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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Film Review: Hamlet; Branagh; Blu-ray--A Stunning New Release

Blu-ray release date: August 17, 2010 (Click the title of this review for the Official Warner Bros. Website and more info on this great release)

When I was contacted by Warner Bros. about the possibility of doing a review of Kenneth Branagh's filmed version of a full length Hamlet, I was, at first, confused. Hadn't all of this happened long ago--way back when I didn't have a blog? Fortunately, Warner Bros. has decided to re-release Branagh's 70 mm treatment in the Blu-ray format and I get a chance to review a production of my favorite of all of Shakespeare's plays. And if ever a project deserved to be seen in all its 'pixel-ized' glory, this is it.

Prior to Branagh's ambitious, and, to say the least, courageous decision to do an unedited version of Shakespeare's play, The Tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke, the last film to be shot in Britain in the epic 70 mm Super Panavision format was David Lean's Ryan's Daughter (Among other films to have received this grand filming treatment --and they have been few--is Lawrence of Arabia). Ryan's Daughter was made 25 years before 1996--along about the time Branagh's major ambition might have had him a wee bit apprehensive about another epic moment in life, that of starting his next year of grammar school. Of course, we know what's happened since. When he was 15, Branagh saw (now Sir) Derek Jacobi (Claudius in this production) play Hamlet in a stage version...the rest is Shakespearean history. Branagh has, in my opinion, emerged as one of the premier proponents of the Bard's works on film; and viewing this film again reminded me of the role he has assumed as a most positive ambassador of the work of William Shakespeare in general. The studio has this to say of this major undertaking:

"Hamlet has the kind of power, energy and excitement that movies can truly exploit", award-winning actor/director Kenneth Brannagh says. In this first-ever full-text film of William Shakespeare's greatest work, the power surges through every scene. The timeless tale of murder, corruption and revenge is reset in an opulent 19th-century world, using sprawling Blenheim Palace as Elsinore and staging much of the action in shimmering mirrored and gold-filled interiors. The energy is electrifying, due to a luminous cast. The excitement of the Bard's words and an adventurous filmmaking style lift the story from its often shadowy ambience to fully-lit pageantry and rage."

I have a little bit more to say from a literary/performance standpoint regarding this dazzling and intelligent interpretation.

I don't often come away pleased with filmed 'adaptations' of any of the works of Shakespeare. Fundamentally, I believe they were written for the stage--for live performance. It's how I cut my teeth on them, it's how I've interpreted, acted, taught and directed them, and it's how I've come to appreciate them the most. But Kenneth Branagh's emergence as a filmmaker, even at a relatively young age, has come after being steeped in textual analysis and how to translate that information to the stage. Somehow, through his experience and great appreciation for the textual nuances and true genius of the verse, he's found a way to more than do justice to Shakespeare through the medium of film. And this last undertaking of Hamlet is apparently the result of a meld of all of the knowledge he's garnered from the great wealth of his experience and success in both stage and screen genres. In his own words he wanted to "...throw everything into the mix to try and match the genius of this man's writing." Well Ken, say I, you've done just that.

From the very first opening line, Bernardo's "Who's there?", the pacing of the dialogue, and the vocal and articulated temporal dynamics of his actors are all right on target. "Trippingly on the tongue..." comes to mind; a line to come later, delivered by Hamlet himself as instruction to the actors who visit Elsinore. (Shakespearean instruction Branagh practices, in evidence in his own performance--as well as preaches to his real-life actors, no doubt.) But, "...use all gently. For in the very torrent, tempest, and as I may say, whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness." More instruction from the Bard and Hamlet put to good use by Branagh.

There is a maxim (among some others) in acting Shakespearean verse; to whit: When performing Shakespeare, an actor must earn his pauses. Branagh certainly gives credence to it. All of the expected moments are there, in all of the right places, along with some unexpected new ones. And Branagh misses not Shakespeare's humor, interspersed like little strokes of genius relief, many times left unexplored in this great tragedy.

Filtering into his role as a filmmaker as well, he's managed to bring many of the qualities of stage dynamics to a filmed work, yet is aware of the greater lengths to which he can go and the brilliant nuances he can affect with a camera as the audience. He knows the value of "acting large" even in the close-ups, when to cut to whom, where the focus should be; when intimacy is at its most effective; and much of this, he will admit, is due to what has come from his understanding of Shakespeare textually. (Included in this blu-ray edition--among some other very nice video perks--is a full version voice-over commentary by Branagh and Russell Jackson, editor of The Cambridge Guide to Shakespeare on Film, Professor of Drama and Theatre Arts at the University of Birmingham, and Branagh's textual advisor since his filmed version of Henry V.)

All of this attention to detail has led to a clearness and accessibility to the language, (the opacity has been removed and the lucidity brought to it in its conversational aspect is remarkable) fully rounded characters, (otherwise many times misunderstood or incomplete because of editing choices), and an interpretation and honestly delivered focal coherence of a play by Shakespeare as a whole that is rarely achieved in this medium.

But the value of this blu-ray edition doesn't stop there. The cinematography in this version is stunning. The sheer breadth of Blenheim Palace, the richness and color of its interiors, and the epic scope Branagh manages to achieve while filming this great work in its entirety, all combine to make for a very unique experience. It's as beautiful to look at, as it is wonderful to listen to. An epically treated, gorgeously filmed, faithfully executed, high definition version of a textually complete play with a stellar cast in...4 hours! (An edited staged version can take that long or longer). I could go on and on about why everyone should own a copy of this edition. But I'll end it here with a question for Warner Bros. : Which Blu-ray version of what Shakespeare play is next for Kenneth Branagh? JM