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Hamlet

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Yes, Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet is wildly inconsistent, marred by miscalculations so drastic that you’ll sometimes find yourself questioning the director’s sanity along with the Dane’s. But there are twice as many moments of startling power…and, let’s face it, you’d have to work overtime to make a boring Hamlet. Trouble is, most people aren’t generally keen to unwind after work with four hours of iambic pentameter. For the curious but cautious, then, we offer this precise guide to the film’s most notable scenes — enabling you to admire its infinite faculty whilst enduring its slings and arrows.

00:01:53 Jack Lemmon, as watchman Marcellus, asks ”What, has this thing appeared again tonight?” in a quintessentially Lemmonesque tone. Don’t worry, it gets better.

00:09:35 First view of Elsinore, played by majestic Blenheim Palace, demonstrating to good effect that the castle need not look gloomy simply because the prince is.

00:18:51 Branagh’s dazzling, mercurial delivery of the play’s first soliloquy (”O, that this too too solid flesh would melt”) restores your faith.

00:44:20 In one of the most egregious examples of the evil that is video cropping, Branagh cuts back and forth between extreme close-ups of Hamlet’s fear-stricken eyes and the Ghost’s sorrowful ones — except that we can see only one eye each. Oops.

01:21:34 Charlton Heston, as the Player King, reminds you that he can, if pressed, actually act.

01:33:14 ”To be or not to be, that is the question.” Delivered by Hamlet to his own reflection in a mirror, behind which Claudius (Derek Jacobi) and Polonius (Richard Briers) stand watching, this all-too-familiar speech is as thrilling as it should be but so seldom is.

02:05:51 Sure, Branagh’s terrific. But the raw, wounded manner in which Jacobi, as Claudius, prays for forgiveness makes you long to see his famed BBC Hamlet (discontinued but available at some video stores).

02:34:37 For reasons known only to himself, Branagh fairly bellows ”How all occasions do inform against me” in front of a shoddy CGI landscape to the accompaniment of the most bombastic music ace composer Patrick Doyle has ever penned. Intermission follows.

03:06:51 Billy Crystal doesn’t embarrass himself as the First Gravedigger.

03:27:47 Robin Williams embarrasses himself as Osric (though, incredibly, his performance is in some ways more restrained than Peter Cushing’s was in the 1948 Olivier version).

03:46:14 The climactic sword fight, apparently inspired as much by Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks pictures as by Elizabethan fencing tactics, is a doozy.

04:01:20 Everybody out of the pool. B

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