myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I
have bad dreams.
—Act 2, scene 2
In the mid '90s, Kenneth Barnagh had a dream. A dream to make the biggest, longest, most spectacular, incredibly long Hamlet film for decades to come. Directing and starring in the film himself, and with a budget so huge, there was no way a four-hour production of an Elizabethan tragedy could ever hope to turn a profit, Barnagh created a luscious and delightful, albeit contentious film.
Kenneth Branagh is the most controversial Shakespearean since John Wilkes Booth. You either love his fresh interpretations of the Bard, or you wish him in a burning barn being fired upon by Union soldiers. Branagh's Hamlet falters in some of the long monologues, but he has a truly brilliant interpretation of Hamlet's sense of humor, which of course angers people who don't have a sense of humor.
Branagh's non-traditional choices for some of the bit parts met with mixed results. Billy Crystal as the gravedigger is maybe the best Shakespearean clown ever on the screen, while Robin William's remained flat as the brown-nose courtier Osric. Luckily, the rest of the cast was helmed by veteran Shakespeareans. Derek Jacobi, who plays the king, performed the role of Hamlet in his younger days and was a major influence on Branagh's interpretation of the character.
Little known fact: Much like Booth, Branagh also killed a man in Ford's Theater.
Branagh transports Hamlet to a 19th century palace. The clean, brightly lite halls lack the gloom of prior film adaptations, but present a more decadent view of King Claudius' court. Each shot is decked in lavish colors and framed like a painting.
Some people just have a hard time accepting a bleach-blond Victorian as Hamlet.
This is the only word-for-word film of Shakespeare's longest play. Branagh seemed to be fearful of trying audience's patience, and so added a number fast-pace action scenes. The fencing scene, typically point in the play where the spectacle gets ramped up to 11, goes way over the top with Hamlet hurling a chandelier at his step-father. Much more radical is his decision to have the castle invaded by the Norwegian prince Fontibras during the duel.
Despite a few flaws, this movie is still the definitive adaptation of Hamlet. It's beautiful to watch, a real treat, provided you aren't one of those people who want to see Baranagh tried for treason.