Movie Review: Hamlet (review 101)

Posted: October 14, 2010 in Movie Review, Reviews
Tags: , , , , ,

I decided, in order to make up for the abysmal showing of my 100th review, I would make up for it by showing off something special. Something foreign with an exploitative topic of a man murdering his brother so he could bang his wife and steal the inheritance. The story of a son, discovering his father murdered flies into a murderous rage. A young girl’s boyfriend takes sexual advantage of her, murders her father, and then leaves her to fall into insanity, eventually driving her to her own suicide. It’s even got a supernatural element, just in case you were afraid that this could in anyway be considered classy. A man even gets two of his old school chums murdered, more or less for the lulz.

What is this movie you ask?

Word up for The Bard bitches!

Hamlet (1996 Castle Rock Entertainment Dir. Kenneth Branagh)

Now I know what you’re asking… am I kidding? NO! I am not. Had this been written in 1975, entitled “Prince of Blood” or any of a dozen alternate titles, and made for under $100K it would be looked down on as much as any other exploitation movie. It’s got all the nasty hooks. Ghosts, revenge, sexual shenanigans, murder, a hint of incest, bad action, characters that pop in and out of the tale at random, and huge events happening off camera. Not to spoil it for you, but one of the most important side characters in the entire play dies off screen! This is not a classy play, let’s be clear on that. This is an exploitation movie, plain and simple. It just happens to get a larger budget and better actors than most exploitation flicks. Because of that, it’s a great exploitation movie, don’t get me wrong, but it is still exploitation. Not only that, but it’s a really silly exploitation movie. Let us be perfectly frank about this so called Greatest Work of the English Language. If the script for Hamlet were handed in today, zombie Louis B. Mayer would rise up from the grave and slap the taste out of Shakespeare’s mouth.

Wet t-shirt contests were a little creepy before they worked out the idea of consensual participation.

Using parts from both the First Folio and Second Quarto editions, Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet is both one of the longest versions and the version with the highest words to actions ratio. I’m going to assume you already know the story of Hamlet. If you don’t, you have the internet and can find the movie online. I’m not going to discuss the play as a whole, I will instead talk about the things that make it like a cheap cinema flick of old. As a result, I’m going to skip some things. Here is a version that you can watch. I don’t know if that link will have expired by the time you read this, but you can find another version of it online. I have no doubt that Hamlet is easy to find. Even if you can’t get a movie for free, you can at least grab the script. It’s not like Shakespeare can claim copyright, at least not until copyright law is once again perverted beyond all recognition and rights can be claimed by the undead, then you’ll see some serious shit going on, I’ll tell you what. I long to see the risen corpse of Johann Pachelbel return and demand his cut of the royalties from every song that uses his Canon in D. That’s going to be an awesome day friends.

Durp, durp, durp.

Before we dip into the work itself, one more general complaint about how Shakespeare movies tend to be presented. The very nature of the scripts makes a big problem for actors. There are rarely any stage directions, almost everything in a Shakespeare play is dialogue and the actor sort of needs to work out where they need to go and what they need to do on their own. The problem is that if you leave most actors to work things out on their own, they’ll stand in the middle of the stage reciting the lines to the audience out of love for their own voice and only gesticulating because they enjoy moving like that. Now, granted, that’s why the Great Waffle gave us directors, because someone needs to slap those deluded meat puppets like a pimp going after a bitch that’s holding out on him. Seriously, if directors didn’t smack, nothing would get done. The problem is, even the most pimping of directors seem stunned by the sheer wordiness of this stuff occasionally. What you end up with, even with someone who knows how to handle actors, is quite often a word salad. Allow me to make my point, while insulting you at the same time. I’m much smarter than you are, and I’ve gone to great lengths to educate myself. I’ve taken these efforts far further than you have, endeavoring to make it as complete an education as possible, and even I look at the screen sometimes with that blank glassy eyed stare. It’s pretty bad when someone looks to me, hoping I might explain and I have to look back and say “Frankly, even I don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.”

Hamlet was the most emo kid at his school.

Partly that’s the language, partly the style of the day, but quite often it’s because the actor falls into a vocal rhythm that can shut your brain down and put you to sleep faster than someone reading off economic theory in a flat monotone. It’s exceptionally hard to make Shakespeare’s language understandable to a modern audience, but they keep trying because putting it in intelligible English wouldn’t be pretentious enough. And before you ask, yes I also have the same opinion when someone wants to keep Geoffrey Chaucer’s work with the original spelling rather than correcting it into something a modern teenager understands. I believe they do this because if teens could actually read Chaucer, they’d realize it was full of dick jokes and might read it. That would be no good, because it would shatter the stereotype that kids don’t read classics and then the teachers would totally loose their self-identity. Yeees, I am being quite anti-establishment and extraordinarily anti-critic at the moment. Let us say that I recently read a writer who claimed that this was the greatest story ever written, who then turned around and besmirched a book written in the mid-30s that was more or less a modernization in novel form. That particular dumbass couldn’t even see the fact that the one book was based on the other and simply decried the novel as pulp trash. This despite the fact that Hamlet is, in fact, itself a bit of pulpy trash.

Impressive package my lord!

Anyway! On to how this story particularly resembles an exploitative Grindhouse film. Do please note that I actually do like Hamlet, I find it an interesting and entertaining play. I also find it lacking in some areas, and I think that if it were a new play presented today, the sort of people who fawn over it would reject it as trashy and stupid. To be honest, my first thought when picking this movie was to review it as if I thought it was a stupid exploitation film, but I quickly came to the conclusion that I couldn’t carry that off. Before I get into how the play Hamlet compares to a Grindhouse classic, let’s talk about how it doesn’t.

Wake me when we get to a good bit.

Were this a real exploitation movie, it would be cut down to the bone and further. Clocking in a 242 minutes, you could just about get three Grindhouse movies in that time frame. There are quite a few of these films that exist in longer formats, but they would often get edited for time. This could result in loosing characters, on in some cases, coherence. However, there are film versions of Hamlet that have cut the play way down. You can get Hamlet down to about 90 minutes if you try. This version is actually the reverse of that. In many ways, what Branagh’s Hamlet represents is one of those movies where years and years later, someone assembles all the known footage ever considered to be part of the movie and inserts them all back in. It often doesn’t even matter if the director would have preferred to have those sections removed, or if it hurts the flow of the story, they’ve replaced everything. Remember that this text comes from two different sources, so it could be that what we’ve really got is the original version and the rewrite (where boring bits were taken out) smashed together into one play. As a result, if this were sold to a Grindhouse distributor, they would take out entire reels of the movie to try and get the length down. Hell, the length is something of a detracting factor even among the sort of people who do like these things. Why does it have to be more than four horse-fisting hours long? I’ve had relationships that were shorter than that.


These are not b-list actors being cast above their pay grade, or friends of the director being asked to read lines because they can’t get anyone else. Well, actually, most these people are Branagh’s friends, but you know what I mean. These are professional actors, many are classically trained, and others are well known for fine performances. Some of these people are considered the finest Shakespearian actors of their respective generations’. These aren’t people who mumble their lines and fail to emote. AND! Brian Blessed was the king in the first Black Adder Series, so you know you’re dealing with quality. Sadly, he doesn’t turn in one of his great performances, although even when he whispers he does it in a way that suggests shouting. This is a major difference between this production and say The Atomic Brain. Actors do make a difference.

I’m sure you’re all wondering why I’ve called you all here. I was thinking of a group Ping-Pong challenge.

Production Value:
I know, I know. I said I was going to review Hamlet as a whole, but I’m using Kenny’s version as a funky baseline to talk about the play. Unlike some other versions, most notably Laurence Olivier’s, which use minimal light and sets, Branagh’s version is startlingly lavish and opulent. They have a real palace both for the exterior and the main inspiration of the internal sets. They also use comedy lighting* throughout much of the production. All this is used to vanquish the minimalist effect that many productions of Hamlet labor under. There is way more money spent on this production than would be in most your average exploitation movies and that money is used more intelligently than those bits of crap would.
*So named because comedies tend to light everything in the scene. Some time, take a moment to notice how things are lit in a sit-com and then notice how they’re lit in a gritty cop drama.

What a way to run a railroad.

So that’s how the two are different, but how is Hamlet like a cheap little drive-in movie? Let us now go on to similarities. This is where the play takes over for the movie. The play, like most of Shakespeare’s plays, can take whatever form the individual interpreter wishes it to take. However, the play and movie both hold the constants of the examples I will be explaining here. Frankly, we’ve got everything save for the obligitory lesbian make-out scene and the zombies.

Money’s on the table babe. See yourself out.

Loose Story Ends:
When you make a movie on a shoestring budget, sometimes you have to re-write the story to fit the people who have given you money today. Even if that means you have to leave plot threads dangling and pretend like those bits of the story never happened, that’s what you do. There is another event where a movie will have extra scenes shot much later to make the movie seem as if it’s one kind of movie when it’s actually another. There are several places in the massive script I could go for, but I’m going to hit one story line instead. See, Fortinbras never actually seems to go anywhere. Even with an overly complete telling like this one, Young Fortinbras is really sort of pointless. Yes, I get that he’s a threat that hangs over the political story like an avalanche that might fall if a sparrow farts, but he never actually does anything. By the time Fortinbras shows up, there is nothing left to conquer and no one left to menace. What’s he going to do? Muss Horatio’s hair and make a “your mom” joke at him? There are other parts of the story which are political in nature, but they only serve to distract. They’re never properly defined and none of them ever feel like they come to any kind of resolution. In fact, if one wants to see how pointless this aspect is, simply look to the huge number of productions that leave it out entirely.

And we’re talking and talking and talking… and we’ll walk while we do it lest people thing the picture had frozen.

Too much talking vs too little action:
This is a strange complaint seeing as how so many exploitation movies are part of the Video Nasty craze of the early 80s, but there it is. There is a lot of talking and farting around while you wait for something, ANYTHING, to actually happen in most these things. The reason of course is simple, we can only afford three or four big scenes. Be they action scenes, gory kills, lesbian make-outs or whatever. As a fun bit of film watching make a ratio of how much screen zombies actually have in Dawn of the Dead as opposed to how long the movie it. Doing stuff is expensive, having actors talk is cheap. Often the story scenes are only existent to have something for characters to do between action scenes. This is particularly prevalent in Hong Kong cinema, where another director often completely takes over for the fight scenes. I don’t know why Hamlet has such a large words to action ratio, but it’s a huge one. Strange since the story tackles huge subjects like regicide, patricide, suicide, uncle-cide and other ‘cides too numerous to mention. We don’t even get to see the good bits. There is a great opportunity for a love scene between Ophelia and Hamlet, but she never once gets her tits out. I guess we can mark that as a point against it being exploitation, if it were Ophelia would get naked. The point is that people sure do talk a lot while absolutely nothing actually happens.

Now I will do the dance of joy.

Where did THAT come from:
You notice how there is a ghost in this story? You ever notice that it only has two whole scenes? Yeah, why do we need the ghost? It’s a tacked on bit of mysticism that’s really not needed in what is essentially a politically tinged family drama about revenge. Come to that, several of the political scenes seem to come out of thin air and vanish again without leaving a plume as a token of the bits of story that they have spoken. Again, we’ve got the comparison to writing while shooting that any B-Movie aficionado has come to love and fear. Scenes don’t match up with each other very well. Like, what is that light hearted gravediggers scene sort of sticks out like a sore thumb when you are knee deep in a heavy drama, one that leads to Hamlet discovering that his girlfriend has died. Storylines come from nowhere and return there very quickly. Then you have elements that seem to have wandered in from the horror movie next door. Why a ghost? Couldn’t someone living have simply informed Hamlet of their suspicions? Why must the ghost turn up? And why dose all the Oedipal Complex stuff keep turning up? I mean really. Strictly speaking, Oedipus didn’t even have an Oedipal Complex. He didn’t know that guy was his dad, and he didn’t know that chick was his mom. Special props to Jocasta for being an early cougar though, even if it turned out bad for her in the end. And Hamlet doesn’t want to kill his dad or bang his mom. He wants to kill his uncle who murdered his dad and started banging his mom. Sooo, is Claudius the one with the complex or is Gertrude just a MILF? Hard to say, but what’s clear is that Hmalet wants to bang Ophelia, who primly exist to deny us a gander at her juicy jugs! Speaking of Ophelia…

There is something going on in there, but I’m not going to tell you what it is.

Important things (like deaths) handled off screen:
Ophelia is like… I don’t know, the fourth most important character in this play. So how does she die? Off screen! How does old Hamlet die? Off screen and or in a flashback. How does old Norway die? Off screen and before the story even starts. How do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern get it? OFF SCREEN! How many people die off screen? Well, around 20 thousand or so. Norwegian and Polish armies face each other in a battle over a patch of ground that has no actual value. And not one drop of blood is shed anywhere near the screen. This is just bad story telling. If you want big things to happen, let me see them. Shakespeare fails in the simplest of story telling techniques. Rule number one Billy boy! Show, don’t tell. Rather than explain all these exciting events, let us see one or two of them. But no, we have to hear about all those events. Does anyone actually die on screen in this damn play? Yeah. In the last five minutes, it turns into a play as written by a five year old… “And then he dies, and then she dies, and then he dies, and he dies, and then everybody dies!” Yes, yes, Polonius gets his halfway through, but by the time that the stage is soaked in blood it hardly matters anymore. Even Osric is implied to have died in the Branagh version, he gets stabbed and stumbles off stage, destined to be yet another unseen death. When a bad production would loose actors, they would often simply claim they died… off screen. Even so-called classy productions do this. Remember how Clemenza died off screen because of a disagreement with Richard Castellano? Yeah, I guess the chick playing Ophelia dropped out halfway through because of a disagreement about the nude scene we never got to see. Seriously, I know I’m not connecting the dots and leading you step by step, but Hamlet really does read like one of these exploitation movies. Watch a few, start noticing holes in the plot, now look at Hamlet, now back to Grindhosue now back to Hamlet now BACK TO ME! Sadly, you are not me, but with new Hamlet body wash you can at least smell like me. Yeah! That’s a joke that’s going to remain relevant for years, I’m sure there isn’t even one person out there wondering what the hell I’m talking about.

Now is the time on Sprockets when we DANCE!

So do I like Hamlet? Yes, yes I do. I do find it to be an amazingly effective piece of theater, worthy of study. However, I feel we should never, EVER forget that in the end it’s a ghost story about a crazy kid who kills the guy who killed his dad and banged his mom and that along the way he kills just about everyone else who gets in his way. It’s a tale of vengeance, of killing old friends and bringing down entire nations. It’s only a step or two away from being an exploitation movie. Pick up the pace, ditch the fancy talk, get Ophelia naked, have a few of those deaths on screen, and you will have it my friends. OR! You can take my idea on the story. Hamlet is indeed mad as a hatter. He imagines the ghost, and everything said by the ghost is false. I like the idea of everyone Hamlet kills being more or less innocent. Horatio is a figment of his imagination and scenes were people talk to him are simply added in by a sympathetic writer. It would take but a few strokes of the pen to remove any mention or acknowledgement of Horatio by any other character, leaving him a phantom in Hamlet’s diseased mind. You won’t get that in Branagh’s version, but you will get a fine piece of cinema. Either way, let’s have the score.

Official Score:
98 Degrees on the Graffiti Bridge Scale.

Weeeell, she did do a PG-13 approved nude scene. That’s something I suppose.

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