Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Hamlet

AFI Silver Theatre recently hosted a series of 70mm film extravaganzas.  In part three of this series of films, the 1996 Hamlet, with screenplay and direction by Kenneth Branagh (who also took on the title role) was featured.  As is noted on the AFI page, it's nearly impossible to see a 70mm film in a theatre any longer.  Many of the prints are not available, and the hardware to project them is virtually extinct.  I had seen this film when it opened on Christmas Day, 1996 in New York City at the Paris Theatre (on 58th Street, near 5th Avenue).  As the film is a rendering of the complete play (all 4 hours and 10 minutes, with a 15 minute intermission), I was excited to see it again (sure, I own the DVD, but even my big screen TV doesn't do it justice).  It is a major commitment,  to be sure, but one I was thrilled to make again. Shakespeare, Hamlet, Branagh, a movie theatre - it doesn't get better than that!

It should be noted that we attended this prior to Robin Williams untimely death.  Mr. Williams' appearance as Osric is short, and might have only warrented a brief comment, but combined with the events of last week, an extra poignancy was brought to the role. That Branagh mixes American and British actors in this production has always been a delight for me (Branagh did the same thing in his excellent Much Ado About Nothing).  Having Robin Williams in the part of a nonsensical fool brings a delightful humor to Osric.  He plays up the silliness of the character, but also gives him a degree of pathos.  So often noted for his remarkable comedy sense, we sometimes forget what a gifted dramatic actor Robin Williams is.  I am of the opinion that he is an excellent Osric. I would have loved to have seen him tackle another Shakespeare role - perhaps Jacques in As You Like It, the Fool in King Lear, or Malvolio in Twelfth Night.  Alas for the loss of such a gifted man; for the roles he will not play; but gratitude for the joy and revelation he brought to all our lives.
I did my master's degree in English literature; my specialization was Renassiance drama and Shakespeare.  Thus, I did a lot of coursework surrounding the works of the Bard (and, just as an aside - Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare!).  One of my instructors once said that he could never envision a Hamlet in which Hamlet and Ophelia were not lovers.  Until I saw this film, I was not of the same opinion, but as enacted by Branagh and Kate Winslet, I now find it difficult to see the play any other way.  Winslet's mad scene is especially cogent within the context - Ophelia's bawdy songs now have a great deal of meaning. One wonders if her madness is the loss of her father or her lover. And one other little thing.  This Hamlet is set in the winter in Denmark.  Not a flower to be seen; yet Gertrude still tells of Ophelia on the river bank playing with flowers.  Were they the imaginary flowers she toys with in the scene with Laertes? Or did something more sinister happen to the madwoman?  It's up to you to decide. 
 
The performances of Derek Jacobi as Claudius and Julie Christie as his bride, Gertrude are wonderful.  Casting Christie is quite insightful - this is a Gertrude worth murdering for!  And Jacobi is remarkable in portraying the ambiguity of Claudius.  He gives us a character who initially does want the good regard of his new stepson.  Flashbacks within the film show us a family relationship prior to King Hamlet's death that was convivial; thus Jacobi's Claudius is surprised at the change in his nephew's attitude towards him.

Besides Robin Williams, other American actors in the cast include Jack Lemmon as Marcellus, Charlton Heston as the Player King, and Billy Crystal as the First Gravedigger.  Mr. Lemmon doesn't have a lot to do in his part, but Heston and Crystal certainly do.  Mr. Heston is extremely good doing the Hecuba speech - he is an actor one forgets has a deep history with Shakespeare.  His Antony and Cleopatra is available on DVD; he in fact not only starred as Marc Antony, he was part of the writing team on the production and directed it.  It is, in fact, an excellent version of the story.  And Billy Crystal gives us a wry Gravedigger - humorous, but also quite intelligent and insightful.
Branagh is also includes in the film several actors who have themselves tackled the role of Hamlet.  Derek Jacobi is well known for his rendition in the 1980 BBC version of Hamlet.  We also have John Mills as Old Norway, who played Hamlet at the Old Vic in 1929, and John Gielgud, noted as one of the finest Hamlet's of his generation as Priam. Gielgud also directed another splendid Hamlet - Richard Burton - in his notable stage production (the Richard Burton Hamlet is available on home video).   For those of you who would like to see more of some of these other performances, snippets of other Hamlets are available on YouTube, including Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud.

It will be a couple of weeks before our next posting (several members of the group are off on vacations).  In the meatime, we leave you with the remarkable Kenneth Branagh discussing his rendition of the "To Be or Not to Be" soliloquy.  Don't let the length of this production dismay you.  With superb acting, beautiful sets, and cinematography to die for, this is worthy of your time.