Hamlet (1996) – Blu-Ray Review

Many attempts, and many actors, have come and gone trying to bring about the definitive version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and in 1996 Kenneth Branagh directed and starred as the titular character in the definitive version of the time-honored story for one reason: he filmed every single moment of the play and put it on screen.

Standing at slightly over four hours in length, Branagh didn’t merely take what would be the most cinematic and adapt it for the big screen. He took everything Shakespeare wrote, stacked the film with an impressive cast, and then filmed every single moment Shakespeare for his film. It’s the complete and unabridged play, albeit modernized to the Victorian era in scenery and costuming, and the third undertaking of a Shakespeare play with Branagh in the lead role and director’s chair (following Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing).

The story itself is one told by many auteurs over the years but remains inherently the same. Hamlet (Branagh) is the Prince of Denmark who has just lost his father. His mother Queen Gertrude (Julie Christie) has married the King’s brother Claudius (Derek Jacobi) and there is a feeling of celebration in the air. But when his father’s ghost (Brian Blessed) haunts Hamlet, telling him that his death was murder at the hands of his Uncle/Stepfather, Hamlet discovers the painful truth and sets out to rectify things.

It all ends tragically, of course, but it’s one of the great stories Shakespeare told no matter who retells. It’s the one perk of reworking his original source material into a new film; even a teen comedy can become likeable ala Twelfth Night being remade as She’s the Man. And Branagh, whose Henry V is a brilliant masterpiece in its own right, has yet to top the sheer brilliance that his uncut version of Hamlet was able to pull off.

It’s not that hard to keep a production of Hamlet from being awful, as it is one of the most celebrated plays in human history and one of the best stories, but Branagh infuses the film with a spectacular style all its own. Taking a more British approach to the subject from its Danish setting, this is Hamlet’s Denmark in name only as everyone in the film is British (or using a British accent) and everything has a distinct British feel to it. But the scenery is so spectacular and gorgeous that it gives the film a much more distinctive look and feel than it has been given in the past.

Branagh always wanted to make a definitive version of Shakespeare’s work since he was a child and in a little over four hours has done so.

Two decades removed from its initial run and Hamlet has been extraordinarily cleaned up for release. This is an absolutely spectacular looking transfer both in terms of audio and visual capabilities. Presented in a Dolby Digital sound with a widescreen presentation, this is absolutely stunning to watch.

A rather insightful Commentary Track featuring Branagh and Shakespeare expert Russell Jackson is included.

Branagh gives an Introduction where he discusses why he wanted to do the film and why he designed the film to look as how it did, with lots of mirrors and more of a British feel from its Danish setting. Shakespeare has been a passion of his since his childhood and there’s a lot of passion as he introduces the film.

The film’s original Trailer as well as its Promo from Cannes are included.

To Be On Camera: A History with Hamlet is a history of Branagh’s obsession with getting a full, definitive version of Hamlet on screen.

Viewing Branagh’s uncut version of Hamlet isn’t an undertaking to be done lightly; four hours plus of screen time requires a full afternoon of dedicated viewing. There isn’t much of note besides it, however, but having the full length version of the film in a remarkably brilliant transfer is worth the purchase in and of itself.

Warner Home Video presents Hamlet (1996). Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Starring Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie, Richard Briers, Michael Maloney, Kate Winslet, Billy Crystal, GĂ©rard Depardieu, Robin Williams, Charlton Heston, Jack Lemmon, Rufus Sewell, Timothy Spall, Reece Dinsdale, Brian Blessed, Richard Attenborough. Written by William Shakespeare. Running time 242 minutes. Rated PG-13. Released on Blu-ray: August 17, 2010.

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