Laurence Olivier is regarded as cinema's premiere Shakespeare guru, and this reverence is well-earned; in such films as "Henry V," Richard III" and the Oscar-winning "Hamlet," he presented the Bard's works with proper respect and amazing consistence. Yet as much as Olivier deserves to be admired, I've always felt that it is actually Kenneth Branagh who has given us the greatest Shakespeare films. In his directorial debut "Henry V" and 1993's "Much Ado About Nothing," he presented audiences with faithful, impeccably produced adaptations that proved this kind of film need not be difficult and dreary, but can in fact be filled with life and (gasp!) accessible to most viewers.
But Branagh's crown jewel is 1996's "Hamlet," which was an obvious labor of love for the filmmaker - he not only directed it and adapted the screenplay, but he also stars as the melancholy prince who is driven to the point of madness while pursuing revenge for the murder of his father. After years of not-so-patient waiting on my part, it is finally being released on DVD this week. Even if you're not usually into this sort of thing, Branagh just might make a convert out of you by exposing the more playful side of Shakespeare many people aren't familiar with.
Branagh's passion for the material shines through in every frame of this production, which for the first time presents the entire play unabridged. (Every line of Shakespeare's text remains intact, but Branagh did opt to move the story ahead several hundred years to the nineteenth century, presumably so he could get more creative with the costumes.) Filled with big-name stars and eye-popping sets, the film could have easily turned into a messy, high-profile, vanity-infused disaster. Instead, it's a deeply engrossing masterpiece that represents four of the most hypnotic hours I've ever spent watching a movie. The time flies right by.
The casting is cluttered but inspired, with such accomplished actors as Derek Jacobi (as Hamlet's villainous uncle, Claudius), Julie Christie (playing Hamlet's mother, Gertrude) and a pre-"Titanic" Kate Winslet (as the ill-fated love interest, Ophelia) turning in commanding lead performances. Even more interesting is the litany of cameo appearances by major actors like Jack Lemmon, Billy Crystal, Robin Williams and Charlton Heston. (Some have accused Branagh of indulging in the kind of stunt casting that only serves to distract from the story, but I think it places greater significance on relatively minor - but nonetheless vital - characters who are often forgotten in the scheme of things.)
Branagh took a lot of heat for casting himself as the title character, and some of that criticism is warranted: He was probably a bit too old for the role, and he often partakes in more than his share of scenery chewing. Yet Branagh brings such a terrific sense of life to the traditionally droll role that it's impossible to resist his manic energy - the same energy that he projects from behind the camera, turning this "Hamlet" into not only the finest Shakespearean adaptation ever filmed, but indeed one of the most enjoyable movies I've ever seen.
"Hamlet" is rated PG-13 for violence and sexual content.