Movie of the Week: Hamlet (1996)

If it’s been a long work week, or just a particularly stressful day, you may feel like getting away from it all.  There are myriad ways to relax (legally, my friends, hopefully):  some people head to a bar and start a tab to take the edge off, some opt for a glass of wine in a tub of Calgon.  Music and books are viable routes for escape as well.  Since the title of this article is “Movie of the Week”, I think you know what I’m going to suggest in this brief space of the world wide web (yeah, I know, a movie– not all of us can just up and head to Cancún when we want to flee the daily grind).

Kenneth Branagh’s massive, four hour spectacle, Hamlet, is the kind of movie that makes the viewer forget about time and everything else going on in the real world. It may help if you’re a fan of the Bard, but if you’re looking for a rich, engrossing story, this is classy soap opera material without all the hammy daytime drama theatrics. This is real theatrics.

The movie (which follows the play, complete and uncut) opens in Denmark at the marriage of King Claudius and Queen Gertrude. Gertrude, mother of Prince Hamlet, has remarried rather quickly following the death of her husband– Hamlet’s father and Claudius’s brother– King Hamlet. The prince knows something for sure is rotten in the state of Denmark for his uncle to swoop in and take the throne.

Young Hamlet’s suspicions are confirmed by an unlikely source: the ghost of his father. When guards report to the prince of having seen a ghostly likeness of the late king, the despondent son has a look for himself. He confronts the spirit and his deceased father informs him that his death was not natural. It was murder most foul by none other than Claudius.

Hamlet now has to avenge his father and take back the throne. His uncle has to die, no doubt, but matters of state have to be handled, too, as a possible war with Norway looms in the background. There’s also the matter of Hamlet being in love with Ophelia. Her father and brother, Polonius and Laertes, respectively, both warn her against a relationship with the sullen royal. In fact, her father flat out forbids it. When Hamlet accidentally kills her father (whom the prince mistook for Claudius), Ophelia is pushed into the far reaches of insanity.

Whether you’ve read the play before or not (I think most everyone was assigned to read it in school at some point), chances are good you’re familiar with the gist of the plot. You’ll definitely recognize quotes from the tragedy itself. If you don’t understand all the verbiage, you’ll know what’s going on.

I’m one of those people who can’t read Shakespeare, but I can fully understand it when I see it performed (go figure). Hamlet I’ve read and this movie enhanced my love and understanding of the written text. This is a truly beautiful film down to the smallest detail. The performances are phenomenal and the story resonates beyond its two hundred forty-two minutes.