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As many times as I have seen Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S HAMLET ($27), I remain totally enthralled by this motion picture. Unquestionably, this HAMLET is one of the finest cinematic achievements ever fashioned from one of the 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, making this HAMLET the longest version set to film at a whopping four hours and two minutes. 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 Denmark. After the death of Hamlet’s father and his mother’s quick marriage to his uncle, the ghost of the deceased monarch visits the young Danish Prince and informs Hamlet 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 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 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, Robin Williams, John Mills, John Gielgud, Judi Dench and Richard Attenborough.

Warner Home Video has made WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S HAMLET available on DVD in wide screen presentation that features the anamorphic enhancement for 16:9 displays, with the aspect ratio falling somewhere between 2.20:1 and 2.35:1. HAMLET was one of the few recent films produced in the 70mm format, and takes much of its visual splendor from what the bigger film elements are able to register. The levels of sharpness and image detail are both generally excellent, with only mild softnerss creeping in, in places. Colors are rendered with a nice level of saturation and the flesh tones are appealing. Blacks are accurate, whites are crisp, plus the picture has smooth contrast and fine shadow detail. The film elements are pretty much free from blemishes, but a bit of grain appears here and there. Digital compression artifacts are nicely concealed.

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S HAMLET comes with a fairly pleasing Dolby Digital 5.1 channel soundtrack. As the film is primarily dialogue driven, activity in the outlying channels is sometimes limited. Some active effects as well as ambience fill out the rears much of the time, while the forward soundstage sees more activity. Fidelity is strong, with the music coming across nicely, plus the sound effects are convincing. Voices are natural sounding, and with very few exceptions, the film’s dialogue is understandable. No other language tracks are provided, but English, French and Spanish subtitles are present.

Music underscores the basic interactive menus, which allow one access to the standard scene/episode selection and set up features, as well the supplemental materials, which have been have been spread across this disc two of this set. Both discs feature a running Audio Commentary with director/star Branagh and Shakespeare scholar Russell Jackson. Disc one comes with an eight-minute Introduction by Branagh. The remaining supplements can be found on disc two. 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. Finally, there is a Shakespeare Trailer Gallery.

As I stated above, WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S HAMLET is one of the great masterworks of the cinema. Warner’s DVD offers a superb presentation of this utterly wondrous film. Absolutely recommended.



William Shakespeare's Hamlet (Two-Disc Special Edition) (1996)



DVD reviews are Copyright © 2007 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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