Big Screen Hamlet

There are only a handful of films I kick myself for having missed on the big screen, and near the top is the 4 hour version of Hamlet, starring and directed by Kenneth Branagh in 1996.

The shorter version was doing the rounds, but there was a special 70mm engagement at the York Cinemas, a place beloved by film connoisseurs for the big screen and superb sound system that was always top-notch. Most epics played at the York (Gandhi being a favourite), and it was a natural place to catch a movie that, due to its length and dialogue-heavy content, probably wouldn’t come back to the screen for a while.

I’m not sure exactly how or why I failed to catch it, but I did; this in spite of the trailer constantly teasing the viewer with that spectacular shot of confetti reigned down on the royal court while an immobile figure of Hamlet stood somberly in the foreground.

The film did get a VHS and laserdisc release, each showcasing the fabulous widescreen cinematography by Alex Thomson – a personal favourite for lensing Alien 3 (1992), The Krays (1990), Legend (1985), and The Keep (1983). With the exception of The Krays, not all great films (ahem), but worth watching (perhaps with stimulants) for the cinematography and respective music scores.

Apparently legal issues kept the film off home video for a while – Columbia / Sony owned the distribution rights for a while – but around 2000 the film was back in circulation via Warner Home Video. Its absence on DVD may have been due to distributor concerns over its length, in terms of which version – 242 mins, or the ‘safety’ 150 mins. cut? – to release, and whether its 70mm elements made it worth putting in the queue for a proper HD transfer than a stop-gap to keep fans quiet for a while.

Fans are certainly happy the 2007 DVD and 2010 Blu-ray are widely available, but I gather teachers now have a more powerful tool to use in their literature classes, because the only version available now is the one originally intended by Branagh and original production company Castle Rock: the uncut monster, known affectionately as the Eternity version.

The version show in my high school was the 1948 Olivier version, which was gloomy, mopey, engrossing, and blessed with William Walton’s most depressing score – an assault that left an indelible impression, making that version quite special to me. The only flaw that I could never get passed was Ophelia’s death, floating down the river in song with her flowers like an extract from a comedy sketch. It was bathos, and thankfully the scene (and its preceding dramatic strains) was given a more sobering translation by Branagh.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a work of art, but it’s also been a popular target for satirists because everyone knows the basic story, if not quotes used, re-quoted, or appropriated in other mediums.

No other parody stands out better than that episode (“The Producer”) of Gilligan’s Island in which the idiot castaways mount a musical version of Hamlet for a stranded producer. Three songs managed to worm their way into brains of young viewers (like me), which is why there are probably other adults besides myself who chuckle when phrases like “Hamlet, my dear, your problem is clear,” “Get thee to a nunnary, a nunnary, a nunnary” or “To be or not to be” are said in some variance or approximation.

It may sound silly to say Branagh’s version locked up those echoing parodies, but it did. More importantly, the uncut text is so involving that one may well quietly mourn the end of the saga, because for 4 hours, one was plunged into their tragic world.

For teachers, the film will likely intensify the play’s impact (and bore others), but it’ll also give them more material with which to discuss the work, the politics, and the nuances of grief that drove a prince into a fatal state of madness.

Mark R. Hasan, Editor


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