CLASSIC FILMS: 17 HAMLET (1996)
KENNETH Branagh’s four hour adaptation of Shakespeare’s masterwork is probably the best on-screen version we have of the classic tale of the Bard’s Great Dane.
But thanks to its length, the esoteric subject and ‘art house’ feel, it’s easy to see why its appeal is limited. Many would happily de-scower pots and pans for four hours rather than endure Shakespeare at length.
But to do so would be to miss out on a very fine adaptation, and one which introduced Kate Winslet just before she became part of acting royalty the following year thanks to Titanic.
Shakespeare’s language is impenetrable to some, yet once you get the ‘ear’ for such, for others, almost each word, nay morpheme, is like a gentle raindrop from the god of literature pleasantly imploding in the ear.
Just as pleasing is the film’s astral cast: the god of divine casting direction must have smiled upon Branagh in the winter of 1996 when the likes of Brian Blessed, Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie, Billy Crystal, Jack Lemmon, Judi Dench, Michael Maloney, Timothy Spall, Richard Briers, and Charlton Heston and others all congregated for the film.
But then perhaps they sensed that Branagh – an Northern Irishman by birth and a student of Eng Lit - was about to hit a purple patch.
Hamlet tells the story of the eponymous prince whose father (old Hamlet) has just died. Take make matters worse, Hamlet’s uncle Claudius has married his mother (Gertrude), wife of his late father.
Denmark is facing international problems, and like most Shakespeare tragedies, these are reflected in the high court. Hamlet’s best pals say they have seen the ghost of his father walk about the battlements, and when young Hamlet confronts the ghost of his father, albeit privately, the ghost announces that Claudius poisoned him by pouring poison into his ears. Murder most foul indeed.
What then ensues is the fascinating study into the state of young Hamlet’s mind – is he mad or does he feign madness to throw off both friends and family – with the intention of destroying his uncle.
But his infamous hesitation – encapsulated in the ‘To be or not to be’ speech - , proves to be his downfall. In such, he considers what the consequences of the act of murderous revenge might be – and whether it might be best to end his own life rather than commit the act; thoughts which further lead him on to a contemplation of life and death itself.
But not before he stages a cunning ‘play with the play’ in which Claudius’s guilt is exposed; the subject matter of the staged theatrics in Claudius’s court is that of a fine king who is killed by having poison poured into his ears.
Hamlet the play is viewed by many as being Shakespeare’s greatest – even beyond Macbeth, Othello, Lear and Romeo and Juliet – the other big tragedies.
Others say it is THE play eclipsing all that was written before and since. Even Disney’s The Lion King is a poorly disguised take on the work.
Many hate it –they much prefer Shakespeare’s lighter comedies – Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night among others.
But as an actor, it’s now widely recognised as the benchmark test for any male in their 30s who struts and frets his 3-4 hours upon the stage; a litmus test for luvvies as it were. Pass the test, and you are made.
Shakespeare wrote it when he was probably in his mid to late thirties – he was already a respected playwright but it would take the re-discovery of him by the Victorians (who worshipped him to the level of ‘Bardolatry’) to raise him to the height of literary reverence we know today, or certainly of recent years.
Shakespeare had just lost his only son Hamnet not long before writing. The lad was the twin of his sister Judith and died at the tender age of 11. Anne and William also had an elder daughter Susanna.
Many a critic both of literature and film has since speculated – not entirely erroneously perhaps – that it would thus have made sense for Shakespeare – through either grief or tribute - to write a play that had at its centre point the relationship between father and son.
Being as sensitive and emotionally tuned-in a writer as he was, how could Shakespeare not be moved by the death of the only bearer of his future name?
But then again, one in three children between the ages of 1-10 died prematurely in Elizabethan England. Some have speculated Hamnet might have succumbed to some form of plague.
Although the names Hamlet and Hamnet were considered virtually interchangeable, Prince Hamlet's name is more often thought to be related to the ‘Amleth’ character in Saxo Grammaticus' Vita Amlethi, an old Scandinavian legend that is very similar to Shakespeare's story.
The earliest date of Hamlet the play is recognised as 1599. But around the time of young Hamnet’s death, (1596), other plays might give us clues to Shakespeare’s reactionary state of mind.
Is it any accident that Twelfth Night tells the tale of a twin girl who longs to see the return of her twin brother – lost at sea – and who is eventually reunited?
Romeo and Juliet also tells the tale of a pair who are parted by death. Plays post Hamlet also tend to have a focus on strong women – Twelfth Night (Viola), As You Like It (Rosalind), King Lear (Cordelia, and her powerful rival sisters), Macbeth (Lady Macbeth).
Michael Wood suggests in In Search of Shakespeare that sonnet 33 might have nothing to do with the so-called Fair Youth sonnets, that it alludes to Hamnet’s death in 1596 and that there is an implied pun on "sun" and "son": "Even so my sun one early morn did shine, with all triumphant splendour on my brow; but out, alack, he was but one hour mine, the region cloud hath mask'd him from me now".
Anyhow, Branagh’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s most beguiling play is by turns posturing, timid, emotionally stimulating, and spooky.
Memorable scenes are the ones where Hamlet confronts the ghost of his father for the first time (the marvellous Brian Blessed); Hamlet’s repudiation of Ophelia, and his realisation that they are being watched from behind a two way mirrored hall by Claudius and Polonius (an excellent Richard Briers), and of course Sir Ken’s softly spoken ‘To Be or Not To be’ soliloquy.
The exterior scenes outside a snowy Blenheim with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are especially well done, but without a doubt the best scene is very moving one in which Hamlet knows he is about to be outwitted and probably die at the hands of his once friend and rival Leontes (thanks to the machinations of his arch uncle Claudius – a very good Derek Jacobi).
Closeted in his private rooms with his best friend Horatio, (Nicholas Farrell in fine form) he talks of the fall of a sparrow, and the inescapability of his forthcoming demise. ‘There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is ’t to leave betimes?
After the inevitable bloodbath, and all the deaths all round, the arrival of the late Richard Attenborough as the British ambassador is a little like the sun peeping through clouds after the passing of a particularly heavy and stormy weather front.
Special mention must also be given to the haunting music – In Pace, by Patrick Doyle which frames one of the best British films of the late 20th C. A lovingly crafted work by an intuitive and skilled actor/director who has gone on to even greater success. The rest is silence.