Blu-Ray Review: Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Hamlet’ Was Made For HD

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CHICAGO – Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet” got a raw deal. In the shadow of not just the legend of William Shakespeare’s play but the incredible film versions that had come before, “Hamlet” couldn’t even break $5 million at the box office. And yet this gorgeous, incredibly-made retelling of one of the most influential pieces of theater ever written looks simply amazing on Blu-ray. It’s a fantastic release. Blu-Ray Rating: 4.0/5.0
Blu-Ray Rating: 4.0/5.0

Do we need to recap the plot of “Hamlet”? The most notable thing about Branagh’s version in that sense is that it’s a completely unabridged version of Shakespeare’s longest play. Consequently, it runs over four hours long and contains a number of scenes and dialogue exchanges that you’ve probably never seen if you’ve only seen two-hour versions of this tale of murder, revenge, and tragedy.

Hamlet was released on Blu-ray on August 17th, 2010
Hamlet was released on Blu-ray on August 17th, 2010
Photo credit: Warner Bros.

In the film’s biggest misstep, Branagh himself plays the title role. I think Branagh’s a great actor but he was 35 by the time he shot “Hamlet” and he just feels too old for the role. He’s certainly not bad, but his direction is more laudable than his acting and most versions of “Hamlet” are remembered for their lead performance — Lawrence Olivier, Ralph Fiennes, and even David Tennant have completely made the role their own. Branagh doesn’t quite do the same.

Hamlet was released on Blu-ray on August 17th, 2010
Hamlet was released on Blu-ray on August 17th, 2010
Photo credit: Warner Bros.

Luckily, the supporting cast and every notable technical element of the production makes up for Branagh’s miscasting of himself. The ensemble of “Hamlet” looks even more impressive now than it did on the film’s release. Not only does the film include one of our best actresses in Kate Winslet (who does a perfect Ophelia) but legends of the form like Sir Richard Attenborough, Julie Christie (as Gertrude), Judi Dench (as Hecuba), Gerard Depardieu (Reynaldo), Sir John Gielgud (Priam), Rosemary Harris, Charlton Heston, Derek Jacobi (Claudius), and Jack Lemmon (Marcellus). Robin Williams, Rufus Sewell, and even Billy Crystal effectively fill out one of the more remarkable ensembles of the ’90s. It’s a shame that the cast alone didn’t produce more interest at the box office.

The cast is clearly notable but it’s the production values of Branagh’s “Hamlet” that makes it a perfect fit for Blu-ray. The film was Oscar-nominated for Art Direction, Costume Design, and Score — all elements that pop off the screen and through your speakers in HD. Warner Bros. is one of the best and possibly THE best studio out there for HD transfers and the picture for “Hamlet” is flawless — well-mixed without ever feeling overly polished. The movie looks easily like it could be released this year, which is not true of all films released in the mid-’90s.

“Hamlet” has no theatrical tie-in or project to promote its Blu-ray release and could easily be just as swept under the rug as it was on its initial release. The film will likely never find the loyal audience of Olivier’s and be constantly overshadowed by newer versions but history will be kind to Branagh’s last great film. Blu-ray has been great to it.

Special Features:
o Introduction By Director/Star Kenneth Branagh
o Commentary By Kenneth Branagh And Shakespeare Scholar Russell Jackson
o Featurette To Be On Camera: A History With Hamlet
o 1996 Cannes Film Festival Promo
o Theatrical Trailer

“Hamlet” stars Kenneth Branagh, Julie Christie, Billy Crystal, Gerard Depardieu, Charlton Heston, Derek Jacobi, Jack Lemmon, Rufus Sewell, Robin Williams, and Kate Winslet. It was written and directed by Kenneth Branagh. It was released on Blu-ray on August 17th, 2010. It is rated PG-13 and runs 242 minutes. content director Brian Tallerico

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