In the summer of 1996, I sat in the old Laemmle’s Royal Theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard not realizing what it was I was about to experience. The theatre itself is old, not shabby or unkempt but old and it wasn’t even a multiplex, when was the last time you sat in a single screen theatre? All of this was only part of what I consider to be one of the greatest movie going experiences ever. The other part of it was the movie itself. Hamlet.
What is considered by many to be the greatest play ever written by the greatest writer of the English language. William Shakespear’s Hamlet starring and directed by Kenneth Branagh is quite possibly the greatest version of this great work but also one of the greatest films of all time. Branagh put together a varied cast of very talented and able actors, set the film in a late 19th century setting, used a lavish setting but more importantly shot the movie using 70 mm film stock. Few are the directors that can take 70 mm film and create works of art. David Lean(Lawrence of Arabia) is one, Branaugh happened to be another. At four times the size of 35 mm film, the larger format provides amazing color and wide angle that lesser directors get lost with, for example, Ron Howard with Far and Away.
After its theatrical release, Branagh’s Hamlet was mired with distribution problems that delayed its release on DVD for 10 years. The wait is now over with the recent release by Warner Home Video. Branagh’s version is by far the best. It is unabridged and runs nearly four hours. The acting by Branagh is better than that of the great, Olivier, who’s Hamlet was narcissistic and a bit whiney. In 1991, Mel Gibson starred in the title and seemed almost overwhelmed by the role. The depth and complexity inherent to the play is handled effortlessly. The film is stylish without being pretentious and it takes its time without being slow.
This uncut version is so superior to those that came before because it allows for the full development of all the players. The action isn’t rushed and the depth of the play becomes easier to grasp. The soliloquy from Act III Scene I is amazing as Hamlet speaks to his reflection in a large mirror. Branagh’s cinematic skills are in effect without overpowering the film, the camera work is fluid. If you haven’t yet seen it, do yourself a favor and do so!