Kenneth Branagh holds (deservedly so) a place in the top tier of directors who have adapted Shakespeare’s plays for the silver screen. Branagh’s flamboyantly theatrical style is true to the origins of an Elizabethan stage. Branagh directed, produced, and acted in his critically acclaimed 1996 movie, Hamlet. The film recounts the entirety of
Shakespeare’s play and comes in at 242 minutes and is filled with true British thespians (including Derek Jacobi) is filmed in beautifully constructed sets, with all of the trappings of a Danish castle and filled with actors and extras that wear the intricate and deliciously decadent costumes. These ingredients properly measured and well combined result in a beauteous confection whose taste recalls those by gone days of Shakespeare’s time.
By contrast, Michael Almereyda’s movie by the same name, which was released just four years later in the year 2000; is shot in the modern steel and glass glory of New York City. Almereyda chose mostly well-known American actors including Ethan Hawke as Hamlet, Kyle MacLauchlan as Claudius, Liev Schreiber as Laertes and Julia Stiles as the doomed Ophelia.
Many of the scenes from both movies can be considered fairly fai
thful to Shakespeare’s original intent. However, Act IV, Scene V which follows the death
of Polonius by Hamlet’s hand. Claudius has sent Hamlet off to England in the care of Claudius’s men Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and it comes to light that Ophelia has suffered the effect of the three men in her life (Laertes, Hamlet and her Father) and the affect has taken her sanity and sent her to a madness. In each movie Ophelia has asked to speak to the Queen and Gertrude has been informed that there is a great change in the young lady. The Queen herself belying outward appearances, is drowning in her own guilt for her part and being witness to Polonius’s death and wishes to avoid a conversation with the suffering lady and to herself Gertrude says, “So full of artless jealousy is guilt, it spills itself in fearing to be spilt”. The queen agrees to see Ophelia in both movies but that is where the scenes diverge.
In Branagh’s Hamlet, Ophelia has been placed in a padded room in a strait jacket. When Gertrude starts to speak to her, Ophelia has lost all her sense and all her beauty, this scene shows truthfully how anyone, even a noble lady would have been treated during that time in history. The colour is somewhat bleached out of the scene by most of the clothing, the walls and the floor are monochrome or shades of grey.
In contrast the same scene of Almereyda’s modern Hamlet opens in the sleek and stunning Guggenheim Museum in New York City. We see Gertrude wearing couture and elbow length gloves while she happily chats and laughs with some guests at the gala, leaving us to wonder if she is just playing her part as Queen, when a gentleman advises her that Ophelia is on her way to speak with the Queen. Ophelia is dressed in clothes that are inappropriate for the gathering; a white t-shirt, flared parachute pants and a black feather jacket. She is very obviously distracted and agitated as she approaches. The Queen takes her aside (looking nervously around) as Ophelia starts to speak about her father being dead and gone. Once the King arrives to see what that matter is Ophelia’s voice rises to a shriek and then she screams piercingly into the foyer of the building which is full of people who all turn towards her as glass shattering scream pierces the air. At this point the bodyguard (the same gentleman as informed the queen of Ophelia’s presence) bodily forces her, dragging her away from Gertrude and Claudius as she bellows “My brother will hear of this”. Several wide shots of the location show many eyes turned toward this scandalous scene.
Immediately after Ophelia has been removed, Laertes makes his return to avenge the death of his father. In both movies he threatens the king immediately, however, in Branagh’s version Laertes is far more unhinged and comes to Elsinore surrounded by ‘rabble’ that would assist him in taking the life of Claudius and to assist him in proclaiming himself as King. This scene is full of the theatrical with many extras acting as the rabble and the castle’s guard. While in Almereyda’s version, the threats from Laertes while they start in the main room of the museum, the party of three (Claudius, Gertrude and Laertes) quickly move to an outer hallway, away from prying ears and eyes and that is where the next scene is acted out.
Claudius, after allowing Laertes his say, explains that he was blameless in the death of Polonius. Laertes calms himself and as they begin to talk about Hamlet’s part in the murder and how Claudius and Laertes will work together to make Hamlet pay for what he has done. Then is time for Laertes to be confronted with the toll that Ophelia has had to pay in this adventure. Both actors show real pain as they see that their ‘dear sister’ has been so much altered. Laertes knows that Ophelia’s mind has been damaged by the same man who took his father’s life, to which he says, “is’t possible a young maids wits should be as mortal as an old man’s life?” (Act IV, Scene V)
Although both Ophelias speak of flowers though neither has any, Almereyda’s Ophelia is a photographer and I truly love the treatment of the wild flowers that Ophelia is strewing. Almereyda chooses to have her giving out Polaroids of the flowers, to bring this antiquated scene into the new millennium.
Although it is difficult to find fault with the beauty, splendor, exemplary acting, rich costumes, sets and the cornerstone of Hamlet that is Kenneth Branagh himself, I truly enjoyed the very different take and the modern spin that Michael Almereyda put on his version of Hamlet and I would recommend that all Shakespeare lovers give it a try.
- IMDB; Hamlet 2000, Michael Almereyda, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0171359/?ref_=nv_sr_4
- AP English Session 2 WordPress website, Kate Winslet Mad Flowers https://lwallenberg2.wordpress.com/2012/03/18/week-8-day-3-wednesday-march-21-2012-wallies/
- Videos courtesy of Youtube.com