Kenneth Branagh did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying the titular character of Hamlet.
The best known film versions of Hamlet probably are Olivier's 1948 Oscar winning version, Franco Zeffirelli's 1990 version starring Mel Gibson, and this version. The way Zeffirelli's version, much like his Romeo and Juliet, feels the most like you would view a film version of the play in terms of direction, and its choices in regards to the story. Olivier and Branagh are two actors who obviously did not want to be taken as workmanlike directors since they both try to bring a lot of style to their adaptations of the Bard's work. In the case of Hamlet Olivier actually went a little overboard in his choice of style, and cutting of the play leaving it as the weakest of his three adaptations. Branagh on the other hand goes for an extremely epic approach in just about every way which pay off magnificently, and the fact that The English Patient beat this in Art Direction and Costumes is pretty unforgivable.
Now I must admit Branagh triumphs over Olivier as a director this time, but what about their individual performances as the prince of Denmark Hamlet. Well in these three adaptations the actors do take rather different approaches. Gibson takes a pretty extreme approach in showing the apparent bi-polar nature of Hamlet, which I may get into a little more later. Olivier's method was very mysterious in style he often kept Hamlet withdrawn making frequent use of voice over in his performance, and he seemed to give a certain grandeur to the character in this mystery. Branagh does not exactly try to reject Olivier here or discourage remembrance of him, I mean the color and look of his hair as well as many of his costumes seem to encourage the comparison, but Branagh does take a very different approach with the character nevertheless.
Branagh first off gives a far more extroverted performance than Olivier, and in most regards it indeed is considerably more theatrical performance than Olivier's work. It does not start that way in one of the earliest scenes of the film though where Hamlet is simply depressed over the death of his father and his mother's decision to marry his uncle so soon afterwards. Branagh does well to show it more than the usual depression with an appropriate intensity that the death of his father has most certainly has scarred him, and it won't be something he will let go. Hamlet of course is not allowed to let it go when his good friend Horatio and several guards witness the ghost of his father around the castle at night. Once Hamlet goes out one night to see what the ghost has to say exactly Branagh's performance opens up to reveal how he will play the prince.
Branagh's performance with the ghost reveals the rather extroverted approach he will take in playing Hamlet. Where the interaction with the ghost by Olivier was a rather grand yet mysterious event, Branagh keeps the event grand for sure particularly in the fashion in which he moves about the scene which always seems particularly fitting for a man of royal blood. Branagh though does not go for the mysterious though instead making a manic intensity to the scene where Hamlet is overwhelmed by the revelation to the point where he basically tries to match the extreme insanity of the situation with his reaction which is just as extreme. Branagh undoubtedly goes for it all in the flamboyant take which I think actually works incredibly well because he brings this with a true emotional intensity at the same time to make the revelation of the ghost a striking scene.
It is rather funny take that Branagh takes with Hamlet in the proceeding scenes as Hamlet starts to conceive a plan against his Uncle to not only figure out if the ghost was truthful but then kill his Uncle. Branagh through many of the lighter scenes Branagh presents Hamlet's apparent as in part a put on to throw everything off what his real intentions might be. Branagh though takes a very particular choice in which to show that Hamlet is purposefully having some fun at his Uncle's expense while he comes up his plan. This may not make sense but Branagh skillfully attaches it to Hamlet's obvious love of the stories of the stage. Branagh in turn associates with this love of it to show that to at least some point that Hamlet is wanting to live through one of those stories he loves so dear himself, it may seem odd but it works quite remarkably well due to Branagh's performance.
In many of the scenes of the film where Hamlet is setting up his plan, especially when getting the players to set the mousetrap, Branagh has a never ending enthusiasm to the part with a certain madness yet Branagh does bring the right knowing touch to it. Branagh will occasionally throw in a completely comedic line reading or two at times and the way he moves around in many scenes is almost as if Hamlet is treating everyone as pieces of his chess board. Branagh technically makes the manipulations obvious yet he rather brilliantly plays that Hamlet is able to hide it through the fact that he always makes Hamlet seem a bit off his rocker. This could easily all go wrong though if Branagh went like this throughout every scene though, but what makes it work is that he only plays it this way when it is completely appropriate for Hamlet to be this way.
Branagh importantly ceases such behavior in pivotal moments including the most famous soliloquy of Hamlet which is of course "To Be Or Not To Be". Branagh takes a fascinating approach with the scene, as when Olivier did he very much enclosed Hamlet alone in the moment, here Branagh very specifically shows that others can see the soliloquy and even though Hamlet in his mind is in his own world he is not literally so. Branagh pulls it down to explore an actual insanity brewing in Hamlet. This insanity is not the same though as Branagh withdraws to a certain degree to portray it more as a narrow minded anger that makes him lose control of his own faculties. Branagh doing this even makes sense of Hamlet's treatment of Ophelia (Kate Winslet) in that Branagh actually shows that he loves her but he is so driven by hate that she sees her as either an obstacle or a distraction.
Branagh's method with Hamlet is very effectively as he pulls up and down in the various moments that I find him actually very effective in this approach. Branagh like Olivier obviously has a clear understanding of the Shakespearean language and knows how to derive the beauty from it while making it understandable. Branagh utilizes this certainly for some of the big dramatic moments in his performance though such as his speech before the intermission. Branagh goes for the grand, and he makes it grand with the heart he puts into and fitting to the way he directs the film. When he needs to though Branagh brings a greater poignancy to the quieter moments of the film particularly when Hamlet fights with himself mentally over whether or not to kill his uncle or my favorite when he very honestly and somberly apologizes to Laertes for the wrong he has done him.
I have to admit before watching the film as I was ready to, well be a little less positive about Branagh, when I had watched only parts of the film I suspected Branagh of being perhaps over the top or far too theatrical in his style. When I finally saw the whole product, and what it was that he was going for in his interpretation I was surprised by just how much I liked him in the role. Branagh's approach of covering the many different states of Hamlet is the perfect approach for the length of this version. He never becomes stale by every staying one note with Hamlet, and as well he consistently brings such a strong energy to sustain the length of his work. Instead of just simply wishing to see Olivier's Hamlet instead, I felt that Branagh did just as well in making a Hamlet fitting for the film they directed. Branagh succeeded in also giving a great Shakespearean performance while doing it his own way.