Mad in Craft

Why? Why did I watch Kenneth Branagh’s HAMLET?

Apparently I was curious about it. But not so curious that I watched it in 1996. That would have made sense — I could have seen in in 70mm. I watched it this week.

I was curious about it being the full four hour unexpurgated play, but I came to believe that by not cutting, Branagh had given up a big part of the adaptor’s toolkit — directors typically choose what parts of the play to emphasise, they focus in, by cutting. And, while I can see doing it uncut on the stage makes sense, any uncut Shakespeare text on the screen is likely to suffer from redundancy as the characters take their time describing things we can SEE. Oh boy did that happen here.

I should give Branagh credit where possible: he makes the thing go at a fair lick. And when ones’ eyes and ears have not actually gone blurry, you can still tell what the people are saying. Sometimes, it is true, you wonder why everyone is in such a frenzy when there’s not so much happening, and often, it is true, you feel that a momentary dramatic pause would bring out a lot more meaning than the relentless jabber.

The film is cast in a racially-blind manner, before it was fashionable or popular, and this is good. Hamlet is totally a play you can do this with, and any call for realism can be dismissed outright since the characters are (a) speaking blank verse and (b) not speaking Danish. There are no important Black characters, but there are quite a few minor ones, and one of those is the excellent Don Warrington.

Branagh has a certain boldness. My friend Paul Duane calls him “the worst director who has ever lived,” and he is, essentially, correct, but Branagh does things which are wrong in surprising ways, not just in boring ways, so I can still find him preferable to, say, Richard Attenborough. Who turns up here, because, of course he does.

OK, I think I’m done being nice. It wasn’t a very impressive display of positives, I admit.

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore Collection/REX (1596346a) Hamlet, Kenneth Branagh Film and Television

Branagh’s boldness is manifest in the uncut text, in the 70mm format, in a certain gusto with which he throws the camera around, and in the chaotic mix-and-match approach to casting. The guiding aesthetic principle here is the Dunning-Kruger effect. Branagh swirls the Steadicam around his cast, goes into slomo, cuts furiously, because he does, at least, know he CAN, but doesn’t know whether, from moment to moment, he should or should not. We’re on random.

Similarly, Branagh throws together the classically trained theatrical knight, the movie star, the sitcom actor, with gay abandon — it’s admirable in theory — you can see it being exciting — but everybody is playing the wrong part. Brian Blessed — fruity ham — is the ghost. Charlton Heston — grim-visaged axiom of cinema — is the player king. Swap them around and you’d have something.

Jack Lemmon — a potentially fine Polonius — is Marcellus, essentially a random spear-carrier. You wonder why he’s the only American spear-carrier. And whether he’s a bit old for active duty. Richard Briers, a good sitcom actor, is Polonius. And it’s true that Polonius is the most sitcomlike character, and also true that Briers suppresses his natural affability to play the man as a more creepy and august figure, it doesn’t always work.

All the play’s double-acts are mismatched: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two interchangeable doofuses, are Timothy Spall and Reece Dinsdale, a grotesque and a normie. The two gravediggers are Billy Crystal and Simon Russell Beale, Borscht belt and Stratford. Crystal is possibly my favourite performance in the thing: he isn’t funny, his stuff with Beale is a snooze, but there’s a provocative sense of challenge when he’s matched with Branagh. One is a movie star and the other only thinks he is because he has no sense upon which to base his judgement. The result is tension, and the only place where the cutting back and forth between characters adds any excitement.

How badly cast is this film? We are asked to believe that Derek Jacobi has stolen Julie Christie away from Brian Blessed.

Jacobi — always cast as men called Claudius, is miscast as Claudius here. He’s not an impressive opponent. He does OK.

Branagh has realised one thing, I think, but he’s realised it in the edit: the shot/countershot cuts only work when we see who’s talking. It must have been discovered that reaction shots make you lose the thread of the speeches. Or else it was assumed. The result is a Dragnet approach to cutting, where every cut is on the end of a speech, cueing up the reply. I love Dragnet but it has a deliberately inexpressive cutting pattern, suitable for procedurals.

What Shakespeare needs, I suspect, and could very well get in a 70mm film, is dynamic blocking and long-held wide shots where everyone can act together in real time. There’s very, very little of that here, though there are plenty of scenes where the camera just circles the actors for no good reason. This is Branagh’s third Shakespearean adaptation so you would think he’d have a working theory of montage and mise-en-scene.

Olivier went into HENRY V with a plan: he knew that Shakespeare’s more rousing speeches seem to necessitate a certain building to a climax by the actor. The traditional approach to long scenes in the movies is to move closer. Olivier sussed that this would result in us looking right up his nose just as he was really getting into it with the yelling and gesticulating, so he reversed the pattern, very consciously: as Henry builds to a climax, the camera pulls back.

Actual saliva bubble

Branagh never realised that when he made his own HENRY V, so the film is a spittle-flecked shoutfest in which the King spends a lot of time screaming right in our ear. It’s distracting when you see saliva blasting forth in great gobs: it’s only appropriate to do spit if that’s the only thing you want the audience to notice.

Here we are, after MUCH ADO, and Branagh is still drenching the scenery with his face. He gets started early, when he meets the ghost. This is very bad: we have about three and a half hours to go at this point. How’s he going to top this? Shit, what happens when he goes/plays mad?

Plenty. The Dane froths, simpers, screams, and his voice goes comically high to suggest strong emotion. One of my favourite out-of-control performances is Alan Arkin’s last scene in LITTLE MURDERS. It’s huge and manic and (bouncing) off-the-wall. But it’s one scene. He builds to it, and then he stops. Branagh does have quiet moments — the only scene I’d seen excerpted from this was, predictably, “To be or not to be,” which is perfectly OK, and calm. But he spends about an hour running about doing full loony.

Kate Winslet, at least, is only wildly over-the-top for one scene.

As the film trundled on, I found myself no longer able to notice how badly directed it was. I had lost the aesthetic sense. I was in Branaghworld. But the opening scenes really pop and zing with ineptitude, and cry out for close analysis. I think it’d be fun to look at scenes from the Branagh, Olivier and Richardson HAMLETs, as I previously did with three varied MACBETHs.

But not this scene. This scene I just include because it made me giggle. I’m not even sure why. Do you find it funny? I’ve written before about how certain actors should be put at the tip of an A composition because they can’t help but distract from the big foreground heads. Turns out Jack Lemmon is one. Everything he does is more interesting than what Hamlet and Horatio do, even when he’s just titling screen left so Horatio won’t block him from view (00.13).

But the funnier stuff is inside. Partly it’s weird because we see a normal door, and then Branagh cuts back and forth between two groups in the narrow doorway, and they both have the same background. Despite the fact that the camera angles must, presumably, be at least 90 degrees apart. This is called “cheating” and I generally approve of it — to hell with continuity, make the shots effective. Here it becomes subtly discombobulating and hilarious.

(Louis Malle said he was fond of shooting the closeups in a shot/countershot sequence against the exact same background, but I haven’t looked out examples to see how he gets away with it. He mentioned it in connection with ZAZIE so he may have been after the exact dizzy effect Branagh stumbles upon here.)

But there’s just something about the Dragnet cutting-on-dialogue that becomes hysterical to me when the actors build up a froth and the cutting gets faster. Thespian tennis. What do you think?

HAMLET stars Hercule Poirot; Martin Beck; Petulia Danner; Young Iris Murdoch; King Vultan; Sir Robert Peel; Smee; Airey Neave; Miracle Max; Lavrenti Beria; J.M.W. Turner; Sherlock Holmes; C.C. Baxter; Lenin; Cyrano de Bergerac; Dr. Satnam Tsurutani; Judah Ben-Hur; Aunt May; Johnny Rotten; Philip Smith; Popeye; Iris Murdoch; Lord Raglan; Sid Luft; Pinkie Brown; Captain R.F. Scott R.N.


18 Responses to “Mad in Craft”

  1. Tony Williams Says:

    Paul is correct. Branagh is “the worst director who has ever lived” and a pip squeak trying to surpass the work of his cinematic predecessors but ending up like a stunted dwarf. I remember how Derek Jarman slammed B’s statement that his HENRY V was better than Olivier’s giving him a tongue lashing the little creep deserved. My last foray into his work was MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN saved by De Niro and John Cleese despite one borrowing from THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Awful actor, awful director, awful talent, fully deserving his knighthood in a post -Elizabethan age of cultural mediocrity. Alas, it was far too early for Her Majesty to make a cameo appearance with Paddington Bear.

  2. Judy Dean Says:

    Oh dear, oh dear. I had the doubtful pleasure of sitting through Sir Kenneth’s remake of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS with David Melville Wingrove and another good friend. I concluded that Ken had been given a copy of THE LADYBIRD BOOK OF FILM DIRECTING for his birthday and had worked his way conscientiously through it, paying particular attention to the chapters on Meaningless Camera Movements and Random Shouting of Lines. As MURDER ……… mercifully reached its conclusion, the friend whispered “Let’s hope he’s never heard of DEATH ON THE NILE”, whereupon a voice was heard to utter the very last line of the film. “Phone call from Cairo for you, Monsieur Poirot”.

  3. Judy Dean Says:

    And yes, that scene from HAMLET is funny.

  4. “the full four hour unexpurgated play”
    There are actually three rather different versions of the play. If I remember rightly, Branagh combined elements of them all. It’s Shakespeare’s longest play, and it’s been suggested that Q2 – the longest version – was actually a draft for cutting.
    I don’t think Branagh’s version is as bad as some of you, but
    i do regret that he lost his nerve and “illustrated” the speeches, rather than letting the words do the work, especially as some of the actors were astonishingly and unexpectedly appropriate.

  5. Judy Dean Says:

    Until the last couple of weeks, since when the clamour has thankfully died down, I was repeatedly urged by certain friends, who never go to the cinema except once every five years for a Grey Pound Film, to see BELFAST. I’ve still not worked out an appropriate response.

  6. “Hamlet” is the most grievously overrated of Shaespeare’s plays. “The Tempest” and “AMidsmmer Night’s dream” are tons better. “Hamlet” makes no narrative sense and appeals to the bottomless vanity ofsub-par actors like Branagh Let’s hear t for “Hamlet 2” !

  7. I have heard good things about Belfast from reputable people. But I’m biding my time.

    Auden reckoned Hamlet a failure, but at least an interesting one. He remarked that the big soliloquies all work just as well out of context, unlike in the other plays. Which suggests that Shakespeare was getting too fond of the sound of his own voice, or that Hamlet is lost in philosophising and thus fails to act, or that the author was struggling to create interest in a passive character. Or none of the above.

    I think it’s always a good idea to assume WS knows what he’s doing, which helps me put the blame here on Branagh.

  8. Tony Williams Says:

    “Who put the blame on Mame?” We never learned who in GILDA but at least we know DC “put the blame here on Branagh” – deservedly so!

  9. There’s always Asta Nielsen’s and Kurosawa’s versions and The Northman, of course.
    An interesting throwback to Saxo Grammaticus is Henry Treece’s novel The Green Man, which includes not just Hamlet, but King Arthur and Beowulf, who takes his pet epic poet around with him as a kind of tenth-century PR man.

  10. I think it was Eliot who thought Hamlet was a failure…

  11. Auden too — I’m reading his lectures (as transcribed by the students).

    I don’t quite consider The Bad Sleep Well to be an adaptation, though there’s surely an influence. Also, I don’t really count versions that don’t use Shakespeare’s dialogue… I guess they’re adaptations, though most of WS’s stories aren’t original to him…

  12. Eliot’s favourite Shakespeare was Coriolanus – an eccentric judgement, I would say.

    Branagh’s acting in that scene suggests to me a teenager desperately trying to hide he fact he’s high as a kite. That pinched, squeaky voice, the bug eyes, the air of suppressed mania…


  14. bensondonald Says:

    Recently viewed both of KB’s Poirot pix. Amusing novelties, what with the location spectacle and CGI camera stunts lavished on stories intended to be tight and cozy, not epic. Tashlin’s “The Alphabet Murders” still stands as the biggest Poirot misfire, unable to decide if Tony Randell was Poirot or Clouseau.

    What Branagh does to Poirot is what many adaptors have done to Sherlock Holmes, the difference being Poirot doesn’t stand up to tampering the way Sherlock (usually) does. “Orient Express” has the Belgian sleuth smiling at a photo of a lost love, and elevates his moral fretting to mock-Shakespeare levels (the Albert Finney version basically shrugged it off, closing with what looked like a wrap party). “Murder on the Nile” opens with WWI, bringing the lost love on camera to explain the double-decker mustache. And instead of faithful Colonel Hastings, the second film brings back Poirot’s de facto sidekick from the first film, carrying a heap of his own subplot.

    A closing scene, after the mystery has been solved, suggests that Poirot has changed in significant ways. Don’t know whether Branagh envisioned an evolving character, like an angsty superhero in the Marvel movies, or simply decided against a television-type ending that left Poirot back at square one for the next murder.

    That said, both films are clever enough to find interesting alternate routes to endings spoiled decades ago. The diversity of the casts feels organic, rooting it in the vast reach of the Empire and quietly acknowledging racism. And “Nile” teams Saunders and French, but sadly their roles are small (we do get a fleeting bit of cheating at shuffleboard).

  15. I was just thinking… or dreaming… about Trintignant. The Conformist is screening in Bologna this year, where I won’t be, and I wondered if he might attend.

    Branagh sort of gets away with the high pitch in my chosen scene, just the once. But then he brings it back, to increasingly comic effect, again and again. It’s a mainstay of his mad act, but he leans into it whenever he’s trying to break our hearts.

  16. I turned off Orient Express after ten minutes. So I can’t really comment on it, but I think it’s Branagh’s ENERGY that I find so wearisome. And I’m mistrustful of attempts to impose arcs on characters/icons who got on perfectly well for decades without them.

  17. Tony Williams Says:

    DEAD AGAIN (1991) 1is also indescribably bad, the subject of a CINEMA JOURNAL article by two academics (one of which was Lucy Fischer) that elevated barren theory above investigating Branagh’s bad acting and directing. His posturing represents the cultural abyss of “rip off Britain.

  18. Robin Williams, disappointing in Hamlet (his scenes all shot in one go, so he appears disconnected from his surroundings) is quite good in Dead Again, as is Andy Garcia, demonstrating what film acting is all about. Branagh doesn’t notice and is awful in both his roles. Emma Thompson is miscast twice. And by forcing himself and his partner into two roles, Branagh completely fouls up the twisty script. It only becomes utterly laughable at the climax, in which Branagh tries to be DePalma (his regular composer, Patrick Doyle, went on to score Carlito’s Way).

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