The shockingly blond platinum-Nazi hairdo Kenneth Branagh wears in Hamlet makes teasing reference to Laurence Olivier’s shimmery locks in his movie version, released in 1948. Olivier, the greatest Shakespearean actor of the century, is, for Branagh, mentor and rival, an artistic father figure to compete with and ultimately overthrow. Having invited the comparison, Branagh ensures that any similarity between the two versions ends with the bleach job. Olivier’s Hamlet, filmed in black and white, was a quicksilver nightmare drenched in paranoid gloom. It had the Freudian gothic atmosphere of a ’40s horror film, and Olivier himself seemed to draw the power of his performance right from the shadows, a neurotic viper slithering through the corridors of Elsinore. Branagh’s Hamlet is also reminiscent of a horror film, but a very different one: It’s like an Elizabethan version of The Shining. Shot on huge, bold, dazzlingly well-lit sets (the royal court is a hall of mirrors dominated by a hypnotic chessboard floor), it too is about a man led to dementia — and murder — by a ghost preying on his demons. What links the film memorably to Stanley Kubrick’s is the way that Hamlet’s battle with his incipient savagery takes place not in the usual murky catacombs but right out in the open, in the ”objective” glare of what could almost be a surgeon’s operating theater. The illumination is visual, and metaphysical, too: Even when he’s sputtering with rage, this Hamlet remains torturously rational, a man pinned down under the white-hot klieg lights of his own consciousness.
This is the first time anyone has dared to film Hamlet in its entirety, without the standard cuts that Olivier and others have made. The film runs three hours and 58 minutes, and if that sounds like a stunt, it’s not: What is gained, through sheer duration, is a newly slow and subtle arc to Hamlet’s descent. Branagh’s amazing performance takes a little getting used to. He looks more than ever like a self-satisfied yuppie (for a while, his too too solid flesh seems to undermine Hamlet’s angst), but this robustness shouldn’t be mistaken for superficiality. Branagh’s Hamlet is a virile young lord stymied not by weakness or ”madness” but by a conundrum bold enough to defeat anyone.
Claudius, wonderfully played by Derek Jacobi as a bureaucrat who covers over his scheming with velvet niceties, has murdered Hamlet’s father, married his mother, Gertrude (Julie Christie), and stolen the throne of Denmark; Hamlet’s desire for revenge couldn’t be more reasonable. What makes Hamlet the pivotal text in all of English literature is the way it records the fall of modern man through the birth of anxiety and self-doubt: It’s about a hero who can’t bring himself to do what he wants to do, and — more maddeningly — who can never quite fix in his mind’s eye what’s holding him back. Is his inability to act a matter of cowardice, a moral quandary (he is, after all, contemplating homicide), or something more mysterious — a consequence of an insidious divided nature? As Hamlet begins to unravel, Branagh subverts his own self-possession, making the character haughty, sarcastic, unhinged in a reckless theatrical way that soon takes on a life of its own, until we’re staring at the face of existential despair. The ”To be or not to be” speech, which Hamlet delivers while looking into a mirror, becomes one of the most thrilling sequences in all of filmed Shakespeare. Branagh lays bare the agony of self-awareness. For Hamlet, as for all of us, pure thought and pure action will forever be at war.
As Ophelia, Kate Winslet does marvelous work; when Polonius is killed, there’s nothing neurasthenic in her madness — she trashes her own vanity as an actress, like a flower that’s had its petals ripped off. If there’s a flaw in this Hamlet, it’s one, I’m afraid, that it shares with every version: The second half of the play is awful. When I returned from the mid-film intermission, I got the distinct feeling that Shakespeare was suddenly being paid by the word. What is offered is not a development, or even a continuation, of Hamlet’s conflicts but a frayed chain of delaying tactics. It doesn’t help that the performances of Billy Crystal (as the First Gravedigger) and Robin Williams (as Osric) are corny and flat-footed. By the time the film arrives at the big sword fight, you’re grateful that Branagh has had the audacity to stage it as a swashbuckling action blowout, with Hamlet and Laertes crashing and leaping around balconies. It’s a climax too pat for the drama that has preceded it, but then, perhaps Shakespeare meant Hamlet to be a revenge tragedy that is never truly resolved. The play ends, but not Hamlet’s dilemma; we carry it right out of the theater with us.