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Starring Kenneth Branagh
Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie, Nicholas Farrell, and Kate Winslet
Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Hamlet is one of the greatest of William Shakespeare's works. It's been adapted to the screen several times, but never in its original form. Kudos should go to Kenneth Branagh for managing that feat. Double kudos for managing to do it on 70mm film stock.

The camera work, cinematography, sets, and costumes are spectacular. It's almost too much for those of us who are relatively Shakespeare ignorant. It's every word of the play -- four hours worth -- for those of you who have deplored the abbreviated versions previously filmed. The cast is the A-list of British Shakespearean actors with a smattering of American stars: John Gielgud, Judi Dench, Rosemary Harris, Charlton Heston, Jack Lemmon, Billy Crystal, and Robin Williams in addition to the names above. Only Lemmon seems out of place.

Is it the best Shakespeare ever? Yes, if you know what you're getting in to. If you are as unlearned in the ways of the Bard as the teenagers I sat with during Baz Luhrmann's Romeo+Juliet, I brought a friend who had never seen the play before, and quizzed her at the intermission. No problems on her part. As for me, the 2'40" of the first half was a bit much. There is an exceptionally powerful bit of work between Branagh's Hamlet and Brian Blessed as the ghost of his father, which comes 50 minutes in. Then things slow down, as the second half is set up. That "act" is rife with revenge, remorse, murder -- all the good Shakespearian stuff, and it rocks.

Shakespeare did not write the way modern screenwriters do. (Duh). There are also many, many layers to each story. In Hamlet alone there is a foreign Prince who swears to retake land lost in war before the play ever began. There is the seduction and abandonment of a beautiful woman. There are all the machinations of court life and more cries for vengeance than you could believe. There is lying, murder, misdirection of guilt, and lots of other neat stuff. But four hours is a lot to get through. Take the time and concentrate on the first act, and you will believe all that happens in the second.

As with every film that earns more than a notation on my Nominations list, Hamlet will carry the standard "Oscar race" rating of . . .


Branagh's Hamlet is gorgeous to look at and magnificently cast. An abbreviated version is promised down the line, but it would probably be a great help if you got your hands on a copy of his screenplay from the local bookstore. Everything is explained in there. A little bit of information is very useful.

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