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Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film

#12: Hamlet (1996)

Hamlet poster

With his Hamlet (1996), the gulf between Kenneth Branagh’s acting and that of his Hollywood peers widens. In the early going of Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Denzel Washington doesn’t quite know what to do. In the early going of Hamlet, Jack Lemmon (like Washington, one of the finest actors Hollywood has made use of) is not quite in the same movie as the other actors. It’s like watching a painting created by artists from different schools (Realist, pointillist, surrealist, cubist), if they don’t quite realize they are from different schools.

Hamlet Jack Lemmon

It’s not that Jack Lemmon does a bad job, per se. Charlton Heston gives one of the last great performances of his career as Player #1, and it is an impressive set piece (likely written to honor one of the elder actors of Shakespeare’s troupe).

Hamlet Heston

Robin Williams plays the unctuous Osiric with a peculiar, self-satisfied glee that reminds me of Claire Danes’s performance in Romeo + Juliet, although Osiric is, in Robin William’s defence, a comic character.

Hamlet Robin Williams

Oh, right. Osiric is in this Hamlet because one of the novelties of this adaptation is that Branagh did the full Hamlet. Normally, Osiric is cut or minimized, since the tedious fact of setting up the duel between Laertes and Hamlet doesn’t seem dramatically necessary and comes in after the three hour mark.

I don’t know about you, dear readers, but this rogue doesn’t like to do even the things he likes to do for much over three hours at a time.

One can tell that Branagh suspected the problem of his own casting, since the principal parts are given to Shakespearean veterans, or at least British actors. He is Hamlet. Derek Jacobi is Claudius.

Hamlet Christie Jacobi

Julie Christie, a Hollywood veteran (Doctor Zhivago), is nevertheless an Englishwoman who studied acting in the Royal Central School for Speech and Drama, whose most famous alum happens to be Laurence Olivier.

Hamlet Polonius

Richard Briars (who was in Branagh’s Henry V and Much Ado) is Polonius.

Hamlet Brian Blessed

Brian Blessed, who can do no wrong, is the ghost of King Hamlet.

Hamlet Winslet

Kate Winslet (British, despite being in Titanic) is Ophelia. Michael Maloney is Laertes (British); he played Rosencrantz in Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet (1990). Nicholas Farrell is Horatio; he played Montano alongside Branagh’s Iago the year before in Othello, and was also Antonio in Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night.

When those who have been trained in Shakespeare come across their Hollywood counterparts, the contrast is immediate, no matter the good intentions and intelligence of the non-Shakespeareans. My suspension of disbelief unsuspends itself.


Franco Zeffirelli, who happens to be Italian, can mix and match actors from various regions and make them cohere into an idiom that places them in the same imaginative world. Branagh, for some reason, cannot.

There seems to be an impulse to jam American actors into minor parts whenever possible. This is tragically on display during one of my favorite parts in Hamlet, the gravedigger scene. The lead gravedigger is played by Billy Crystal, who performs Shakespearean humor like his normal schtick.

Hamlet Billy Crystal 2

To be fair, if the acting were more Americanized in this film, then Crystal’s performance almost works (although it seems like a sadly watered down version of his wise, marginalized character in The Princess Bride). But you can actually see Crystal acting,  as if there is a delay between him deciding to make a face or a gesture and the realization of that action.

What makes the scene unbearable for me, though, is that Simon Russell Beale, who is considered to be the finest Shakespearean actor of his generation, is cast as the second gravedigger.

Hamlet Simon Russell Beale

(If you haven’t heard of Beale, check him out as Falstaff in the BBC version of Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, as part of its Hollow Crown series. SRB is mighty.) Imagine asking Derek Jacobi to step down as Claudius because Steve Martin has agreed to play the part.

In the right production, Steve Martin would be the perfect Claudius. But in Branagh’s hands such a Hamlet would be Cheaper by the Dozen Part III.

The good news is that Hamlet is largely filled with Hamlet, unlike a Godzilla movie where that shrieking, ginormous reptile tends to be painfully fucking scarce. And Branagh may be a bad director, but he is a breathtakingly good actor.

Hamlet Branagh

So his Hamlet is more wildly uneven then outright bad.

The difference in acting valences might seem fascinating if this were a nightmare Hamlet of the dream realm, as if the oddities of acting idioms might denote the metaphysical torments of creatures from a David Lynch story making their way through the Black Lodge, or living inside a radiator. But the setting of Branagh’s Hamlet is a Denmark that seems like a very proper 18th century British castle in which there is no herring to be seen, but does happen to be coated with a pristine layer of snow.

And at one point King Hamlet is envisioned as sleeping in his frozen orchard at the moment of death–you know, the one where he was, as far as the royal court of Denmark knows, stung by an adder.

Hamlet Brian Blessed 2

This works symbolically, at the total expense of realism, unless we want to think that Denmark is a stupid, stupid place, or else is infested with warm blooded poisonous serpents. And the symbolism isn’t strong enough to make me not crave a story that makes sense on a literal level.

The dream theory cannot rescue Branagh’s demented casting, seen abundantly in Much Ado, and which will get unfathomably worse in Love’s Labour’s Lost, starring (cough) Alicia Silverstone.

Much more to my liking is Branagh’s other, less famous Hamlet, a brilliant, self-aware comedy that lasts about ninety minutes. But you’ll have to wait until next time for me to tell about that.



John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.