, the beef? It's the words of Hamlet, not the plotting, that make the play persist.

Branagh's movie is a triumph on the grounds of its wholeness, its allegiance to all the words. Everyone remembers "to be or not to be," but who remembers piercing, small moments like the epitaph for a drowned girl (Laertes: "Too much of water hast thou ... and therefore I forbid my tears").

Branagh reveals aspects of the play that haven't been on screen before, and not simply because he hasn't cut the text. It's a matter of direction and emphasis. We see not just the duel, the handling of Yorick's skull, the "what a piece of work is man" speech but also other parts fresh to us: the full dilemma of Ophelia caught between father and lover, the wedge that grows between Claudius and Gertrude, the manipulation of Laertes, the conspiracy of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

This Hamlet is tragic but not depressing. Despite an atmosphere of doom and betrayal, it is still elegant, gilded and often very funny. In Branagh's performance, which is both light and grave, we see how much the actor has studied the matter. He's played the part on stage more than 200 times, and he displayed his horror of the fustier approach to Hamlet in his version of the donnish but obsessive comedy A Midwinter's Tale.

I may see more vivid performances, and more precise ones, but I may never again see one of such control as Branagh's. He shows remarkable stresses and yet overcomes them, gliding over the abrupt but smooth transitions, from spitting fury to whispering tenderness, from quivering tension to the relief of absolute cartoonishness. Branagh uses the last quality in just the right amounts.

In an interview a few years ago, Branagh flippantly said he'd rather be the new Daffy Duck than the new Olivier. I sympathize; even after much thought, I'm not so sure myself which of these two great thespians I prefer. (Both, as John Wayne said to Susan Hayward in The Conqueror, are beautiful in their wrath.)

On second thought, maybe not Daffy. Hamlet, calling the seething King Claudius "mother" to further aggravate him, swoops down to give him a little kiss on the mouth: Bugs and Elmer. There's not only classic training but also a little Bugs Bunny in Branagh's Hamlet. I mean this as praise.

Branagh's Hamlet is far from a perfect film. The shock cuts, earthquakes and smoke machines that accompany the appearance of the ghost look like a bad Italian horror movie; the Christ-like deposition of Hamlet's body at the end was a bad move. Patrick Doyle's score is full of bombastic and cloying music that rumbles forth at uncalled-for moments, particularly in the last scene before intermission, in which a Norwegian soldier's mission to fight for a worthless piece of land wraps up Hamlet's resolve. Branagh was seeking irony and found confusion.

Kate Winslet's Ophelia is tentative--lost and flopping in her mad scene, and sometimes challenged by simultaneously walking and reciting iambic pentameter. (Couldn't they have just brought back Helena Bonham Carter for a reprise of her Ophelia in the Gibson Hamlet?) Julie Christie's uneven Gertrude is as much the play's fault as hers. Gertrude is the real enigma, not Hamlet. Is Gertrude just blind to what's going on in her castle, or is she just not all that bright? Maybe it's both, but Christie seems unable to decide.

Still, these are 15 weak minutes in four hours of film. Assembling this Hamlet was a remarkable feat; just as remarkable was the fight to get it released after the inevitable talk of a cut version. Branagh deserves praise for fighting for his film, but Columbia Pictures and Castle Rock also deserve some honor for taking the risk of releasing it whole. In taking the gamble, instead of the short money--even after who knows how much Hamlet-like hesitation--they've financed something that will endure.


Hamlet (PG-13; 238 min.), directed and adapted by Kenneth Branagh, photographed by Alex Thomson and starring Branagh, Julie Christie, Richard Briers and Derek Jacobi.

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From the January 23-29, 1997 issue of Metro

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