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Readers Reviews of "Hamlet"

This article first appeared in 70mm
The 70mm Newsletter

Edited by: Thomas Hauerslev Issue 50 - September 1997
"Hamlet" Not a Minute too Long
By K. W. Dikstaal, Eindhoven, Holland

A Friday afternoon at the Curzon cinema in London's exclusive Mayfair area and people were queuing up for a screening of "Hamlet" in the second week of its release. Although not entirely sold out, this was a very good turn out for an afternoon performance. But who were all these people? Were they all Shakespeare enthusiasts or 70mm lovers or both? Actually, is this a film for 70mm lovers at all?

Well, in fact it isn't! In spite of all its technical merits, this is in essence theater on film and as such the action evolves from the performances of its central characters. I suppose that Kenneth Branagh has chosen the 70mm format to give the theater experience more depth of field!
Unless you have a certain affinity with the works of Shakespeare, unless you have some experience in watching, reading or understanding Shakespeare at all, you are probably in for a disappointment.

Certainly there are some epic-scale shots in the film that look great on the big screen, but if you compare this film with historic epics like "Ben Hur", "Spartacus" or "Lawrence of Arabia", this is rather an intimate kind of drama with most of its scenes filmed indoors and in close up too!

But in spite of all this, the film looks great and most of the performances are on a very high level indeed! And as always you can't beat a solid Shakespeare play and although I never saw a complete version of "Hamlet" before, this one didn't seem a minute too long! In the ranks of Shakespeare films it deserves in my opinion a fairly high place, but as a 70mm spectacle, it will score considerably lower.

"Hamlet" in 70mm - a review
By Ralph Daniel, June 26, 1997

I saw "Hamlet" on Sunday April 27, 1997, at The New Neon Movies in Dayton, Ohio, in 70mm (I understand one of the last places to show it in this format). I have read that the 70mm version of "Hamlet" only played in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Dayton, but I can say that it also played a 70mm engagement in Atlanta. At least it was advertised as being presented in 70mm; I didn't try to verify this for myself in the projection room.

This version of "Hamlet" was intended by its director and star Kenneth Branagh, to be the definitive filmed version of the venerable Shakespeare play, allegedly containing every word which Shakespeare put in it. I will leave verification of this to someone else. According to producer David Barron, "We shot on 65mm film because we see our "Hamlet", the complete "Hamlet", as an epic film. An epic film deserves an epic format". In the 1950s and before, any performance of Shakespeare's works was usually treated as reverentially as a religious service, with the actors pompously bellowing their lines as if God were verbally restating the Ten Commandments. By the 1970s, directors such as Franco Zeferelli had replaced such inflated tones with the earthier speech found in his lovely production of Romeo and Juliet. Branagh's idea of Shakespeare lies somewhere in between. Branagh is regarded as the present authority on filmed Shakespeare, and indeed it is hard to find any fault with his performance of the title character. I do question the propriety of some of the other casting decisions. Jack Lemmon's performance wasn't bad; it just didn't fit with those of the other actors with whom he was interacting. It was if the Connecticut Yankee was visiting King Arthur's court. Probably the most upsetting misfit was Robin Williams, whose appearance was mercifully brief. Billy Crystal, however, was a surprisingly good choice for his role.

The theater was almost full for this performance, which surprised me until I remembered that it was only being offered twice a week here. If you missed this performance, you had to wait almost a week for it to be shown again. Apparently some people weren't aware of what they were getting into: the man behind me kept saying "Intermission!? Just the intermission?" when the break came at the 2 hour mark.

Since "Hamlet" is basically a stage play, there were few scenes which could be called "action" scenes. The closing scene before the intermission might fall into that classification, as while Hamlet is speaking, the camera trucks back and reveals a valley filled with an army marching laterally across the screen. Unfortunately, 65/70mm worked to the detriment of the picture here, as there was little doubt that this was a special effects shot, with Hamlet himself sharp and in focus but the soldiers merely blurry little ants. When I saw "Hamlet", I had just concluded three days of watching films made in the triple-lens Cinerama process, which has a tremendous depth-of-field. In "Hamlet", when the 65mm camera focused on a particular actor, the detail was about as good as Cinerama, but the depth of field was astonishingly shallow! The actor of interest would be sharp, but the actor to whom he or she was talking would be fuzzy, even though they would only be about 8-12" (20-30cm) further from the camera, and the background would be a total blur. The 27mm lenses of Cinerama really did produce needle-sharp images, and after three days of seeing everything in the picture, this was a rude shock. Perhaps most disturbing was the cinematic techniques used in "Hamlet". Since most films today are projected on a small screen in a cracker-box theater, and then inevitably transferred to the even smaller screens of television, extreme close-ups of the actors are used, frequently even cutting off the face at the hairline. On the huge New Neon screen, this was excruciating, with one getting lost in the bloodshot eyes and crow's feet of the actors.

Branagh, Prince of Denmark
By David Page

I was unable to get to London to see "Hamlet" and whilst visiting the New Neon cinema in Dayton in April, I only saw the shorter, second act of actor Branagh's epic. That only spurred me on to see "Hamlet" in 70mm as soon as I could. Luckily, the Harbour Lights cinema in Southampton [England] had re-booked the film for a weekend after a very successful week a short time earlier. Ben Wales - head cook and bottle washer at Harbour Lights - phoned to let me know the dates and so I ventured down to Southampton for 4 hours of Shakespeare.

Was it really 4 hours long? Did the near capacity audience actually sit so quietly for do long?. It was a masterly film. Full of richness, colour and movement. None of the leads disappointed, but Branagh and Winslet were outstanding. If there was a moment when I wavered in my admiration for the film, it occurred - thankfully - at the beginning. Jack Lemmon stood out for a somewhat wooden performance and Branaghs interpretation of the ghost appearing to the soldiers did not, for me, work well. When, however, Brian Blessed did get into his stride as the ghost, it was well worth the wait. Of course, the setting Branagh had chosen for the film meant that there were going to be some surprises and the sight of Rosencratz and Guildenstern on the front of a train was certainly different. And I did think that a forest was an odd place to have graves.
In the end, powerful performances, wonderful production and superb cinematography, will doubtless ensure that this Kenneth Branagh version becomes the definitive one.

Further in 70mm reading:

Quality, Quantity and Width


"Hamlet" relives in 70mm!! - a visit to the set

"Hamlet" - cast and credits

Release of "Hamlet" in 70mm

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Updated 07-01-21