Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet is my favourite Shakespearean movie. Most because, well – come on, it’s Branagh! Also though, I love it for the fact that it is the full text. The acting is superb and the set decoration is sumptuous. I have watched this movie more than a dozen times and there is one particular choice that Branagh makes as a director, that I do not appreciate, the treatment of Ophelia as she slips into insanity.
In the play itself, Act 4, Scene 5 opens with Horatio and the Queen discussing the fact that since the death of her father, Ophelia has taken to wandering around the castle talking about his death along with incoherent gibberish. Horatio warns the Queen that she should talk to Ophelia as her ramblings could cause “dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds”. In other words, the Queen needs to stop Ophelia from causing gossip around the castle.
The text itself just states “Enter Ophelia distracted”. Branagh however, chooses to treat Ophelia’s madness as a hysterical women during that time may have been treated (although I doubt that one of such high status would have been treated this way). The scene opens with the Queen staring through a hidey-hole in the floor of the castle, looking down on Ophelia in a straight jacket running into the walls of the padded cell in which she is being kept.
The treatment of the whole scene is quite disturbing with a pantomimed copulation on the floor of the throne with Ophelia, still in a straight jacket and cap, writhing on the floor in front of Gertrude and Horatio. I am not sure why Branagh chose to do the scene this way. It does fall in line with the way he chose to portray the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia as not the chaste courtship but more that they had been lovers for some time. Branagh’s version of this play is beautiful and I feel that his deliberate choices in Act 4 Scene 5, even though they make me uncomfortable, are authentic to how he perceives Shakespeare’s words.