PG-13 for kinda / sorta nudity and Shakespearean violence. It's a weirdly specific thing. The kinda / sorta nudity is tied to flashes of sex. THat probably makes it way worse. In fact, I'm going to say that it makes it way worse. I don't know if the attitude was "This isn't your dad's Hamlet." But there it was. The violence is pretty tame, despite the fact that Hamlet has people dying by knife and poisoning. I mean, you've had time to read it by this point. It's not like this is a new book. Regardless, PG-13.
DIRECTOR: Kenneth Branagh
My senior year teacher called me Hamlet-boy due to my obsession with Hamlet. I loved Hamlet. It was my second or third real Shakespeare. I remember that Julius Caesar never really grabbed my attention, despite the fact that I teach it now. But because Julius Caesar was so overwhelming, I wanted to watch a production of it while following along in the text. This was the version I watched. We had it on home video. Twin VHSes because the movie was so darned long. And I remember being riveted. I think I was just blown away at the majesty of such a thing. Remember, when I was in high school, the go-to version of this movie was the Mel Gibson one. But Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet was the full production. It was Shakespeare's longest (I'm pretty sure) play and all of it was included. But the thing is, I never came back to it until I actually had to teach Hamlet.
When I was the student experiencing Hamlet for the first time, this movie helped me understand something that I was intimidated by. I tell parents and students that they should watch staged productions of the plays we read because plays really weren't made to be read. They were created to be performed. That stage direction, although vital and interesting, wasn't for the audience. It was almost an element that was meant to be for the co-collaborators in the process of making this text come alive. I want my students to read that stuff. I think that it gives them absolutely fabulous information into the nuances of the show, but it is just like listening to a commentary track. Watching it as a high schooler, I appreciated and adored how much attention was being paid to the original script. I can say the same thing about A Raisin in the Sun with Sidney Poitier. It's got so much love for the text that the movie is as close to a stage production as one could get while keeping the whole thing cinematic and grounded. I can't watch filmed stage productions. We can all feel the separation between the actual experience of being an audience member in a house to the artificiality of the whole thing. I don't know why imaginations have a hard time making the leap when it is is a recorded version of the show, but I don't deny that it is constantly hanging over my head while watching.
But I found myself kind of bored at Hamlet this time. I wanted my experience to be something else. I needed it to be something bigger and larger than life. If I went to see a professional or semi-professional production of Hamlet, there's something new there. It is an interpretation of Hamlet that I have not seen before. The one thing, as a high school student, that was tough, was divorcing the choices that Branagh made in this movie. In my head, Hamlet takes place in this what-has-to-be-1900s version of Elsinore. I could easily research the template of the whole thing, but that's as far as I'll go. But there's something about Shakespeare that almost begs to be reinterpreted. I don't want to see the same thing over and over again. I remember enjoying A Midsummer Night's Dream with Kevin Kline as Bottom the first time I watched it. That was Midsummer to me. But rewatching it, it wasn't quite perfect. Something seemed a little off. It's that discovery that comes with the genius of Shakespeare. It's the emotional connection. (I wish my students got as passionate about Hamlet as I'm doing right now.) Maybe owning this movie doesn't quite do it for me in some ways. It's the sameness of it all. It's why I can't imagine seeing two nights of the same show's run. There has to be a surprise for me and this movie doesn't really do it. So what I'm left with is a very pretty, but very trying four hour and two minute movie.
Part of that comes from the fact that I have to be empathic to a certain extent. I showed my kids the play in sections. We would read an act and then watch the film. I know, the best movies in the classroom are shown in clips, not in entirety. But again, I stand by my statement that plays are meant to be seen and also, whatever. But I watched this movie and saw people acting the crap out of this film. I mean, Derek Jacobi plays Claudius. I have to admit, that I should have seen more things with Derek Jacobi in it. I now know him from Doctor Who and that makes me feel like I haven't seen any movies, despite the fact that I've seen more movies than most. Branagh made a movie that wasn't afraid to be kind of boring. This is the most backhanded compliment I can give. I have such respect for every element of this film (with the exception of the ending, which I want to talk about.) Castle Rock Entertainment, who released this movie, knew that this movie wouldn't have gone to wide release. It's four hours. Lord of the Rings movies, which made tons of bank, weren't given four hours in the theater. Theaters hate long films. But Branagh was adamant about every line being covered in this film and not to rush the lines and we got this movie. It's so respectful of Shakespeare that it creates that double-edged sword of being wildly impressive while ultimately being boring at times. Again, it's an acting exercise for a lot of the cast.
I'm going to close up with a talk about the end. I mean, considering that this movie is four+ hours, I could break down in to some other stuff that I love. But a lot of it comes down to performance. Say what you will about Branagh, he's telling the Hamlet story faithfully. Interpretation really comes down to setting and performance. But the slavishness to the text, as much as I love it, means that the role of director is kind of minimized to that of organizer and shot creation. The movie is beautiful. It's absolutely gorgeous and epic...until the end. The movie is four hours of building to the death of everyone, in particular Claudius. Imagine you are me at 17 or whatever and you know that Claudius is going to die. You don't know that everyone else is going to die. I am ready to see Claudius get what's his. The Laertes death is fantastic. Everything about Laertes and that final duel is on point. It's a little confusing that Laertes dies by his own blade in this one, but that's to be forgiven. There's a lot going on. I'm talking more about how Hamlet just launches a sword at him that flies through the air as if on a wire. Come on. You make a four hour movie. You keep everything pretty close to the vest with the exception of flashes of sex. But then, the sword has to fly through the air? I'm serious. How dramatic would it have been to have horror movie Hamlet slow walk to his victim, trapping him in a corner. I would have loved to have one moment of misplaced sympathy as this force of nature overcomes poisoning to murder his uncle in cold blood. Look at how well composed a lot of these shots are. The image I got above comes from a Twitter account called One Perfect Shot, I think. I got it a while ago and I wasn't really writing down sources. A lot of the movie pays attention to how good things look. But with Hamlet launching a sword at Claudius, it just seems so sloppy. Was no one in the dailies questioning how stupid it was to have a flying sword. I wouldn't even mind if the sword spun and killed Claudius as much. It's just using the sword as a javelin is fundamentally the worst. It's not the dismount to the film, thank Heaven, but it is pretty darned close. It's the shot that we wait for the entire film.
Sometimes, boring is good. I think that Branagh gets a monumental undertaking pretty much right. I adore most of what is going on in this movie. But ultimately, it is almost too boring at times. When there's a great scene, I totally get it. I adore the highlights of Hamlet in this film. (Sure, I don't know why Hamlet and Laertes are wearing fencing gear that has nipples a 'la Batman & Robin...) But including everything works way better on stage, not on film. It just seems a bit...much. It's still my favorite version of Hamlet and Hamlet is still one of my favorite plays. But without offering something new on a rewatch, I unjustly find it more tedious than the first time I watched it.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.