I just finished watching Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet again. The settings, costumes, direction and acting from the stellar cast are simply splendid. Branagh’s direction and vision for the film is powerful, dignified and beautiful to look at, and the cast of stars–from Derek Jacobi and Julie Christie and Kate Winslet to Jack Lemmon and Charlton Heston to cameos by Judi Dench, Gielgud and even British comic Ken Dodd is fantastic.
There seem to be two weak points. First is Branagh’s insistence on performing the whole play. Almost every version of Hamlet is cut in some way or other, and to be honest, the cuts are usually a good idea. Hamlet is full of ‘words my Lord’, and my Lord what a lot of words. The modern viewer has to work hard anyway at Shakespeare, and I think the play would have been better cut.
The second weakness is Branagh’s Hamlet. He plays Hamlet with lots of outward rage and energy. Very often in the soliloquies he loses his temper, breaks things and rages furiously. It doesn’t make sense. We know that Hamlet is melancholy. In the text he seems weak–overly intellectual and hyper sensitive. This, indeed, is Hamlet’s tragic flaw: he is unable to act decisively. He is racked with self doubt and self pity and self centeredness. His ‘madness’ is the stupid ploy of a weak and ineffectual boy. Hamlet is a weak and vacillating adolescent and Branagh portrays him as a decisive and strong character, full of rage. I think he missed the target totally.
The reason I think Hamlet is a self absorbed adolescent is because I believe Shakespeare wanted to show just why there was ‘something rotten in the state of Denmark’. Things were rotten because, in fact, the King and Queen and everybody else in the play is, in their own way, just as self absorbed as Hamlet, and Hamlet’s tragic immaturity and selfishness should reveal the same flaw in the rest of the characters. If Hamlet doesn’t show this flaw, then the whole play is flawed.
I’m planning to view the Olivier Hamlet again, but in my memory the best film Hamlet is Derek Jacobi in the old BBC series, and I think Mel Gibson didn’t do that bad a job either. By the way…have I ever told you about the time I had dinner with Mel?…