Review of Hamlet

Hamlet (1996)
Ambitious disappointment
3 August 1999
Branagh's Hamlet--both character and film--suffers from the same tendency that destroyed his Frankenstein: he simply goes overboard. When he's reined in, Branagh can turn in a fine performance, but too often he overacts, overdirects, overdoes generally, as here. I eagerly anticipated this Hamlet both as a reader and as a teacher, but discovered an overblown spectacle full of Hollywood-style excess, souped-up sex and violence, overpowering (and distracting) music, and performances that substitute volume for emotion.

Branagh himself is the worst offender here, bellowing his "how all occasions do inform against me" soliloquy as if in competition with the soundtrack, hardly even pausing for breath, let alone for a glimpse of feeling. The most crushing disappointment is the crucial "to be or not to be" speech, again devoid of any sense of reflection or self-awareness, delivered in a hasty monotone for all the world as if Branagh was trying to spit it out quickly before he forgot it. This is not the world-class acting the text deserves; if not for the sheer spectacle and the impressive (i.e. famous) cast, this film would surely not be ranked as highly.

Even the purportedly authentic screenplay makes several crucial interpretive choices for the viewer and completely rewrites the nature of Fortinbras's final entrance into Elsinore. The only bright points are Derek Jacobi, who offers some emotional complexity as Claudius, and a Gertrude who finally seems to have a backbone. The absence of the Oedipal interpretation is welcome, but this alone cannot place this disastrous film above the Mel Gibson version, which remains its superior. The volume of laudatory reviews for this foolish film depresses me--but at least it may bring some new readers to the play itself, which _does_ deserve this kind of admiration.
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