Our rating: 2 out of 5
True to Shakespeare, but set in a different era, Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet may please the die-hard fans of the poet, but is lost in today's society with difficult dialog, too much downtime, and rather yawning performances. Hamlet himself, rather than being likeable as Gibson made him in the 1990 version, is unlikable, cruel, and entirely without self-control. You dislike him almost at once, and tend to be more in favor with the murderer than the pious, revengeful lad.
The story starts out promisingly enough--as a change is made in the guard surrounding Denmark and a ghostly visitation appearing before them. Horacio (Nicholas Farrell), a semi-major player in the four-hour drama and one of Hamlet's trusted friends, bids the ghost to speak, but the figure fades. Convinced that the spirit is that of Hamlet's newly-dead father, Horacio seeks him out and they plan together to await the ghost again the following night, which is the night of the marriage of the king's wife Gertrude (Julie Christie) and his brother Claudius (Derek Jacobi). Displeased with his mother's hasty marriage in less than two months since his father's death, Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh) is only enraged more when his father's ghost tells him Claudius was responsible for his death by pouring poison into his ear, resulting in swift, painful eternal damnation, for he had not made his life right with God.
Vowing himself to revenge, Hamlet makes his men swear on his sword they saw nothing that night and through a series of events convinces the royal court he has gone mad. Meanwhile his love interest Ophelia (Kate Winslet) in confession to her father he has made show his affection for her, is ordered to refrain from all contact with Hamlet. Claudius, Gertrude, and her father believe this is the cause for the young man's lunacy. But this treacherous game is just beginning. Had they done a bit of switching, substituting Glenn Close's more engaging Gertrude with Julie Christie's rather bland portrayal, and Mel Gibson's more passionate and interesting Hamlet with the dreary and oftentimes dull Kenneth Branagh's, the film would have been much more appealing. For one thing, it's far too long, with too many flowery single-man scenes. Shakespeare is hard enough to understand in our modern times without falling asleep waiting for something to happen.
The film's virtually eye candy, with a gorgeous array of dramatic architecture that overpowers the actors themselves. I found myself admiring the gold and mirrored paneling of the ballroom far more often than listening to Hamlet vent his frustration, and only kept from fast-forwarding many of the scenes by sheer will power. Kate Winslet's role as Ophelia was irreproachable, and indeed, she seemed the only person on set to put any kind of passion into her character. Unfortunately, much like Titanic, compromises are made in her morality that one cannot brush off; the hopeful look toward innocence on her part is shattered but 30 minutes into the film when, recounting her moments with Hamlet, we are given brief but undeniable flashes to the contrary. The pair are shown passionately kissing and embracing in bed and show a great deal of skin, most prominently on Kate's part with an extreme glimpse of cleavage. Unfortunately, one cannot fast-forward through the entire scene as the flashes are only brief but prominent, and to lose the dialog would be to lose part of the story.
The film also offers a half dozen or more inappropriate uses of God's name, some suggestive dialog, and a moderate amount of violence and gore. The violence is rather delicately handled as far as blood goes, with some stabbings and on-screen deaths both by the sword and poison, but the gore's rather sick. We're shown several times in succession the effect of the poison in the King's ear, with the skin bubbling up and then the ear exploding in blood. Hamlet ponders stabbing his uncle in the ear while he is in the confessional and we witness the effect it would produce. (He refrains from doing so only because, as Claudius is praying, it would send him to heaven, no doubt, instead of the black hell he deserves, so it is decided that he will wait until his uncle is engaged in something sinful, so as to be certain to secure the man's eternity.) He also abuses Ophelia by repeatedly slamming her against the ballroom mirrors.
To be fair, the film does have a few good moments and unexpected surprises, such as cameo appearances by Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, and Charlton Heston, the verbal bout between the gravedigger and Hamlet (which bring up some rather witty puns) and the ending "death scene." This is the one instance in which Julie Christie outshines Glenn Close; she gives a more believable death by poisoning and the end of Claudius is quite interesting, dealing with a chandelier, a fencing foil, and a golden cup. But one doesn't feel at all sorry for Hamlet at the end, and is rather inclined to pity poor Gertrude her fate. Hamlet is a mixed bag depending on what you like. If you're looking for more action, less lengthy speeches or are new to Hamlet, rent the 1990 Mel Gibson version, which also has far less objectionable content. But if you don't mind some sensuality and want a film that sticks closely to the original work of Shakespeare, this one's for you.