Cut! Cut!

Branagh's often wonderful, Jacobi's even better, but...


A Columbia Pictures Release

Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Opening Fri., Jan. 24 at the Ritz at the Bourse

Speaking the whole text leaves little other visual way of telling the play's story aside from creating pretty pictures. And the whole film looks as though it has been edited with a chainsaw.
In his long, beautiful and thoroughly exasperating movie, actor-director Kenneth Branagh paints the world of Hamlet on a big canvas.

Elsinore is a baroque palace with an enormous throne room, lined with mirrored doors behind which are interconnecting anterooms and libraries, and even a padded cell for Ophelia (Kate Winslet) when she flips out.

When we first see the guards on the battlements, they're in the courtyard of the palace trudging through tons of artificial snow. When we first see Claudius (Derek Jacobi) and Gertrude (Julie Christie), they are surrounded by hundreds of courtiers (admirably multicultural) in dress uniforms and hoop skirts (we're in the 19th century), showering the newlyweds with rose petals. And when we first see Hamlet (Branagh) in his trim black cadet's uniform, he's standing ramrod straight, silhouetted in the distance behind the bleachers full of cheering courtiers.

The high-Victorian setting works extraordinarily well in creating a sense of the private corruption simmering beneath the glittering surfaces of public decorum. Claudius' first oration is of a triumphant modern-day emperor at the height of his popularity and the height of his powers, without a trace of what we know to be his alcoholism or his adulterous sexual longings, not to mention the crime of fratricide. We're not surprised to see Polonius (Richard Briers) sitting in his chambers, stripped to his corsets, smoking a cigar, with a whore lolling on his bed. And when Hamlet exchanges sexual double-entendres with Ophelia before "The Murder of Gonzago" and then presents a play obviously about his father's murder, the attendant courtiers are shocked, not by the sex or by the imputed crime, but that Hamlet should be so indiscreet as to mention it all in public.

Here and elsewhere, Branagh, as a director, certainly has an eye for a picture. And if the movie were nothing but a series of pictures, it would be as stunning as the movie's breathtaking trailer.

But the movie is a lot more -- close to four hours more, as the notoriously long playscript has been filmed without cutting a single line.

The problem with doing the play uncut is not the film's length: with all the script's twists and turns, the story has a coherence and a narrative flow that always holds the interest.

The problem is that speaking the whole text leaves little time for anything else, little other visual way of telling the play's story aside from creating pretty pictures and watching the characters walk from one room in the palace to another. And so, to make up for this, the camera constantly cuts away to show us nifty little images of the people, places and things that the characters are talking about.

When Horatio (Nick Farrell) is telling Marcellus (Jack Lemmon) about international politics, the camera shows us the old Norwegian king (John Mills) scolding his nephew Fortinbras (Rufus Sewell). When Polonius warns Ophelia about letting Hamlet woo her, we see Hamlet and Ophelia, naked, making love. When the First Player (Charlton Heston) narrates Priam's murder and Hecuba's lamentation, we see images of them, providing nifty if gratuitous cameo roles for John Gielgud and Judi Dench. When Hamlet reminisces over the skull of Yorich, we see a flashback of the young blond-haired prince being carried on the jester's back, played by the British comic Ken Dodd, whose famous buck teeth still dangle from the skull held by the gravedigger (Billy Crystal).

It's all like a Victorian extra-illustrated edition of the play, or a bad lecturer's slide show. And, for all its beauties, the whole film looks as though it has been edited with a chainsaw.

Some of these flashbacks do help to tell the story, and in some special cases they give some wonderful opportunities to the actors, most notably Derek Jacobi: we see, in flashback, Claudius flirting with his sister-in-law while his brother the King is still alive; and we see the look of horror on his face as he watches his brother die.

But Jacobi needs no such help to steal this film from Branagh in much the same way that Claudius has stolen the kingdom from Hamlet. His performance is measured, subtle and deeply moving, a man of incomparable political skills who discovers, too late, that he is morally in way over his head. His palpable love and longing for his new wife are touching. And the moment when he sees that he has lost her trust and her love forever is absolutely heartbreaking.

Branagh gives many of his actors such moments -- Winslet, Christie, Farrell and Michael Maloney (as Laertes). And he saves some choice ones for himself, in his scenes with Winslet and Christie. But this actor's Hamlet is more than just the sum of its line readings and production choices, many of which are wonderful (particularly speaking the "To be or not to be" mediation before a mirror, behind which are concealed Claudius and Polonius, watching him through the one-way glass).

Here's where filming the play uncut has its advantages: Branagh's Hamlet doesn't have to be one thing or another. He need only be a sympathetic, expressive, deeply feeling person, experiencing all the play gives him to experience over the length of the four hours (and what feels like a lifetime) of emotion. He doesn't explain the character to us; he just lets him live, breath, feel and die.

It's too bad that we have to watch him do so over the course of such an excruciatingly stupid movie.

-- Cary M. Mazer