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As many times as I have seen Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S HAMLET ($35), I remain totally enthralled by this motion picture. Unquestionably, this HAMLET is one of the finest cinematic achievements ever fashioned from one of the immortal Bard’s works. Branagh has made this HAMLET into a living, breathing Shakespearean work, and not just an artfully filmed play. The characters that inhabit Branagh’s HAMLET don’t come across as actors merely playing roles, but instead, they are flesh and blood people. In the coming decades film fans will look back on Branagh’s HAMLET as one of the great masterworks of the cinema.

Unlike previous adaptations of HAMLET, Branagh has wisely decided against the judicious cuts to the text that have been employed in the past, thus making this HAMLET, at a whopping four hours and two minutes, the longest version set to film. For the first time, film audiences get to experience a complete representation of the story. This full version of HAMLET allows each character to be fully fleshed out, giving the audience a complete understanding of the characters and their motivations. For those who have never experienced HAMLET, the plot centers on the royal court of Denmark… And yes, one quickly learns that there truly is something rotten in the state of. After the death of the young Danish Prince’s father and his mother’s quick marriage to his uncle, the ghost of the deceased monarch visits Hamlet to inform him that his spirit cannot rest until his murderer is brought to justice. Unfortunately for the Danish Prince, this otherworldly task entails naming the new King, Hamlet’s own Uncle Claudius, as the culprit in this murder most foul. In addition to the inner turmoil that it causes our protagonist, this ghostly revelation also sets in motion Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, which ultimately results in the destruction of the royal court of Denmark.

Kenneth Branagh himself takes on the title role, playing Hamlet with a ferocity and vulnerability, which makes the character very human and not the passive object of pity as he is often portrayed. Branagh always puts Derek Jacobi to good use in his productions, and his performance gives the villainous Claudius some semblance of humanity. Julie Christie makes for a beautiful and noble Gertrude, who is torn between her love for her son and that of her new husband. Brian Blessed is rarely seen in American films, which is a shame since his performance as the ghost of King Hamlet is mesmerizing. Kate Winslet’s performance as Ophelia is one of the most powerful; her descent into madness proves to be one of the film’s most tragic aspects. Charlton Heston provides one of the finest performances of his career as the Player King. Almost every role in this HAMLET is played to perfection, with Jack Lemon’s performance falling only slightly short of the mark, although from his commentary, one learns that Branagh is quite pleased with it. The cast of HAMLET also includes Richard Briers, Michael Maloney, Nicholas Farrell, Rosemary Harris, Rufus Sewell, Billy Crystal, Gérard Depardieu, Timothy Spall, Reece Dinsdale, Robin Williams, John Mills, John Gielgud, Judi Dench and Richard Attenborough.

Warner Home Video has made WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S HAMLET available on Blu-ray Disc in a 2.20:1 aspect ratio presentation that has been encoded onto the disc with the VC-1 codec. In my opinion, the 1080p presentation is really quite impressive, although some modest improvements might have been possible had the film been spread across two discs, at a higher bit rate, instead of being confined to one. Considering that this was the last motion picture produced in the 70mm format, one should expected tremendous amounts of detail in the image, and for the most part it is indeed there. From what I understand, at lower bit rates, the VC-1 codec will soften the image to some degree, and there are some places where the image on this Blu-ray appears a bit softer than others. However, at no time, does WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S HAMLET appear to be a trip to the waxworks. Other than brief instances of mild softness, the image appear rich and filled with detail, including fine details such as individual hairs and or imperfections and lines in the actors faces. There is also nice texturing to the opulent sets and intricate costumes. Dimensionality is also very good, especially during the most brightly lit sequences. Colors appear vibrant, and fully saturated. Flesh tones sometimes have the appearance of a bit too much theatrical pancake. Blacks appear true, as do the whites. Contrast is generally smooth, while shadow detail proves relatively strong. The elements from which WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S HAMLET has been mastered demonstrate almost no imperfections. The image displays a modest amount of grain, which maintains a nicely film-like appearance.

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S HAMLET is presented on Blu-ray Disc with a 5.1 channel DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. Although the lossless encoding is very welcome, the material isn’t particularly showy. As WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S HAMLET is primarily dialogue driven, activity in the outlying channels is sometimes quite limited. Some active effects as well as ambience fill out the rears much of the time, while the forward soundstage sees more activity. Of course, the sequence in which Hamlet encounters the ghost of his father is a notable exception; this sequence features the most fully realized use of all the outlying channels, including the surrounds. Thanks to the lossless encode, fidelity is strong in regards to the music and sound effects. Voices are natural sounding, and with very few exceptions, the film’s dialogue is totally understandable. A French Dolby Digital 5.1 channel and Spanish 2.0 channel tracks are also encoded onto the disc. Subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish.

The interactive menus allow one access to the standard scene selection and set up features, as well as, the supplemental materials, which have been ported from the DVD release. Starting things off is a running Audio Commentary with director/star Branagh and Shakespeare scholar Russell Jackson. Also included is an eight-minute Introduction by Branagh. To Be On Camera: A History With Hamlet is a twenty-five minute program that looks at the making of the film. Next, one will find a Promo Reel that was created for the Cannes Film Festival. A Theatrical Trailer closes out the supplements. WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S HAMLET features book styled packaging that contains forty pages of photos and production notes.

For my money, WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S HAMLET is one of the great masterworks of the modern cinema. The Blu-ray presentation marks a significant and worthwhile upgrade from SD. Highly recommended.


Hamlet (Blu-ray Book) (1996)


DVD & Blu-ray Disc reviews are Copyright © 2010 THE CINEMA LASER and may not be copied or reprinted without the written consent of the publisher.
THE CINEMA LASER is written, edited and published by Derek M. Germano.



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