Sunday, 9 March 2014

Alternate Best Actor 1996: Kenneth Branagh in Hamlet

Kenneth Branagh did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying the titular character of Hamlet.

This adaptation of Hamlet, which is basically complete, is a film that I rather loved actually. It rather interesting to see how the full version influences some of the characters, Claudius for example becomes a much stronger character and villain. There are also those all-star cameos which are a slightly mixed bag from the awesome (Charlton Heston, Brian Blessed, Richard Attenborough), to the somewhat distracting (Gerard Depardieu, Robin Williams), and to the bad (Jack Lemmon).

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 Olivier's method was very mysterious in style he often kept Hamlet withdrawn making frequent use of voice over in his performance, and he seemed to give a certain grandeur to the character in this mystery.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.


koook160 (Robert MacFarlane) said...

You ever see the Ethan Hawke version? I admit I like that one far more than I should. I actually thought Hawke's moaning and droning approach worked perfectly for the modern setting, which I seem to be in the minority on.

Louis Morgan said...

No I haven't but I like Hawke well enough, and Liev Schrieber is in it so I ought to.

Michael McCarthy said...

Really liked Branagh's performance. I'm also glad you said Charlton Heston was awesome, I thought the combination of his natural stage presence and his age and experience made him a perfect player king. I won't ask about what you thought of Derek Jacobi since I suspect he might get a review, but what did you think of Billy Crystal? I personally thought he fit the role surprisingly well.

luke higham said...

Louis: Thoughts & ratings for the rest of the cast.

luke higham said...

Louis: What are your top ten Shakespearean performances, that you've either reviewed or for the overall rankings, that you've done so far.

BTW, I would say that this is probably my favorite Shakespearean film adaptation, with Olivier's Richard III a close second & Zeffirelli's Romeo & Juliet third.

I Haven't seen Olivier's Henry V & Hamlet, as well as Kurosawa's Throne of Blood.

koook160 (Robert MacFarlane) said...

@ Louis: Schreiber is GREAT. So are Sam Sheppard and (surprisingly) Kyle MacLachlan.

mrripley said...

Winslet thoughts.

Louis Morgan said...

Michael: I thought Crystal was good actually as I think the gravedigger was the right fit for him and he does a good job with it.


Christie - 3(Gertrude isn't too much of a character, and Branagh technically simplifies it a bit by forgetting any Oedipal notions, which I don't mind. She's good with what she has.)

Briers - 3(Doesn't make too much of an impact but he fulfills his part, and I particularly like how he showed that Polonius cared about his daughter actually)

Winslet - 4(Rather liked her here actually in first being the very sympathetic constantly battered victim who still tries to be enthusiastic. She does the crazy scenes well too, which Branagh actually chooses to do a little less unassuming and he also rather specifically portrays the insanity, and Winslet goes far but properly not too far)

Farrell - 3.5(Specializing in the supportive quiet friend as shown as well in Chariots of Fire. I thought Farrell was pretty good given Horatio's limits having a remarkable poignancy in his character's unassuming manner)

Maloney - 1(I thought he was okay before the tragedy if a bit unmemorable, but he is awful once Laertes seeks revenge. Rather than playing him as a man torn by grief he plays him as a deranged psychopath and goes way over the top, and becomes distractingly bad)

Sewell - 2.5(Limited but he has the right face of determination)

Williams - 2(Williams is very distracting throughout the duel, although I did not think he was too bad at least in terms of his delivery actually)

Depardieu - 2(What was Reynaldo up to exactly? Because his whole set up seems to have some greater purpose but of course it doesn't.)

Spall - 3(Does the the smiling liar well)

Dinsdale - 2(Forgettable next to Spall)

Lemmon - 1.5(His delivery is pretty bad, and just seems out of place)

Blessed - 3.5(The perfect king with his grand and profound delivery as the ghost, and is also very good in just those quick flashback moments)

Heston - 4(Heston proves himself an extremely capable Shakespearean actor here, and it surprising that he gives one of the most emotional performances in the film. His delivery of the monologue is heartbreaking)

Attenborough - 3(Just a few a seconds but Attenborough makes his impact through his always magnetic presence and perfect delivery)

Crystal - 3

For the top ten I only included those in the original language.

1. Olivier in Hamlet
2. Olivier in Richard III
3. Branagh in Hamlet
4. Olivier in Henry V
5. Welles in Othello
6. McEnery in Romeo and Juliet
7. Richardson in Richard III
8. Branagh in Henry V
9. York in Romeo and Juliet
10. Olivier in Othello

Anonymous said...

I noticed you liked McEnery more this time, how come?.

Louis Morgan said...

They were on basically the same level to begin with for me as they are both as successful with their roles. Perhaps watching the 96 version helped me see that Mercutio is a bit more of a challenge though.