Shakespeare Plays Available in Video Format
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All’s Well That Ends Well
Antony and Cleopatra
As You Like It
The Comedy of Errors
Coriolanus
Cymbeline
Hamlet
Henry IV, part 1
Henry IV, part 2
Henry V
Henry VI, part 1
Henry VI, part 2
Henry VI, part 3
Henry VIII
Julius Caesar
King John
King Lear
Love’s Labour’s Lost
Macbeth
Measure for Measure
The Merchant of Venice
The Merry Wives of Windsor
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Much Ado About Nothing
Othello
Pericles
Richard II
Richard III
Romeo and Juliet
The Taming of the Shrew
The Tempest
Timon of Athens
Titus Andronicus
Troilus and Cressida
Twelfth Night
Two Gentlemen of Verona
The Winter’s Tale
Shakespeareana

Available versions

1948: Laurence Olivier

1964: Philip Saville

1964: Bill Colleran, John Gielgud

1964: Grigori Kozintsev

1969: Tony Richardson

1976: Celestino Coronada

1980: Rodney Bennett

1990: Kevin Kline

1990: Franco Zeffirelli

1996: Kenneth Branagh

2000: Michael Almereyda

2000: Campbell Scott, Eric Simonson

2002: Peter Brook

2003: Michael Mundell

2007: Alexander Fodor

2009: Simon Bowler

2009: Gregory Doran

2011: Bruce Ramsay

2014: Adam Hall

2015: Sarah Frankcom, Margaret Williams

2015: Dick Douglass, Obie Dean

2016: Jennifer Nicole Stang

2016: Simon Godwin


Adaptations

1992: Natalya Orlova, Dave Edwards (animated)

2004: Hamlet (opera, Ambroise Thomas)


Production drama

2003: Slings and Arrows (Season 1)


Educational

1990: Discovering Hamlet

2010: This is Hamlet

2013: Shakespeare Uncovered (Season 1, Ep. 6)


Related

1990: Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead

2008: Hamlet 2

2014: Hamlet A.D.D.


Hamlet
1996: Kenneth Branagh

Following the critical successes of Henry V and the much-trimmed Much Ado About Nothing, Kenneth Branagh apparently decided to take the pendulum in the opposite direction and make a complete uncut Hamlet. The whole runs a bit over four hours, and preserves virtually all the script. That on its own would deserve admiration for its dedication and stamina.

In keeping with the tradition (started by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the late 1960s) that Shakespeare’s plays need to be set at any time but the one for which they were written (if the point is their universality, have we not gotten that message yet?) Branagh (for no apparent reason aside from its potential for spectacle) seems to have determined that this one needed to be set in the Napoleonic era. Accordingly we have a Hamlet that feels a bit like War and Peace. I’m still not persuaded that it was a great decision, but it doesn’t impinge excessively on the remainder of the play.

Everything about the production is huge. It was one of the last films to be shot on 70mm stock, and its image quality (if you can see a good print) is spectacular. The DVD release, ten years in coming, preserves the image quality very well. Elsinore is more like a Czar’s winter palace than a castle on the coast of Denmark, and it’s filled with mirrors and crystal; there are imposing vistas and intimate close-ups with nearly everyone. It’s the full cinematic treatment carried out as lavishly as anyone ever has, and perhaps more than anyone ever should have done. The fight scenes are spectacular and exhausting; the soldiers storming the castle (palace) at the end come bashing improbably through the windows on ropes in something worthy of an action-adventure flick. (Did none of the guards notice that the enemy was getting onto the roof of the palace?) Somewhere along the line, I think that the core story sinks a bit under the weight of the apparatus placed upon it.

For all that, most of the acting is very good, and this is definitely one that a Shakespeare afficianado needs to see. Branagh’s Hamlet is tough-minded and severe, and not at all the irresolute whiner of many other productions; we are not led down the blind alley of supposing that Hamlet himself is mad. Derek Jacobi (who is still one of my leading candidates for the best Hamlet ever) here turns in an august and reserved performance as Claudius; Julie Christie gives Gertrude an unusual complexity and her wonderful seasoned presence. Kate Winslet does a creditable job as Ophelia, though her madness seems somewhat less deranged and alienating than Helena Bonham Carter’s (1990: Zeffirelli): some of the problems with her character are, however, probably out of her control, and seem to have more to do with Branagh’s decisions to show her in various compromising or degrading positions than anything else. Richard Briers plays Polonius as something much darker and more nuanced than the conventional fatuous nitwit — a person who doesn’t merely mouth platitudes and fail to notice their contradictions, but who loves ambiguity and lives in its shadow as an instrument of policy, and exploits anyone and anything he can for his own sordid ends, as long as he can maintain plausible deniability. Brian Blessed offers an Old Hamlet that is colossal and forbidding — quite unlike Paul Scofield’s weary and defeated ghost (1990: Zeffirelli). Both are wonderful. Nicholas Farrell’s Horatio, more appealing than Hamlet himself, becomes for us a a much more important lens, through whom we can still retain some interest in what happens to Hamlet, even after he has himself strayed beyond all bounds of decency. Machael Maloney’s Laertes is manic and severe, a great foil to Hamlet in his desire to avenge his father and eventually his sister by the most immediate possible means. In keeping with his apparent tradition of hideously miscasting one part, Branagh gave the minor role of Marcellus to Jack Lemmon, who delivers his lines with breathtaking woodenness, and puts a dreary capstone on an otherwise lively and amusing career. Robin Williams as Osric is probably a dubious choice as well, but there is some silliness in the part he uncovers. There are a number of other stellar performers, often present for little more than a brief bit: Charlton Heston as the Player King and Rosemary Harris as the Player Queen, with separate cut-in parts represented for Priam and Hecuba — John Gielgud and Judy Dench respectively.

Branagh has made a number of decisions in his production that will inevitably impinge on how one reads the play. Some of them are, I think, very sound. As previously mentioned, he does not make Hamlet into a whiner or an indecisive character. On the other hand, he is a cold, largely loveless avenger, who makes sure he has his targets set correctly, and then sets out to demolish Claudius body and soul. It is fairly clear from the scene itself and from its sequel that the “To be or not to be...” soliloquy is staged for those he knows are watching. The scene where Hamlet might have killed Claudius at his prayers is given real prominence, which (I would argue) it richly deserves, as being the moral pivot of the play. Arguably he does this at the sacrifice of much of Hamlet’s potential appeal: it’s hard to feel very sorry for him, or even to be very surprised at his various bad moral choices, including this one.

In a broader sense, Branagh (as both writer and director) treats all the characters with respect (part of this is just a function of letting them have their full complement of lines), and so we do get to see the complexities behind Polonius and Claudius, Laertes and Gertrude, and all the rest. The drama is something played out among numerous fully realized people, rather than between one real character and a range of opposing types.

In the negative column, as far as I’m concerned, are a number of other matters. Any doubt that Hamlet and Ophelia have engaged in more than a courtly courtship is dashed by explicit sexual footage that not only doesn’t need to be there, but also puts a very different view on both characters and their relationship. Giving us similarly unnecessary footage of Kate Winslet being hosed down while in a strait-jacket moves the delicate tragedy of her mental dissolution into an arena of the brutal and pointlessly grotesque. If there were a real purpose to it, I could understand, but to date I have not been able to see what that purpose is. Granted that real-world mental illness is a harsh and cruel thing that doesn’t need to be romanticized, still the literary madness of Shakespeare’s plays is something else, and there’s probably no reason trying to remake it in the image of something it was never intended to be. One gets the impression that it’s here an indictment of something — but of what? Contemporary treatment of the mentally ill? It’s a discussion we probably need to have, but Hamlet may not be the best place to have it.

Somewhat harder to nail down is the emphasis on spectacle throughout. Branagh is an intensely visual filmmaker, and he’s very good at it. He has been able to enliven Shakespeare for a generation of viewers who are similarly visual in their apprehension — they are trained to see more clearly than they are trained to hear. The needs of the audience, however, always have to be balanced against the demands of the material itself. Shakespeare wrote for a more auditory culture, and it’s here that the subtleties of his characters emerge. There are places where one gets the impression that Branagh couldn’t resist the opportunity to do something shocking and spectacular, even when it really didn’t serve his story at all.

Deserving special mention is the score by Patrick Doyle, who has done the incidental music for most if not all of the Branagh Shakespeare films. This is one of his better efforts.

All in all a colossal, brilliant, and vexing production, this deserves to be seen, but also needs to be weighed carefully. It is not, as I think it aspired to be, the definitive Hamlet for its generation; so far I’m not sure there is such a thing. This one is at least a candidate for an element of the composite picture.

As noted, there is some graphic sexual footage; nothing else remains that would be objectionable beyond what is in Hamlet itself.


Bernardo: Ian McElhinney

Claudius: Derek Jacobi

Cornelius: Ravil Isyanov

Doctor: Yvonne Gidden

English Ambassador: Richard Attenborough

First Gravedigger: Billy Crystal

First Player: Ben Thom

Fortinbras’s Captain: Jeffery Kissoon

Fortinbras’s General: Duke of Marlborough

Fortinbras: Rufus Sewell

Francisco: Ray Fearon

Gertrude: Julie Christie

Ghost of Hamlet’s Father: Brian Blessed

Guildenstern: Reece Dinsdale

Hamlet: Kenneth Branagh

Hecuba: Judi Dench

Horatio: Nicholas Farrell

Laertes: Michael Maloney

Lucianus: Rob Edwards

Marcellus: Jack Lemmon

Old Norway: John Mills

Ophelia: Kate Winslet

Osric: Robin Williams

Player King: Charlton Heston

Player Queen: Rosemary Harris

Polonius: Richard Briers

Priam: John Gielgud

Priest: Michael Bryant

Prologue: Sian Radinger

Prostitute: Melanie Ramsey

Reynaldo: Gérard Depardieu

Rosencrantz: Timothy Spall

Sailor One: David Yip

Sailor Two: Jimi Mistry

Second Gravedigger: Simon Russell Beale

Second Player: Perdita Weeks

Stage Manager: Charles Daish

Voltimand: Don Warrington

Yorick: Ken Dodd

Young Hamlet: Thomas Szekeres

Young Lord: Andrew Schofield