Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh)

Rating: *** (out of ****)

While it is often said, figuratively, that So-and-So, who is fluctuating on whether or not to take such-and-such a course of action, "makes Hamlet look decisive," Kenneth Branagh is perhaps the first person about whom such a thing can be said literally: closer to Mad Max than to the melancholy, morose prince of four centuries of theatrical and cinematic tradition, this Hamlet, as portrayed by writer/director Branagh, is one dynamic Dane. The performance is wildly inconsistent, as often embarrassing as thrilling, and the same is true of this new Hamlet itself, a generally impressive effort marred by miscalculations so drastic ("let's stick Jack Lemmon in the very first scene"; "some incredibly bombastic music and a shoddy CGI background would make the IV.iv soliloquy so much more powerful, don't you think?") that I found myself questioning Branagh's sanity as often as Hamlet's. His decision to set the action in the 19th century is thematically dubious (however interesting aesthetically), and while most of the main characters are well cast -- Derek Jacobi and Richard Briers are especially strong as Claudius and Polonius, respectively -- the use of movie stars in supporting roles is a grave error, as the succession of "cameos" is inevitably distracting. (The most egregious example is Gérard Depardieu's appearance as Polonius' sounding-board, Reynaldo, who appears in one scene and says a grand total of 65 words -- 41 if you subtract all the "my lord"s.) Still, you'd have to work overtime to make a boring Hamlet, and this full-length rendition (the four hours zipped by) has occasional moments of startling power: Branagh's dazzling, mercurial delivery of the play's first soliloquy ("O, that this too too solid flesh would melt"); Ophelia's terrified face pressed against a mirror, as seen from the opposite side of the glass; Hamlet leaping into Ophelia's grave (always problematic onstage); the climactic swordfight, apparently inspired as much by Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks pictures as by Elizabethan fencing tactics (Michael Maloney, who starred in Branagh's earlier 1996 film, A Midwinter's Tale, is a fine, fiery Laertes). Despite its hideous flaws, it's an engrossing, entertaining, and altogether satisfactory effort; I prefer Richard Loncraine and Ian McKellan's wigged-out 1995 film of Richard III, myself, but I appear to be in the minority (as usual).