Branagh's Hamlet, And Why It Sucks

Kenneth Branagh has always been a bit of a cipher to me, at least in terms of his work. Some of his movies are awesome, like Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, and Thor. Others are too far out in Cloudcuckooland for me to even begin to comprehend, like As You Like It and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. His acting is much the same; I love him in Wallander, Henry V, and Harry Potter, but loathe him in Wild Wild West and Othello. He is a polarizing figure, mostly because there is no such thing as a mediocre movie with him; he is either outrageously bad or outrageously good.

His Hamlet (1996) appears to be an amalgam of the man. There are parts I like, and then there are parts I hate. The difference between him and the film is that the parts I hate in the film outweigh what I don't by a good bit.

There are dominant themes of gardening, nature and decay in the play. These themes cannot be explored in a visual manner when the director decides to set his production in a Denmark that is apparently in the middle of the longest (albeit visually stunning) permafrost this side of the Ice Age. The winter setting also introduces huge lapses of logic into a play that has enough issues with continuity as it is;

- Why would Hamlet Elder be sleeping in his garden in the middle of winter? Claudius could have easily offed him and said it was pneumonia if the King were fool enough to do that.

- Certainly the above explanation would be a more plausible excuse than a snake bite; It's common knowledge that snakes, like the one that apparently killed the king, are dormant when it's cold, being cold-blooded creatures and all. Nobody in Denmark would have bought Claudius's story for one second.

- Are flowers exceptionally hardy in Denmark? Because the ones that were growing around Ophelia's river sure seem to be. I mean, Gertrude put all that effort in describing all the flowers that she made a wreath of before she offed herself-... I mean, drowned tragically.

- Of course, the lack of flowers in the winter also makes moot Ophelia's mad scene, where they are central. (no, Branagh, we can't have invisible flowers. She can't be imagining the flowers... O_O)

These examples are the continuity errors that stuck out to me when I watched it. These aren't the necessary continuity errors that are already embedded into the text (so Shakespeare couldn't count...). These are errors that come from a director who is not thinking of the text in relation to his visuals, which is toxic in a visual medium like theatre or film.

Instead, Kenneth Branagh decided that his Hamlet should be set in some kind of Hapsburgian Winter Wonderland that is also full of mirrors (a concept explored at a later time to greater effect by the production starring David Tennant...).

I'm not entirely sure why the setting is what it is, and I'm more or less certain that the director doesn't know either. Usually when directors option to set a play in a painstakingly specific time period, it is to illustrate a greater point, or to enlighten the audience by drawing parallels between the work and the historical era that they have chosen. Hamlet, given that it has no real time or place, and contradicts itself constantly when it tries to establish anything of the sort, is particularly elastic regarding this.

Branagh didn't seem to be going for either of these things. He seemed more concerned with creating a world of visual wonders that didn't serve to illuminate the text or the audience's understanding of it (He also seemed preoccupied with finding an era where people still bothered to use swords, which is a superficial obstacle that can be overcome quite easily given the liberal application of imagination). He paid the historical period more mind than the plot, the characters, or the one or two time settings that Shakespeare bothers to give.

Now, the results are some seriously beautiful set-pieces that weren't done before and have been only imitated since. But this is achieved at the side effect of compromising the text, which is never necessary with Shakespeare.

I won't get into the casting decisions, or the chafing use of cutaway scenes, or the unfortunate characterization choices, or some of the more NARMy directorial moves, or Branagh's acting technique, because I get the sense that these are things that are less issues with text interpretation and more me nitpicking. Maybe on another day, when I'm feeling the rage a little bit more, I'll bother with these infractions.

God, I need a life. Does it show that school can't start soon enough for me?


  1. Sorry, I just happened to be trolling various websites, so ignore this if you feel like it.
    My AP English class covered Hamlet, and my teacher mentioned that the errors Shakespeare made with time may have been intended; Hamlet mentions that "time is out of joint," and Marcellus says "something is rotten in the state of Denmark." So...Shakespeare made sure he could do whatever he wanted by letting the audience know that time was wonky.
    If you already knew this, then I'll just go and skulk back to my little corner.

  2. I feel like I might have seen a production that particularly showcased that idea before, but they sort of squandered the concept with a Doctor Who-ish sort of explanation.

    Apart from that, I never really gave it much consideration. As a metaphor for the events of a play, I guess a lack of continuity would actually serve to enhance meaning rather than confuse it. That's pretty cool. :D

    Of course, it could also be a symptom of Hamlet's deranged mind, and we could be looking at an ur-example of unreliable narrator. And it could be Shakespeare poking fun at other outrageously inconsistent revenge tragedies of the day; the reason we don't pick up on the satire is because these revenge tragedies aren't popular anymore.

    But it would make more sense if it were deliberate. His other plays are more consistent and thoughtful regarding time (Father Time in The Winter's Tale, 'all the world's a stage', his histories), so it seems odd that this one simply isn't.

    I love Shakespeare for all the leeway that can go into a modern reading of his plays. He brings out the best in everyone when it comes to trying to figure out what he meant. One day I think I'll draw up some of the more interesting theories regarding Hamlet.