How weary, stale, flat

Seduced by the ability to illustrate everything, Kenneth Branagh's film of 'Hamlet' is an object lesson in how creative freedoms can prove a liability.
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The Independent Culture
The deluxe programme for Kenneth Branagh's movie version of Hamlet boasts that a team of 45 people worked to cover the vast grounds of Blenheim Palace with 200 tons of artificial snow - "more snow than in any other film before, even Dr Zhivago". Then it actually snowed and Branagh was able to send out a second unit to capture the resulting 300 acres of whiteness in its natural glory.

It's comforting to note, though, that it is the fake stuff that surrounds Brian Blessed's Old Hamlet in the characteristically ludicrous flashback to the poisoning scene where we see the king having one of those peaceful out-of-doors snoozes in arctic conditions that would cause rapid death from hypothermia in less great a Dane. Playing with the CD-Rom version of this film, viewers may like to intervene at this point and rework the story so that Derek Jacobi's Claudius steals in, finds that his brother is already as dead as a frozen kipper and, in remorse for what he was about to do, tips the poison into his own ear. A film, which, at four hours running time, often makes you feel as if it is never going to end, would be thereby brought to a mercifully early conclusion.

Branagh has acted the role of Hamlet three times on stage (if you count his Rada version) and has made a movie, In the Bleak Midwinter, about a group of ill-assorted modern thesps attempting to mount a production of the tragedy in a dilapidated church. But the culmination of his obsession with this masterpiece - a widescreen 70mm film, set in the 19th century, with Branagh as the bottle blond lead in a cast that features as many cameo-playing stars as an Agatha Christie or Seventies disaster movie - manages to be a synthesis of his stage and screenwork only in the sense of bringing together the worst of both worlds.

This Hamlet might have been filmed with the express purpose of illustrating how the greater liberties that flow from using a movie camera are potential liabilities and that the very restrictions of stage space can be imaginatively emancipating. "I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space," proclaims Hamlet. A movie camera, by contrast, is unparadoxically unbounded: it can travel anywhere in real or mental space and show anything in the drama's past or simultaneous present. This confronts a director with huge problems of taste and interpretative tact.

You may feel that Branagh's governing principle in deciding when to throw up an image of something referred to in the text has been determined by a desire to run a job creation scheme for the elder statesman of the acting profession whose ranks it has always been his ambition to join. Hence the laughable silent shots of Johnny Mills as Old Norway giving a wigging to Rufus Sewell's moody, mean-looking Fortinbras. When Charlton Heston as the Player King embarks on his speech about Priam's murder and Hecuba's grief, you brace yourself for some miming moments from dear old Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray.

But no, it's Johnny Gielgud and Judi Dench, a somewhat odd proposition as a married couple. This visual interpolation blunts the point of the scene. The Player King is an actor who can move himself to tears for someone about whom he cares nothing by sheer technique. Hamlet can't bring himself to act on behalf of someone for whom he feels everything. Here, however, the interpolation puts Heston's Player King in the role of audience to some genuinely affecting footage of Dench in extremis. His tears, therefore, come across as the response of a sensitive movie-goer rather than the tired trick of an old pro.

But, then, what can you say about a film that gives us flashbacks to nude bed scenes between Hamlet and Kate Winslet's consequently baffling Ophelia, or rosy recollections of Ken Dodd as Yorick amusing an infant Hamlet who looks like a male version of Shirley Temple? Yorick's skull, given to Dodd as a parting gift, apparently, is kitted out with those unmistakable buck teeth.

On stage, Elsinore can be presented as spiritual geography - a skewed set representing out-of-joint times as seen by an alienated mind. On screen, notwithstanding the pull there towards literalism, Elsinore tends to become a place that has to expand indefinitely (like the "stage" in movie musicals about theatre shows) so that the camera will have a lot of space to be restless in. In Zeffirelli's better screen Hamlet, three British castles were needed to evoke one. In Branagh's version, there are innumerable connecting rooms behind and above the mirrored doors of a central hall, where the camera performs so many emptily flashy 360 degree pans it feels like you're on the waltzer. Handy for whizzing, heroically blurred tracking shots, as when Hamlet flees from Claudius's guards, running over tables and sending props and extras flying, these rooms can cope with all eventualities. One of them, for example, is a padded cell...

Branagh's central performance would be easier to take if watched from Row T of a large theatre. The waggishness of his antic disposition, which had a lethal levity on stage, has a lethal leadenness here. When this Hamlet acts as Chorus to "The Mousetrap", you wonder how, short of urinating on them, he could be more obviously confrontational to his mother and stepfather. Which makes the shots of a hidden Horatio (Nicholas Farrell) straining to see the reaction of the royal pair through opera glasses unintentionally hilarious.

But then what kind of audience is this film aimed at? There are people who might thank you for the long, pedantically conflated text and (at times) dictation-speed delivery (inclusion of the often cut scene between Polonius and Reynaldo allows Richard Briers and Gerard Depardieu an unexpected opportunity to share a screen, if not Polonius's whore). Such punters aren't the sort of folk who would necessarily appreciate the action-movie special effects that make, say, Hamlet's first meeting with the ray-gun eyed ghost look as if it's taking place during an earthquake and a dress rehearsal for the First World War. Unlike the hero's sword, which eventually hurtles down from a gallery, like some winged instrument of destiny, to impale Claudius, most of this movie is badly off targetn

'Hamlet' is on general release from 14 Feb