In watching Hamlet (1996), in multiple stints of course, I certainly came to have a deeper understanding of the play than I did after seeing the renditions of Almereyda or Doran, released in 2000 and 2009, respectively. Branagh’s film is about as faithful as a modern, cinematic retelling of the story can be, while still retaining elements of interpretation. I particularly enjoyed the cameos of Robin Williams and especially Billy Crystal.
Billy Crystal plays the gravedigger with whom Hamlet and Horatio come into contact after returning from England. Hamlet initially balks at the gravedigger’s cavalier treatment of the remains, before getting into his famous existential monologue. The gravedigger produces a skull that formerly belonged to Yorick, the court jester that entertained Hamlet as a child. Hamlet meditates on the futility of life, as everyone, even Alexander the Great, will eventually become dust. After this, and the subsequent realization that Ophelia has died, Hamlet is finally ready to avenge his father, which he has been putting off doing for the entire play.
There was one element of this first scene of the fifth act that revealed I hadn’t considered before. The gravedigger mentions his first day on the job was the day Hamlet was born. He follows this by saying “ I have been sexton here, man and boy, thirty years” (ll. 144-5) explicitly stating Hamlet’s age. I had always been under the impression that Hamlet was a teenager, or young adult.