"The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King."
Think of London in 1600 as that era's Hollywood. William Shakespeare was the Jerry Bruckhiemer or perhaps the James Cameron. 'Avatar' may be the current financial box office champ, 'Gone with the Wind' may have sold the most tickets in its many releases since 1939, but Hamlet… Hamlet has literally been on stages and screens around the world for the last 410 years. Assuming it never missed a day somewhere in some country, we have a potential 149,650 days in release!
That's a lot of territory to be covered. Some, perhaps most, of these productions were not or will not be good. They will give the impression that Shakespeare is slow, boring, and written in some language that merely resembles modern English. And for those who have this tragic view, I feel sorry for you.
In fact, I used to be you.
Until a fateful high school English class when I saw Kenneth's Branagh's near-perfect (filmmaking debut, no less) adaptation of 'Henry V'. It was remarkable for the first time to clearly understand the words being spoken, to see the engaging melodrama, and cheer on the glorious action. It was that film which sparked a love of film and Shakespeare that I've been chasing to this day; it was that film that inspired my dual college majors of Theatre and Communication; it was that film which sent me across the Atlantic to study the Bard and visit the places where Shakespeare-the-man lived, wrote, and produced his unforgettable plays.
With 'Hamlet' a decade after 'Henry V', Branagh did the impossible. He filmed the entire play (the Folio) with an all-star cast in the epic 65mm format to be projected in Panavision Super 70. For those unaware, 'Hamlet' (or 'The Lion King' without talking animals) is the story of the prodigal son who is alone in his kingdom, having lost his father a month ago and at present is forced to watch his mother re-marry his Uncle. But when the ghost of Hamlet's father comes to tell him that he was murdered by Hamlet's Uncle, Hamlet sets out on a quest to prove his Uncle's guilt, and avenge his father's death.
Setting aside my Branagh fandom, and his Hamlet's historical significance as being the first to film the whole play, I think 'Hamlet' is a very good film, but not a great one. What works very well is the 19th Century wintery setting, Branagh's performance is top notch, and as a director, he has a great cinematic eye and coaches his cast to recite complicated language in an easy-to-understand way. I remember reviews at the time of this release claiming Branagh was too old to play Hamlet, which is technically true, but a foolish complaint. Branagh's is the second best Hamlet I've ever had the pleasure to see, but the best, as played by Simon Russell Beale at London's Royal National Theatre in the fall of 2000, was a 40-year-old man who looked even less the part.
What works less well is that some of the American performers lack the naturalism on display from those who have had more Shakespeare experience. There are also some budgetary limitations; where 'Henry V' or 'Much Ado About Nothing' went outside to battlefields and country sides, most of 'Hamlet' is locked inside the castle, which makes the movie feel like it's on a stage. Further, at 4 hours, it can be a chore to watch the movie in one sitting (thankfully, Blu-ray doesn't require single viewings), which perhaps displays why most 'Hamlet' productions, stage or otherwise, make cuts. While it's nice to have every line and every scene on film here, given that there are three versions of 'Hamlet' (two quartos and this folio) we can't even be 100 percent sure that this is what was performed in the original performances. Think of this version of 'Hamlet' like the 'Lord of the Rings Extended Editions'. For fans, it's great to have every moment, character, and line, but there are pacing consequences. For me, I've been more emotionally engaged by other Hamlets, but there's a lot of great work on display here and it’s a fine adaption of my favorite play.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Hamlet' comes to Blu-ray on one dual-layer 50GB disc, and appears to be Region Free. Popping the disc into your player takes you immediately to a Main Menu, and on second viewings, my PS3 remembered where I had been last watching.
'Hamlet' debuts on Blu-ray with a significant upgrade from the 2007 DVD, but this VC-1 1080p (aspect ratio 2.20:1) transfer is a mixed bag in the high-def world. With the added resolution of 1080p, 'Hamlet' has never looked this good at home (even on two discs, the 2007 DVD was muddy and dim). Here hair, clothing, and sets are rich in detail. The colors are vibrant, the film's fine grain structure intact, and in darker scenes, the blacks are infinitely deep.
What fails here is that skin tones are all a flushed rosy pink and the film feels quite flat. There's a lot more resolution than ever before, but it never approaches anything 3D-like. There's also some dirt on display and the biggest flaw, as seen during Claudius' opening monologue, are some warbling aberrations that seem to be some type of chemical damage. Not a scratch, but perhaps there was a problem when the negatives were developed. The good news is that they only appear to be in this one scene.
Bottom line, owners of the DVD should trade up to this Blu-ray, with its very solid transfer. Just know there are some flaws, and it's not demo material.
Warner Bros. Home Entertainment brings 'Hamlet' to Blu-ray with a good English 5.1 DTS-MA soundtrack. Overall, the mix is mostly front-heavy as one would expect from a dialogue driven narrative; the good news is that dialogue is always clear and well mixed. Patrick Doyle's enchanting score is the one element that has any significant time in the rear channels. Check for the scene where Hamlet meets his father's spirit for some more aggressive use of LFE and surround sound, but even then, this relatively old surround mix (1996) is limited. Good, but just shy of something really special.
Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provides also provides Dolby Digital 5.1 French and 2.0 Dolby Digital Spanish mixes, as well as english SDH, francais, deutsch, castellano, nederlands, espanol, dansk, suomi, norsk, and svenska subtitles.
Warner Bros. ports over almost every special feature from the 2007 DVD release, a small collection of EPK material, trailers, an introduction to the film, and a commentary, which given the film's length, technically provides nearly 5 hours of special features (4 of which are the commentary). The only feature missing from that DVD release are the trailers for other Shakespeare productions including Mel Gibson's 'Hamlet' (1990), 'Julius Caesar' (1953), 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' (1935), 'Othello' (1995 and 1965), and 'Romeo and Juliet' (1937).
Kenneth Branagh will always be one of my favorite directors; his work in Shakespeare literally changed my life. And here, though it's not my favorite version, it's really nice to have this Extended Edition of the play on film. Most of the performances are excellent, the staging and setting are a strong cinematic partnership, and for those afraid of Shakespeare and "the language," it’s a great way to experience and above all, understand 'Hamlet.' On Blu-ray, 'Hamlet' isn't perfect, but it's a significant visual upgrade from the DVD. For fans, this is an easy recommend; for those who have not seen it before, Branagh's 'Hamlet' is a must see (at least once) film, so give it a rent. Maybe it'll open a door through which you never imagined walking.