Monday, March 7, 2016

Hamlet (1996)

I appreciate Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet (1996). I like it existing, standing out as the sole unabridged cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare tragedy about The Dane Who Couldn't Make Up His Mind. How I like it as a movie is another matter.

In my mind's eye, the movie stands as a testament as to why Hamlet benefits from being edited. Similar to how Gus Van Saint's Psycho (1998) is useful demonstrating that a great script and wonderful cinematography doesn't necessarily make a great movie. I'm not saying that Branagh's Hamlet is an atrocity like Van Saint's experiment, far from it; it's a fine film, chock full of great performances and lovely production design.

But it does drag. Not surprising, since it is a 4 hour movie. But a really good Shakespeare adaptation should remind me why I love the Bard, not make me emphasize with those who consider him dull and impenetrable.

I could lay the blame on a few factors. Of course, there's the decision to capture every single bloomin' line and minor character in Shakespeare's longest play. Which did result in a lot of nice poetry, but it did also mean a lot of focus on Fortinbras and Norwegian diplomacy, elements which I never found to be among the more interesting aspects of the play. And tons of reiteration and retellings of things already seen and spoken of.

One of the benefits of shorter (and by shorter, I mean the 2 1/2 to 3 hour iterations) productions is that redundancies can be removed, and somewhere along the viewing, I found a new appreciation for all those directors who manager to trim enough to keep Hamlet compelling and comprehensible.

Maybe I just had a short attention span the evening I watched Branagh's Hamlet in one sitting. But with the odd explosion of ham that is to be expected with any Shakespeare adaptation, this was an especially soothing version. There were dynamic moments, including a finale that involved a falling chandelier. And it did have lots of long tracking takes, though these were less of the thrilling Hitchcock or Welles variety and more reminiscent of the somber, slow-moving moves of Tarkovsky. So we get plenty of walking and talking, and very little alternating camera angles to spice things up.

Again, I like this movie; there are far worse Hamlets than this one. And I’m glad that there is one complete Hamlet movie out there. But due to its prioritizing textual fidelity over cinematic storytelling, it misses being an enthralling movie.

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