Hamlet_1996_posterTo be or not to be.

Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 version of Hamlet was the first unabridged film version of the play. Running at four hours and two minutes it contains every word of Shakespeare’s classic play. Well every word except for a couple if you want to get technical. The film is a spectacular extravaganza as Branagh tries to instill the film with a sense of epic scope. He shot the movie on 65mm film, and until last year’s Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, it was almost the last film shot completely on 65mm film. 65mm was what such epics as Lawrence of Arabia was shot on.

Branagh stars as Hamlet with Julie Christie, Derek Jacobi, Richard Briers and Kate Winslet before she made Titanic. The film is amazing to watch, Shakespeare’s plays are meant to be seen not force read in some classroom. My only complaint is the celebrity cameos take you out of the movie for a moment. They were included as part of the film’s financing agreement. Studios want big names to drive audiences to the theatre but while watching the film as you become engulfed in the story you suddenly find yourself getting pulled out and noticing “Hey there’s Billy Crystal, or Robin Williams or Jack Lemmon.” Their performances aren’t bad but it is a little jarring.

There have been over fifty film versions of Hamlet. The first was a short scene shot in 1900 and starred Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet sword fighting with Laertes. That’s right. The first screen Hamlet was a woman. The short was also one of the earliest sync sound efforts. It was followed by several silent versions. A 1921 German silent version starred actress Asta Nielsen as Hamlet but the story was changed so that Hamlet was really a woman disguised as a man.

Laurence Olivier wrote, directed and starred in the famous 1948 version which also won Best Picture at the Oscars. Despite all the acclaim there were some critics who took issue with Olivier tampering with Shakespeare’s work in order to make a two hour movie. In 1964 Russian filmmaker Grigori Kozintsev brought a Russian version of Hamlet to the big screen that was also highly praised despite not being in English. Also in 1964 John Gielgud’s stage production of Hamlet with Richard Burton was filmed and presented as a film, shot in Electronovision which was sort of a closed circuit TV gimmick.

Tony Richardson’s 1969 Hamlet had tried to capture the audiences that flocked to Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet in 1968 by advertising it as a romance. Richardson’s version starred Nicol Williamson, Judy Parfitt, Anthony Hopkins and Marianne Faithfull. It failed to capture that audience. Franco Zeffirelli waited until 1990 to make Hamlet with Mel Gibson in the lead. After Branagh’s version there was a modern update made in 2000 with Ethan Hawke, Kyle MacLachlan, Diane Venora, Julia Stiles, Liev Schreiber and Bill Murray.

While everyone has their favorite adaptation of the play you can’t deny that Branagh’s version is fantastic. And yet it’s not as good as his Henry V.