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Branagh's Triumph

A brilliant new Hamlet celebrates the awesome joy of Shakespeare's poetry, and its moral depth.

Alan Stone

In 1989, Derek Jacobi directed then 27-year old Kenneth Branagh in a miraculous Hamlet. Staged on the grounds of what is said to be the actual Elsinore Castle in Denmark, the bare-stage outdoor production seemed to solve many of the text's unsolved mysteries. One part of the solution was Branagh's vibrant youthfulness combined with his already-estimable talent as a Shakespearean actor. Another was the eerie appearance of the Ghost on the battlements of the Castle to begin the play. For more than a century, critics and great Shakespearean actors have generally assumed that a psychopathological interpretation of Hamlet was necessary to explain his supposedly mysterious delay in exacting revenge. A vocal minority has disagreed, arguing that the delay is "the greatest red herring in the history of literature." The Jacobi-Branagh production confirmed that view. With a passionate young Hamlet, uncertain whether he has seen his father's honest ghost or an apparition sent by the devil to trick him into damnation, the delay is no longer mysterious. (Although the play was much abridged, Jacobi's direction also underscored the importance of Claudius's role as a usurping fratricidal king who poses a mortal threat to young Hamlet, who must feign madness to avert suspicion.)

Stanley Cavell, in his brilliant interpretation of King Lear, acknowledged the importance of a particular production and even the performance of a single actor for one's understanding of a Shakespeare play. The Jacobi-Branagh production was just such a revelation; it lifted 200 years of sturm und drang from Hamlet's shoulders. Gone were the overwrought Oedipal wrestling matches that an aging Lawrence Olivier staged with his queen-mother Gertrude, and that Zefferelli echoed in his recent Hamlet film where he imagined Gertrude (Glenn Close) to be a teenaged bride more in love with her only child Hamlet (Mel Gibson) than with his old father, the warrior King. Zefferelli's fast-moving film left out most of Hamlet's lines but made sure no one would miss the sexual tension between Prince and concupiscent Queen. These inward-looking Oedipal versions of Hamlet scanted the Machiavellian Claudius and the ghost of Hamlet's father; as their lines and dramatic significance diminish, the practical, moral, and religious reasons for Hamlet's caution in revenge lose their significance as well. The psychiatric case study versions of the play eliminate altogether the first scenes where Horatio and the soldiers of the guard see the Ghost of Hamlet's father. The Ghost becomes Hamlet's hallucination and the soulless play begins with a Prince already mad and ends with a senseless slaughter. This is tragedy, but is it Shakespeare?

Long before psychoanalysts put Hamlet on the couch, literary critics had been offering characterological or psychopathological explanations for what was assumed to be the otherwise inexplicable delay in Hamlet's revenge-taking. Goethe's theory was that "Shakespeare meant to present a great deed laid upon a soul that is not capable of it," and Schlegel understood Hamlet as "the victim of an excess of the reflective faculty which unfits him for action." Early in the 19th century the interpretive solutions to this mystery centered around the "melancholy" nature of the Dane. Hamlet himself worries that the Devil has taken advantage "of my weakness and my melancholy, as he is very potent with such spirits, abuses me (the ghostly apparition) to damn me." Read in historical and dramatic context, "melancholy" means "of choleric humour"--sullen, irascible, and sad. Later, "melancholy" came to mean pathological depression and that understanding gave a funereal dimension to the entire play. That depressed version resurfaced at Harvard's American Repertory Theatre a few years ago when a long-suffering Hamlet skulked around the stage in his pajamas in a production that avowedly owed as much to melancholy as to Shakespeare's play. Last year, Boston University's Huntington Theatre played the other side of the bipolar coin. More than sullen, irascible, and sad, a manic Hamlet raced through his lines (sometimes hanging upside down) in an agitated demonstration of push of speech.

Margaret Webster, the foremost producer-director of Shakespeare of the 1930s and 40s, had the best diagnosis of these ailing Hamlets. Critics for two centuries had made Prince Hamlet "a distinct entity," she wrote, "having a life of his own, related only distantly to the dramatic purpose he serves in the dramatic world which he inhabits. Cut versions, all soliloquies and no plot, added to the murk of the conflict."

George Bernard Shaw, in his role as theater critic, chastised John Barrymore for just such a cut and murky version, but audiences flocked to Barrymore's tour de force as they would in later years to the tours de force of Olivier, Burton, Fiennes, et al. A Hamlet on Broadway or London's West End became something like a sporting event; audiences went to see each great new actor test his mettle against the ultimate challenge of Hamlet's soliloquies. Margaret Webster had produced an uncut version of Hamlet on Broadway in 1938 with Maurice Evans as the Prince. It was a revelation to American critics and even a popular theatrical success. She proved to the critics that there was much more to Hamlet than the Prince. The characters in the play are like planets in a solar system in which the orbit of each can only be understood in relation to the others. But four-hour-plus productions have been few and far between for Shakespeare devotees. (The traditional full-length text of Hamlet as found in the Folger Library Edition combines the First Folio and passages from the Second Quarto, most importantly Hamlet's "How all occasions" soliloquy where he compares himself to Fortinbras).

There are fortunately several sound recordings of full-length Hamlets, with voices doing all the acting. On audiotape, Richard Burton's Hamlet (almost full-length) has no equal. His voice has the range of an orchestra, his intelligence makes every word count, and his choices of intonation and feeling reveal a surprising ingenuity and subtlety that his brute physical presence obscured. If Hamlet is an acting contest, the mature Burton takes the gold medal, but the play sinks under the weight of his overwhelming performance. Branagh taped a full-length Hamlet for BBC Radio in 1992. Although his own performance (voice alone) does not compare to Burton's, the purity and clarity of the play as performed outdoors in Denmark can still be recognized. The BBC experience convinced Branagh of the virtues of the full-length text. And the commercial and artistic success of his film production of Henry V gave him reason to hope that he would find a studio willing to finance a full-length production of Hamlet while he was still young enough to carry it off. In 1995, with commitments from Castle Rock Entertainment, Branagh launched his project.

Branagh's splendid film is nothing less than a monument to the highest art of the Western canon. It is surely the most ambitious Hamlet on film and it may well be the grandest cinematic rendering of any Shakespeare play. Branagh may not do the soliloquies better than his predecessors but his film quite overshadows his rivals. The Academy Awards nomination of Branagh for best screenplay of a previously published work was greeted with scoffing and ridicule by the media. But anyone who takes the time to read the published screenplay will realize that it is a prodigious accomplishment. Yes, Branagh has left in every word of Shakespeare's poetry. He has not changed a line. Precisely for this reason, he has achieved something truly extraordinary: he has interpreted in detailed stage directions every scene in a way that invites our understanding. Branagh has given one of our greatest texts a context, and it is not about psychopathology. He has rediscovered the moral adventure of Shakespeare's Prince.

Serious students of Hamlet know that even the full-length play is somewhat "murky" and presents conceptual problems for any director. T. S. Eliot complained that Shakespeare "has left in superfluous and inconsistent scenes which even hasty revision should have noticed." Shakespeare probably never did revise any of the versions of the play that now exist. But Eliot's criticisms went much deeper. His notorious aesthetic conclusion was that "so far from being Shakespeare's masterpiece, the play is most certainly an artistic failure." Eliot found Hamlet's emotions bewildering, lacking an "objective correlative." The inconsistent scenes add to the careful reader's confusion: Horatio is both stranger to and expert on Denmark; Hamlet is a young student back from Wittenburg and a 30-year-old man; Polonius is a shrewd courtier and a senile old fool; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are amiable fellows and deserve to be executed. The passage of time might account for some of these contradictions, but Shakespeare is notoriously disdainful of calendar time and seems much more interested in tempo of mood and sequence. In any event, no hypothetical timeline resolves the many inconsistencies that compulsive scholars have catalogued in Hamlet.

Contemporary Shakespeareans are of several minds about this. Academics generally put some of it down to the fact that there is no authentic text, only composites. Theater people, including Kenneth Branagh, think most of the inconsistencies disappear in the performance--the play after all is a drama to be enacted not a dissertation to be studied by "closet critics." Everyone agrees that we have no original stage directions for Shakespeare's plays and that this is the source of particular puzzlement in Hamlet. Consider the middle of Hamlet's "get thee to a nunnery" speech, in which he suddenly asks Ophelia "where's your father" and speaks so cruelly to her: If a stage direction indicated that Hamlet has become aware that Polonius and Claudius are spying on him and that Ophelia is in on it, we would understand his change in tone. Many directors have adopted this convention, as does Branagh:

A tiny noise. She glances across the room. And then it dawns. . . . It's a trap. She has been unable to be purely honest. . . . Hamlet (continuing his lines) "Where's your father?" The most agonizing decision of her young life. Ophelia "at home, my Lord. . . ." And with that phrase their love is dead.

Hamlet's shift in emotions--as he is forced to recognize that, just as he feared, he cannot trust the woman he loves--follows not from the lines but from the stage directions. If a scholar studies the standard editions of the play, as perhaps T. S. Eliot did, he will find no explanation of these lines other than the madness of Hamlet's confused and confusing emotions. But a director, and particularly a film director, cannot simply worship Shakespeare's poetry. He has to engage the text and make it tell a story. He and his company must create and orchestrate all the dramatic action, body language, facial expressions, and kinesics. In a film version of a Shakespeare play, choices must be made about setting, costumes, and atmospherics; the camera liberates and tyrannizes the director as he tries to "suit the action to the word, the word to the action with this special observance: that [he] o'erstep not the modesty of nature." A director who reimagines the play may, then, find opportunities to resolve many of the inconsistencies that confound scholars--even if the Prince is never confined in an "objective correlative."

Branagh acknowledges that his own directorial choices were often more intuitive than intellectual. The description of how he and his company went about this enterprise is briefly recounted in the published screenplay/diary. Although we do not think of great art as being produced by compromise, Branagh obviously followed that strategy. He wants to break out of the self-referential English mold of Shakespeare productions while preserving Shakespeare's language, to give his play emotional relevance to the largest possible modern audience without sacrificing its heightened sense of poetry. He wants his royals to be royal and believably human. To achieve these compromises he has put together an international cast, chosen a 19th-century historical setting, and created a visual hypertext for Hamlet.

The international cast includes lots of famous Hollywood stars with unmistakable American accents. Perhaps surprisingly, it works. Though a 70-year-old Jack Lemmon is oddly cast as Marcellus, the soldier of the watch who reports that something is "rotten in the state of Denmark," his aging vulnerable face and damp eyes carry him through. Billy Crystal is winning as the riddle-telling grave digger, notwithstanding his obvious New York accent. Charlton Heston is majestically cast as the Player King and Robin Williams is superb as the "waterfly" Osric. These cameo appearances do create distracted whispering in the audience. But the actors all carry it off without embarrassing themselves, and Branagh's intuition that these celebrity faces would energize a contemporary production seems justified.

Not enough can be said for Julie Christie's performance as Gertrude. Her face, thirty years after Doctor Zhivago, is still this side of a ruined beauty; her Gertrude conveys the sexual magnetism that is the linchpin of Shakespeare's play. One can believe that a man besotted by such a woman would kill his brother. Gertrude has the "willow" speech about Ophelia's drowning which Gielgud thought could only be declaimed, not acted. Gielgud considered the "whole situation absurd": on one hand, the queen's description makes it sound like she or someone else was there and watched it all happen and made no effort to help Ophelia; on the other, Gertrude has the stumbling block of what seems to be a quite inappropriate sexual innuendo in her tale of woe involving "long purples, that liberal Shepherds give a grosser name." To play this scene, Gielgud thought, "a bit of the old grand manner is required." But "the old grand manner" is just what Branagh wanted to avoid, particularly in a film production aiming for emotional realism. Julie Christie found her way through these absurdities in a realistic style that defies Gielgud's experienced judgements.

Kate Winslet is a marvelous "new" Ophelia and here Branagh's script direction helped. He made at least two critical decisions that brought flesh and blood to her skeletal character. By flash-cutting naked bedroom scenes early in the story he used his visual hypertext to establish that Hamlet and Ophelia have in fact secretly been making love. Thus when her brother Laertes and her father Polonius warn her, in Laertes' words, "not to lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open to his unmastered importunity," the audience is meant to understand Ophelia's predicament. This consummated love affair humanizes Ophelia's subsequent interchanges with Hamlet and, with the aforementioned stage directions, gives the "get thee to a nunnery scene" a tragic sense and the clear meaning it often lacks. Branagh's second helpful directorial decision was to involve Ophelia directly in the aftermath of Polonius' death by intercutting a scene of soldiers carrying his casket: Ophelia, her face against the iron gate of the chapel, unlooses a primal howl; the brief visual moment ends with her contorted and screaming face. The logic of her progression to madness becomes inescapable and the sexual overtones of the mad scene, made explicit through Ophelia's pelvic thrusts, point unequivocally to her affair with Hamlet--her lover and the man who killed her father. Winslet is not an anorexic ice-virgin Ophelia. She is fully human, her character fleshed out by Branagh's hypertext and brought to life by Winslet's performance.

Unfortunately, and this is one of the failures of the film, most of the audience seems not to get it. Branagh's hypertext of the naked Hamlet and Ophelia bewilders those who know the play. Is this Ophelia's and/or Hamlet's fantasy, or are we seeing something that is actually supposed to have happened? Branagh's screenplay stage directions make it clear that the audience was supposed to understand that the couple became lovers during the period after the death of Hamlet's father.

Those who want to remember a chaste Ophelia with her madness prettified will object to Branagh's added scenes. But Shakespeare was after all an Elizabethan and Branagh's flash-cuts are brief and muted. He has resisted the vulgar excess on display in recent film productions. Nicole Williamson's has Gertrude and Claudius hold court from their bed, as though briefly interrupting an orgy. Zefferelli heaped the theme of incest on incest. He has Laertes and his sister Ophelia exchanging deep full-lipped kisses as he warns her against Hamlet and she teases him about dallying on the primrose path. Branagh has moments of theatrical excess, but always intends to bring Shakespeare's poetry to life. No other film of a Shakespeare play has been so admirably diligent.

Although Branagh's intuitive decisions about Ophelia are at the very least intriguing, he had more trouble with her father. Polonius's character is a major problem for any director. Polonius advises Laertes: "The friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel. . . . To thine own self be true," etc. When we first read these words in high school, we are apt to believe this is paternal wisdom and, fixing on that understanding, to admire Polonius. Generations of fathers have quoted these lines to their children. The subsequent scene is ignored or its significance denied by these readers (it is omitted in most productions): a scheming and hypocritical Polonius follows up his paternal advice by dispatching Reynaldo to spy on his son Laertes in France. When Polonius's character is launched as a wise and decent parent and the loving father of the woman Hamlet loves, his subsequent ill treatment by Hamlet is difficult to justify. The standard alternative is to try to convince the audience that Polonius's wise advice amounts to little more than the venal, self-interested, hypocritical cant of a garrulous, intermeddling, old fool which the rest of the play shows Polonius to be. To accomplish this the director must mock Polonius from the outset and undermine the seeming wisdom of his advice to Laertes. This approach runs the risk of putting off those in the audience who believe Polonius' advice to be one of the most sensible statements in this troublingly ambiguous play. Granville Barker, a great authority on Hamlet, concluded that Shakespeare must have changed his mind about Polonius' character after the first scenes where the father's advice to his son and daughter contains "sound worldly wisdom."

Branagh's directorial solution has it both ways. His Polonius is a good father and a corrupt courtier. More surprisingly, he is a vigorous middle-aged man rather than the usual "tedious old fool." The reasons for this casting decision will only become apparent in subsequent scenes. Branagh enlisted Gerard Depardieu to take the role of Reynaldo--the man Polonius sends to spy on Laertes in Paris. Reynaldo has no more than fifteen lines and most of them are versions of "Ay, my lord." Branagh and his brain trust went over the top in imagining how Depardieu would play this nonentity. Branagh made Reynaldo a French pimp, a man who owns a bordello in Paris. With that Gallic inspiration, Branagh's hypertext adds a prostitute to the scene between Polonius and Reynaldo. It may well be the lamest moment in the film--a scene more out of Balzac than Shakespeare. Not only is the "pimp-whore" idea a bad one, it is never clearly communicated that Reynaldo is a pimp. Branagh's Polonius comes on like a mafia Don, good to his family no matter how corrupt he may be. But he is no fool; when baited by Hamlet he is resentful and condescending not confounded. One can understand why Claudius would have such a man as his principal advisor and why Hamlet would be so unfazed about killing him. Again we can see Branagh's effort to make Polonius a real person rather than a stock character, or mere poetic vehicle. But this real person is difficult to reconcile with the man whose epitaph is "This counselor is now most still, most secret, and most grave, who was in life a foolish prating knave."

The effort to make Derek Jacobi play Claudius as a real person was also not without problems. One might assume that Jacobi was cast for the role because he knows something about projecting a sinister and complicated soul. (Jacobi was the unforgettable "I Claudius" on television and played Hitler in "Inside the Third Reich.") But Jacobi was asked to blanket his sinister intensity. The hypertext has him cowering with fear as he kills his brother, and playing a hang dog lover as he covets his brother's wife before the murder. This Claudius is almost oblivious to Hamlet's resentment and its significance until he is inescapably confronted by the play within the play and the killing of Polonius--"O heavy deed! It had been so with us had we been there." Jacobi is a great actor and he manages to carry off the benign Claudius for half the film. But he is not a regal presence and without his sinister vibrations it is difficult to understand what Gertrude sees in him or why Hamlet should be wary of him. When Claudius interrogates Hamlet after the killing of Polonius, Jacobi finally explodes with rage in a great back-hand slap of the Prince's face. Branagh gave away a great deal so as to build to that dramatic moment. The sinister Claudius is at last unmasked and Jacobi is released from his unctuous cocoon. But Branagh is unwilling to let Claudius dominate Hamlet. The slap is part of the hypertext and it sets up the famous bizarre farewell that soon follows:

Hamlet: Farewell, dear mother.
Claudius: Thy loving father, Hamlet.

Hamlet responds, "man and wife is one flesh, and so my mother." And then in a stage direction not found in Branagh's screenplay, he kisses Claudius full on the lips--his revenge for the slap and for Claudius' "Thy loving father."

That kiss, which must have been invented during one of the takes, is quintessentially Branagh. The line "farewell dear Mother," through obviously derisive to Claudius, had always sounded a little batty. The kiss suddenly makes the insult and the lines clear to the audience and unmistakable to Claudius. This is the first time in any performance that I had an immediate sense of both the words and Hamlet's intentions. And Branagh does it over and over: brilliantly finding an emotionally coherent sense of the lines. Branagh is the master of every word and he has intuitively plumbed its meaning.

If critics are looking for something to quibble with in Branagh's performance, they will find it in his polished brilliance. Hamlet is never at a loss for words, but one might expect him at least to pause once or twice before he utters his next profound thought. Hamlet is above all else an improvisor, reacting to a situation that threatens his life and his soul. Hamlet doubts and philosophizes and at the same time improvises as the situation arises. He is as much Shakespeare himself as the Prince of Denmark.

Branagh is so much the master of his role that he never reaches for a line; rather than becoming Hamlet his perfect mastery transcends the role. He is almost operatic. This is most extreme, even intentional in the "How all occasions do contrive against me" soliloquy: the background music mounts in volume as the camera rises in the sky to reveal a bellowing Hamlet in the foreground with thousands of computer generated troops in the valley behind him signaling the might of Fortinbras. The sense of Branagh's overmastering spills over into the dramatic narrative. At the crucial moment of the play within the play, instead of letting his "mousetrap" "catch the conscience of the King," Hamlet rants and rages onto the stage dominating the players, the assembled court, and the dumbfounded Claudius. This is more a star chamber inquisition than a "mousetrap." At moments like this one is even tempted to ask why so many Hamlets insist on directing themselves. Branagh has other theatrical excesses; his father's ghost is a Danish Darth Vader and his duel scene puts Errol Flynn to shame.

But these criticisms are no more than quibbles about this glorious film. Its most notable achievement is to make something powerfully real and cinematic out of every scene including the last. All productions of Hamlet have to struggle with Fortinbras, who first appears anticlimactically at the end of the play. Often he is left out and the play ends with Horatio's line "Now cracks a noble heart. Good night sweet Prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest." The great 18th-century English actor David Garrick, whose Hamlet was supposedly the greatest stage version, could not stomach Fortinbras' entrance into the final bloody death scene. He had good Horatio crowned the new King of Denmark, thus ending the play on an optimistic note. Branagh would allow no such disrespect of the text. Fortinbras appears early in the hypertext as Claudius describes the threat he poses to Denmark. The hypertext has Fortinbras and his great army, having conquered the "little patch" of Poland, turn their might on Denmark. While Hamlet and Laertes have out their deadly duel, Fortinbras takes an undefended Denmark. The political dimension of the play is fully realized as never before with climactic visual images that only film can create. It is the end of the royal house of Hamlet and Fortinbras is crowned.

Something beyond movie-making has happened in this film. There in the hypertext was Gielgud as Priam, Judi Dench as Hecuba, and Richard Attenborough as the English Ambassador. These actors, together with all the Americans and Depardieu, were gathered in the spirit of joint enterprise: they came not just for Branagh but to be part of this monument to the greatest playwright in the Western canon. This Hamlet above any other is a celebration of Shakespeare's genius and the awesome joy his poetry still gives. Branagh is quite right in describing Shakespeare's importance: Shakespeare is "not a matter of life and death. It's much more important than that." Amen!

Originally published in the April/ May 1997 issue of Boston Review

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