Published January 1, 1997
Now we know who put the “Ham” in “Hamlet.” Who else but Kenneth Branagh, whose new, four hour movie of the play is his latest bid for the title of world’s greatest actor. And world’s greatest Shakespearean director and entrepreneur to boot. Readers with long memories will remember, perhaps, my strictures against Mel Gibson’s cinematic version of Hamlet six years ago and my view that the play is almost impossible to do on the stage, let alone on film, for the reason that T.S. Eliot noticed a long time ago: that the emotion generated by the language of the play is in excess of anything justified by the action. There was no “objective correlative” for the undeniably fascinating spectacle of Hamlet’s emotional and psychic disintegration.
Well, here’s the good news about Branagh’s Hamlet: he has found a way to make sense of the play’s central contradiction. Or, more precisely, to make of it not the central chasm into which every other production is sucked, as it were into a black hole, but no more than a mote to trouble the mind’s eye. This he does by himself out-Hamleting Hamlet. What has often been recognized as the poor distracted prince’s essentially theatrical imagination is made, by Branagh’s own theatrical sense, into the whole of his character. This is a post-modern Hamlet, a Hamlet watching himself watching not only the court of Elsinore and the players from Wittenberg but also Ken Branagh’s genius as an impresario. Not only is “To be or not to be” done posing in front of a mirror—actually a one-way window behind which Polonius (Richard Briers) and Claudius (Derek Jacoby) watch him—but a very hip and knowing Hamlet gets to watch as a “Who’s Who” of Hollywood joins the Duke of Marlborough himself in parading for our delectation through the wonderfully elegant precincts of Blenheim Palace.
It has been forty years since another showman and impresario, Mike Todd, based an entire movie, Around the World in 80 Days, on cameo appearances, and it is Branagh’s admittedly brilliant idea to try to replicate his feat. Here we have Jack Lemmon as a hang-dog Marcellus, Gérard Depardieu as a smoothly gallic Reynaldo, Billy Crystal as smirking first gravedigger and Robin Williams as an hilariouly (OK, almost amusingly) campy Osric, John Gielgud as a splendidly doddery Priam and Judi Dench as o’erteemed Hecuba, Charlton Heston as a Player King whose histrionics take a back seat to Hamlet’s and so on. Most brilliant of all is the idea of even including a part for Yorik, the court jester who has been dead for 23 years. Having established his technique for making some of the more difficult passages of the text clearer through the use of flashbacks (the most frequently used is one of himself and the toothsome Ophelia, played by Kate Winslet, naked in bed and hard at work disposing of her maiden treasure), he accompanies the gravedigger’s account of Yorik’s antics with shots of the British comedian, Ken Dodd, getting up to similar high jinks.
To appreciate the genius of this idea, American audiences have to try to understand not only the cultural importance to the first television generation of Britons of “Doddy” but also the significance of those large and wildly crooked teeth. For Branagh has managed to get made for Yorik’s skull an exact equivalent of the Dodd teeth, producing a shock of humorous recognition which amounts to one of many instances in the film of what we may call the Branagh moment. This is the moment at which the director/star jumps out at you and invites you to admire him—either for his cleverness as a director or for his grace and beauty as an actor. Or both. Typically, the Branagh moment is the moment at which the music swells to drown out the distant echo of Shakespeare’s poetry and the star strikes a pose that is the very embodiment of heroism for the nineties—that is, a heroism of images rather than realities.
The bad news (you knew I would be getting to that, didn’t you?) is that there are lots and lots of these Branagh moments, and they make the film, as a version of Shakespeare, unspeakably vulgar. This becomes apparent from the opening scene, where Jack Lemmon’s valiant but rather comical attempts to speak the verse as verse are drowned out by the soundtrack music and the mention of “hell” in connection with the ghost produce images of the earth opening up and belching fire and smoke. It is an advertisement for Branagh’s continual determination to give his own images and sounds priority over Shakespeare’s words.
I don’t really mind that (like most directors these days, it seems) he jumps the Hamlet saga six or seven centuries ahead of its origins and about three ahead of Shakespeare’s more or less contemporaneous, 16th century setting, in order to make use of the high flowering of Victorian civilization. Any time the experienced theatre- or film-goer these days sees a Victorian-style military uniform, he will automatically think of whited sepulchres and appalling corruption behind the facade of elegance. What could be more appropriate to a play virtually based on the notion of something being rotten in the state of Denmark—boringly predictable though such an approach is by this time?
But Branagh’s vision of this corruption is incoherent and consists of little more than superficialities. Polonius wears a corset and consorts with prostitutes while he moralizes about his son’s behavior, but he’s a likeable fellow; Rosenkrantz (Timothy Spall) and Guildenstern (Reece Dinsdale) are pretty much harmless schoolfriends in over their head, for all their apparent treachery; Laertes (Michael Maloney) is a decent sort whose judgment is clouded by grief; the Queen (Julie Christie) is still lovely and sympathetic to every custodial parent who has tried to mediate hostilities between a second spouse and a child. Even the character of Claudius is touched by the recent vogue for emphasizing his strength and competence in office. Where is that stink in Denmark coming from? It’s not that these are indefensible readings of the characters; it’s that such readings are incompatible with what I take to be a merely reflexive representation of a doomed civilization.
Perhaps this is why Branagh’s reading is forced to bring in the army of Fortinbras (Rufus Sewall), returning from Poland at the end not, as in Shakespeare, to tidy up the mess at Elsinore, but actually to conquer Denmark in a surprise attack. The distraction of having invading Norwegians outside taking by surprise and slaughtering the Danish guards while the unsuspecting court watch Hamlet and Laertes having their climactic duel is disastrous to our sense of the tragic ending. But it does have the virtue, from Branagh’s point of view, of providing the occasion for another set of magnificently striking images—including the wonderfully lavish, Ruritanian uniforms in action for once and the memorable figure of armed men smashing through the Palladian windows of Blenheim’s Great Hall.
It is hard to hate Branagh quite as much as he deserves for what he has done to Shakespeare here. Partly, this is because a part of us (a part of me anyway) can’t help thinking that Hamlet deserves such treatment. It is a play about a self-dramatist, so it is only fitting that it should be done by a self-dramatist. The best moment in the four hours that it takes (and all credit to him, by the way, for doing the full text) to plod through this Hamlet is also the most shameless of all the Branagh moments. This is at the “How all occasions do inform against me” soliloquy of Act IV. This, bizarrely, Branagh makes into the pivotal moment of his production. Having mused in Hamlet’s typically feckless but self-aware way on the irony of his own position vis à vis that of the coarse and brutal Fortinbras, Branagh gives an enormous and unexpected significance to the lines:
. . .Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honor’s at the stake.
The music swells, the camera pulls back to show Branagh striking another pose, arms outstretched against a backdrop of the marching Norwegian armies crossing the snowy landscape. Suddenly we realize: Hamlet’s made up his mind! It’s not just another of his attempts to cast himself in a hero’s part when he says “from this time forth/My thoughts be BLOODY!—or be nothing worth.” He means it! The problem of Hamlet is solved, and all the time it was as easy as cutting the Gordian knot. It’s all nonsense, of course, but I sort of liked it. Because it showed Branagh, not for the first time, as being just like Hamlet in his capacity not only, perhaps, for self-deception and self-dramatisation but also for self discovery. At least for a moment we believe it, and that is the most that the theatre—or the movies—can ever do for us.