“Hamlet” (1996) Blu-ray
Review by Wayne Klein
Studio: Warner Home Video
Release Date: 08/17/10
Special Features: Commentary track, featurettes, theatrical trailer
---Review: The play’s the thing quite literally in Kenneth Branagh’s film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s tale of murder set within the royal court of Denmark. Hamlet (Branagh) suspects that his uncle Claudius (Derek Jacobi) murdered his father the King of Denmark in order to wed Hamlet’s mother (Julie Christie) and ascend to the throne. When the ghost of his father (Brian Blessed) appears Hamlet is convinced he must expose his step-father/uncle for his duplicity. His mother worries about Hamlet’s behavior believing that he has gone mad (“I am but mad north - north-west” a nonexistent heading providing the title for a classic Hitchcock film and also cluing us in that Hamlet is ANYTHING but mad). Hamlet schemes to use a traveling group of actors (led by the late Charlton Heston) to put on a play portraying the murder of his mother and plans on watching Claudius’ reaction. Unknown to Hamlet Claudius who suspects has plans of his own for his nephew.
The best and most complete film version of Shakespeare’s plan receives the most imaginative and colorful (and cinematic) presentation ever. Making director Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 imaginative version seem like a pale shadow of THIS version. Even Lawrence Olivier’s 1948 version pales in comparison with Branagh’s ambitious interpretation where he visually interpolates elements implied in the original and revised portfolios of the play neatly providing us with a subplot that adds tension to already rich plot. Branagh often transposes lines of dialog to compliment other scenes adding subtext and enriching the work of the Bard as only an exceptional director can. If you add in the brilliant visual interpretation of the play (where Branagh moves the action up to the early 18th century allowing the brilliant production designs by Tim Harvey and cinematography of Alex Thomson to shine, you have a deeply ambitious cinematic work that manages to stay true to the original roots of the play AND become a cinematic masterpiece.
---Image & Sound: A rich, colorful film “Hamlet” provides a stark contrast between text and subtext of the play with its varied, intricate look and what is occurs in the film itself. The transfer looks sharp with a nicely rendered transfer the film. The presentation isn’t flawless however as the bit rate is relatively low (with all 244 minutes of the film plus extras crammed on to one dual layered Blu-ray disc) resulting instances where detail isn’t quite as good as it could be in some darker scenes. There’s also the issue of the pink hue to faces throughout of the film. I recall the skin tone being a bit more natural in the theatrical presentation I saw years ago. Truly the film should have been presented over two discs to capture the rich look of the film. One of the few films shot in Great Britain in 70 millimeter in the late 20th century, this blu-ray edition looks good but could have looked brilliant. I would have gladly traded the book-style presentation of the film (with some nice stills included) for a two discs special edition with the film broken up over two discs.
***That said the film doesn’t suffer from the overuse of DNR I was afraid of when I first heard that this was going to come to Blu-ray. So while the film doesn’t get its definitive presentation here, it looks good if not exceptional.
***Audio is equally impressive with an immersive 5.1 mix. Although NOT an action film Branagh actively and imaginatively uses the sound to convey the tension in the court. The lossless presentation sounds marvelous with dialog up front when it needs to be.
--- Special Features: Director/star Branagh and Shakespeare expert Russel Jackson (who worked as a consultant on the film)appear on the commentary track ported over from the 2007 DVD presentation. The two discuss everything from the framing of shots, shooting conditions to the editing of the film. We learn quite a bit of trivia about the play as well and the history of various versions through the years in addition to the production here.
***“To Be On Camera: A History of Hamlet” gives us a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the production which gives us information on everything from the casting (and the decision to put American actors such as Billy Crystal, Robin Williams and Jack Lemmon in the production with the British actors) to why Branagh felt he needed to adapt the entire 4 hour version of the play.
***We also get an “Introduction by Kenneth Branagh” and we get a vintage promo from the Cannes premiere that is carried over from the 2007 edition of the film plus the theatrical trailer (the latter two presented in standard definition). While there wasn’t an effort to add material for this Blu-ray edition (it might have been interesting to include alternate versions of various scenes for example), the whole package is quite nice.---Final Words: A brilliant, outstanding achievement, Branagh’s “Hamlet” remains true to the Bard but transcends its stage-bound origin making it a brilliant film that outpaces every other film version done to date. Although one could argue with some of the casting (and the inconsistent accents due to the mix of American, French and British actors), the overall impact of the play, the brilliant cinematography and the sharp direction (and performances) make this truly the ultimate (and best) version of Shakespeare’s classic work. Highly recommended.