A winter's tale? To play the king

Hamlet Kenneth Branagh (PG)
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The Independent Culture
Kenneth Branagh's four-hour Hamlet is a greatly flawed project - not so much the curate's egg as the curate's 1,000-egg omelette, with good and bad ideas scrambled together on a huge scale. There's plenty of design here, plenty of what they call concept (exteriors done at Blenheim, sets built at Shepperton). But even where the ideas are weak, they are bolstered and redeemed by the one decision that seems perverse, even indefensible, the decision that is never made in cinema: trusting the author. Branagh uses the full First Folio supplemented by the second quarto. Faith in Shakespeare brings its own great benefits. The fullness of the play resists the puniness of "interpretation".

The play has been set in the 19th century, but not tied down to one decade or one precise country. The costumes are festishistically military for the men, sensuously corseted for the women. Sometimes the effect of Alexandra Byrne's designs is simply distracting, as when Hamlet and Laertes, preparing for their duel, strip off red and blue dressing-gowns respectively to reveal cream leather body armour, like something out of Star Wars.

Bits of 19th-century technology encrust the action. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive by locomotive. Horatio scans Claudius's face, during the play, with opera glasses. Claudius and Polonius spy on Hamlet, during "To be or not to be", through a one-way mirror (hardly in period for the last century). Most of this neither adds to nor subtracts from the effect of the film, an exception being a shot of Ophelia (Kate Winslet) in her madness being therapeutically blasted with a high-pressure hose. Unenlightened Victorian attitudes to mental illness were hardly a major preoccupation of Shakespeare's.

Branagh has fixed the season of the play in the depths of winter, which has obvious advantages and less obvious disadvantages: it's only on special occasions, in the snowy outdoors, that the actors' breath smokes, and the snow itself clings to shoes more in the manner of suds than flakes. The choice of winter confines the death of Hamlet Senior, two months previous, to a cold season also. We see him, as played by Brian Blessed, taking a nap in a snow-covered orchard, with only a brazier the size of a handbag to warm him.

If the cameo appearance by a familiar performer is one of the besetting sins of British films, particularly of the classics, then Branagh is not merely a sinner but a lost soul. He has devised a new refinement of the sin, which we would have to call the phantom cameo, whereby characters who don't even appear in the play are fleshed out by thespian Sirs and Dames. So we catch glimpses, in the Player King's recitation, of Sir John Gielgud as Priam, Dame Judi Dench as Hecuba. The phantom cameo is seen at its most disastrous in the graveyard scene, where a flashback shows us Yorick entertaining the Hamlets in happier, more tattifelarious times. He is played by Ken Dodd, though the skull's teeth seemed relatively unsplayed and no tickling stick was disinterred along with it.

Hamlet was shot in 70mm, the first British film for decades to use that format; the director of photography was Alex Thomson, who worked on Lawrence of Arabia. The problem is not the richness of the image but the general tentativeness of the camera. There's no flow, though few moments are as awkward as a transition from the grounds to the chapel during Polonius's advice to Laertes, which has to be patched with a momentary voice-over from Richard Briers. At the Ghost's first appearance, Branagh goes for understatement, merely implying by camera angle that the ghost is a flying animated statue. Then, when Hamlet confronts it, the director goes into horror-movie mode, with spooky earthquakes and explosions of marsh gas. The violent action of the play follows the same trajectory from low key to hyperbolic, Polonius meets his death relatively discreetly, but by the time it's Claudius's turn, Branagh has escalated to hurled rapiers and collapsing chandeliers.

Branagh's immediate predecessor in the role on screen was Mel Gibson in Zeffirelli's postcard-pretty version. Gibson did remarkably well, considering that a hero who famously substitutes introspection for action was being played by an actor whose instincts were quite the other way. At least with Branagh there's no subconscious expectation that he's about to leap off a building or strap a bomb to his chest.

He is, of course, an experienced speaker of verse, and can cover the sardonic, the vicious and the manic sides of the character. What is missing is any hint of warmth, even with Horatio, though Branagh impressively produces the moist eye of male bonding. Every time we are reminded of Hamlet's general popularity, it seems freshly baffling. The only scene in which Branagh does manifest a welcome vulnerability is the first appearance of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The Prince is childishly grateful to have friends pay a visit, hating himself for asking the questions that will disillusion him about their motives.

It was brave of Branagh to cast Derek Jacobi (the first Hamlet he saw on stage) as Claudius, since Jacobi in his character's few soliloquies achieves what eludes Branagh in his, a matter-of-fact interiority. It's unusual in any version of the play for there to be no sense of let-down in the interlude when Hamlet is Hamlet without the Prince - he being en route to England - and Jacobi must take a lot of credit for that.

Branagh structures his own soliloquies with the help of outbursts of physical action or actual gimmicks, as when he advances on a mirror holding a dagger for "To be or not to be", not realising that his enemies are on the other side of it, spying on him, only a stab away. On the word "dream" he introduces mysterious, utterly unnecessary music. The contributions of the composer, Patrick Doyle, should have been kept to a minimum throughout, as the words are already the music.

The director shouldn't be blamed for the film's worst monologue, "How all occasions do inform against me". The camera moves away from Hamlet, showing us Fortinbras's vast army in the valley below, and Branagh's voice rises to a weirdly triumphant peroration. This is something Shakespeare would hardly recognise - that contradiction in terms, a rabble-rousing soliloquy - but it's the price that Branagh must pay for the sheer length of the film. He must meet a need Shakespeare was not required to address, and send audiences out for their intermission ice-creams with a little extra excitement n

`Hamlet' opens tomorrow