CINEMA: Julie, madly, deeply: Branagh's Prince confronts Gertrude (Julie Christie) in an enthralling closet scene - a high in his otherwise patchy rendition of Shakespeare
Hamlet, that quintessence of snotty undergraduate rancour and purveyor of cheap wordplay (all of which makes him an ideal role-model for critics), seldom misses a chance to sneer at Polonius, especially on matters of aesthetics. "This is too long," Polonius observes, not without justice, of the Player King's Trojan verses. The Prince is scathing: "He's for a jig or a tale of bawdry, or he sleeps." This scene seems especially pointed in Kenneth Branagh's ambitious new 70mm Hamlet (PG), partly because Richard Briers's sombre and unconventional reading of the Polonius role is one of the most fascinating things in the production, and partly because it encapsulates the tricky balance Branagh has had to strike. He's risked Polonian accusations of "too long" from low-browed old fidgeters by opting to shoot the whole text, all four hours of it; he's risked scholarly Hamletian sneers about the cinematic equivalents of jigs and bawdry (O horrible, the Prince and Ophelia are shown thrashing around naked!) by larding his movie with everything from a Hammer-horror pastiche for the ghost scene, to a flashback of Ken Dodd airing his molars in the usually unseen role of Yorick, alas.

Perhaps with a backward glance at his recent comedy about staging the play, Branagh has set his Hamlet in the bleak midwinter, with Elsinore - Blenheim plays the exteriors - besieged by snow; its interior is a brilliantly lit hall of mirrors, rather than the usual Piranesi warren of murk. The period is some hypothetical part of the late 19th century, and the mood is warlike. Most of the men, save Horatio (the excellent Nicholas Farrell, in Withnail greatcoat), sport military uniforms, and the Fortinbras sub-plot is pumped up to a degree uncommon, not to say impossible on stage: Hamlet delivers his Act IV, scene iv soliloquy against a vast - and slightly wobbly - process shot of umpteen-thousand Norwegian soldiers marching on Poland. When Fortinbras (Rufus Sewell) and his men arrive at Elsinore for the final mop-up, it's in full-blown military- coup mode: troops smashing through windows like the SAS storming an enemy HQ.

But that's about as far as the film gets in terms of a ruling interpretative notion: Branagh's direction is full of ideas, but has no single Idea. He opts instead for a barnstorming treatment, so full of whirling action and cutaways to real and hypothetical back-stories (we even see Sir John Gielgud as Priam and Judi Dench as Hecuba) that those who love the play as Coleridge did, for its mood of acedia and self- corroding scepticism, may find themselves wondering if they actually have been mad about the Dane for all these years. Few of Branagh's decisions - his penchant for celebrity casting being one obvious hostage to fortune - will exactly count as caviar to the general, but some of them do pay off wonderfully well.

Of the celeb stroll-ons, the most honourable belong to Charlton Heston (Player King) and, astonishingly, the usually irritating Billy Crystal, who turns in a nicely stroppy First Gravedigger. The most pointless belongs to Jack Lemmon, as Marcellus, who looks so uncomfortable that he almost blows the production to smithereens before the first scene is over. But the home team has all the best moments: Kate Winslet's second mad scene as Ophelia is beautifully harrowing, Derek Jacobi is a crooning, queasily sym- pathetic Claudius, and the closet encounter between Hamlet and Gertrude (Julie Christie) is electric.

And so to the Prince. Despite the intimacy cameras allow, Branagh shies away from the introspective side of the part, making a more plausible soldier than scholar. His must be one of the butchest, least melancholic Danes on record: his measured, gritty, delivery of "to be or not to be" is more suggestive of homicidal than suicidal intentions. As one would expect, his verse-speaking is bodkin-sharp, which makes his fondness for verse-bellowing all the more regrettable. And a lot of the time, his director doesn't serve him well: he really should have had a major row with the fellow over the decision to smother so many pentameters in loud and awfully corny music. There are rather too many such lapses for Hamlet fully to take flight; scene by scene, though, it scores palpable hits.

Apart from the chance it offers of passing four hours in back-row snogging, Hamlet doesn't really cut the stuff as a Date Movie for this Valentine time of year. Amorous cinemagoers must seek other alternatives, Richard Attenborough's In Love and War (15) being the most promising. Set in Italy towards the end of the First World War, it's the approximately true story of the romance between the teenage Ernest Hemingway (Chris O'Donnell plays him, possibly because the budget wouldn't stretch to a large plank of pine) and Agnes Von Kurowsky (Sandra Bullock, who looks unprecedentedly charming in Roger Pratt's fine, Vermeerish cinematography), the nurse who helps save his leg after he is wounded in an act of conspicuous idiocy at the Northern Front.

Unless you're appalled by the idea of seeing an actor blessed with O'Donnell's brand of insipid coltishness cast as a (rumoured) giant of American letters, it's polished, unexceptional work. The only moments which might embarrass the sensitive are caused by the terrible words that keep falling out of young Ernest's mouth, such as the vision of domestic bliss he offers his understandably reluctant sweetheart: "You'll be making the place spick and span while I'm writing great works"; and, frankly, any practising Hemingwayphobe will be prepared to believe that this is indeed the voice- in-embryo of the beastly old misogynist. Though the film ends on a note of ambiguous defeat, it will probably inspire at least a few interesting games of patients-and-nurses later in the evening.

Edward Burns made his mark on cinema by writing, directing and acting in The Brothers McMullen, a low-budget feature about three supposedly charming and complex Irish-American siblings and their women problems; he's followed it up with the week's second Date Movie candidate, She's the One (15), a medium-budget feature about two supposedly charming and complex Irish-American siblings and their women problems. It's not wholly without originality, though: this time, the brothers are called Fitzpatrick. Mickey (Burns) drives a cab and impulsively marries one of his passengers, Hope (Maxine Bahns); Francis (Mike McGlone), who works on Wall Street, is married to Renee (Jennifer Aniston - be warned, Friends fans, she's not on screen much) but is having an affair with Mickey's former fiancee Heather (Cameron Diaz). Burns undoubtedly intends this as a romantic comedy, and its sense of humour may appeal to some; but does he realise, one wonders, how vile his male characters might look to anyone who finds them resistible? Honestly, men !

Not a great deal happens in Steve Buscemi's Trees Lounge (15), this week's final writer-director-actor treble stunt, but it happens with a kind of squiffy nonchalance which makes it more diverting than you might imagine. A man under the influence of John Cassavetes, Buscemi has apparently conceived the film as a vision of the messy pile of inconsequence his life would have remained if he'd stayed at home in Long Island ricocheting between menial jobs and late-night drinking hells, like his film's leading character, Tommy Basilio. All Tommy does is booze, get a job as an ice-cream man, accidentally make out with an irate friend's 17-year-old daughter (Chloe Sevigny), bemoan the fact that his pregnant girlfriend has gone off with an old buddy, and booze. Unlike, say, Barfly, it's wholly free of drunken self-pity or the urge to pontificate, and it might make a fair Date Movie for men who want to prove to their inamoratas that there really are worse losers somewhere out there.

Fierce Creatures (PG), which reassembles the Fish Called Wanda acting quartet for more Anglo-American japes, is misleadingly titled: it's one of the gentlest and furriest of trouser-dropping farces - in fact, bar a few jokes about (Jamie Lee Curtis's extraordinary) breasts, and (John Cleese's supposed penchant for) bestiality and (Kevin Kline's noisy) flatulence, it's virtually an Ealing Studios exercise, about little people fighting off the Murdochian billionaire nasty who wants to close down their nice zoo. Cleese is a former Hong Kong policeman drafted in to make said zoo more profitable by specialising in killer fauna (he permits himself just one Fawlty tirade); Jamie Lee Curtis is the corporate hit-woman sent over from Atlanta to make sure he does so; Kline plays both the disgusting Australian boss and his lascivious booby of a son; and Michael Palin has a moderately amusing minor role as an autodidactic bore. Funny? Sorry. It's a disappointment, and no Wanda: Fred Schepisi was called in as emergency second director when the first cut, directed by Robert Young, was judged and found wanting. Worth an outing only if your date loves animals, or has a thing about men in animal suits.

In the last decade or so, child actors have seemed constantly to be attaining almost eerily high standards of professionalism; Harriet the Spy (PG) proves that it ain't necessarily so. Adapted from the well-loved books by Louise Fitzhugh, it's tiresomely dull and incompetent. Almost an hour passes before the cavortings of its heroine, a would-be writer who spends her days snooping on neighbours and scribbling in a notebook, gel into something resembling a proper story. To name the guilty parties would only prolong the agony; and, despite having sat through Kids, I trust that most 11-year-olds have better things to do with their time than seek out pre-teen Date Movies.