Hamlet (1996)

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When it was announced that Kenneth Branagh was filming Hamlet yet again in 1996, all wondered what exactly a new version would offer over the old standards.  Branagh admittedly set out to create the definitive Hamlet, which is none to easy both considering the play’s stage and screen pedigree.

Any the definitive version this may be.  The film runs at close to four hours, so unless you have plenty of time on your hands this is one you will not watch in one sitting.  Perhaps not even too.  At four hours one anticipates that the action will drag; at times it does, predominantly in the middle third.  There are also places – most notably the first third- which almost sound clipped and rushed.

Overall, given the length and complexity of the original play, Branagh does an extremely good job of providing the story as the Bard may well have wanted.  Speaking of the play, one of the supreme challenges for Branagh or anyone seeking to film one of Shakespeare’s opuses is faced with the daunting task of perhaps being accused of being dishonest to the original source.

In addition, Hamlet is a play.  Reads like it, sounds like it, and looks like it.  This version, although still lacking in the broad scope one would hope for in a major motion picture, does well in taking this beyond the set scenes we know from childhood.  Simply put, this does not feel like a stage adaptation- it is much stronger and deeper.  (Only the battle scenes could use more depth- not nearly enough extras.)

The casting is perhaps one of the highlights of the film, with a veritable cornucopia of acting excellence.  In addition to Branagh, we get Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Charlton Heston, and Gerard Depardieu.  Then the bit parts – Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Dame Judy Densch and more make brief if memorable appearances.

The 17th of August WB released Hamlet on blu-ray in it’s exquisite digibook packaging which has become the norm for their better releases.  The supplemental materials are good, but really just the added materials from the standard DVD release a few years ago ported over.

The film itself is another question.  Soundwise, the disc is outstanding.  Dialogue is crisp and up front as you would expect here and surround sound is used adequately, if not perfectly.  Some of the backing audio tracks do seem a bit muddied, but only a discerning ear could tell.

The video quality, however is a different matter.  The picture is spotless, without the slightest speck of grain at all – and in this viewer’s opinion, film needs grain.  What’s more this clarity is offset by the processing WB has done on the film – I am no expert, but it looks like DNR gone a bit too far.  Not to the excesses of recent blu-ray releases Patton or Spartacus, but this could have been executed a bit better.

As is most always the case, any blu-ray is better than standard releases, and such is the case here.

For personal reasons- I am not a Shakespeare fan- I wouldn’t add to my collection.  I also find the length a bit daunting – but that is hypocritical as the extended versions of all three Lord of the Rings films are standard viewing for me.

Personally I loved the cast and this is the best version of Hamlet put on celluloid thus far and in that sense alone it is worthy.

Get it at all your normal brick and mortar or online retailers – or take the easiest way and get direct from www.wbshop.com.

Review copy provided by Warner Bros. Thanks!

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