Have seen, or not have seen, that is the question! Spectacular Shakespeare adaptation, which is quite unknown despite its star-studded cast. But don't be intimidated by the length, because watching this is worth the while in every respect!
Young Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh) has returned to the Danish Court for the funeral of his father, King Hamlet (Brian Blessed). Very soon after her husband's death, Hamlet's mother Gertrude (Julie Christie) marries her brother-in-law Claudius (Derek Jacobi), who becomes king. Hamlet, mourning gravely for his father, is furious and disgusted by this rushed marriage.
One night young Hamlet encounters the ghost of the deceased king, who gives account of how he was treacherously murdered by his brother. Hamlet swears revenge. Torn between his zest for action, doubts and a need for justification, he pretends to have gone mad. His uncle Claudius feels threatened by Hamlet's insanity because of his guilty conscience. At the same time beautiful Ophelia (Kate Winslet) discloses that Hamlet has wooed her. Her father Polonius (Richard Briers), council to the King, orders her to refuse Hamlet henceforth.
In order to find out whether his father's death and his mother's new marriage are the root of Hamlet's madness or rebuffed love, Gertrude and Claudius summon two of Hamlet's closest friends. They also utilize Ophelia to penetrate Hamlet's cause.
The arrival of a troupe of actors lifts Hamlet's mood and he contrives the scheme to expose with a purposeful staging whether his father's ghost lied or Claudius really is guilty. Claudius appears to be. During a confidential conversation with his mother Hamlet slays Polonius, who eavesdrops. Upon this Claudius sends Hamlet to England, where he is to be executed underhandedly.
Ophelia's brother Laertes (Michael Maloney) returns. To his grief he learns that his father is dead and his sister gone mad. Ophelia drowns herself and at her funeral Laertes meets Hamlet, who detected Claudius's plans to execute him, sent his two friends to death and returned. Together with Laertes, who hungers for revenge, Claudius conceives a plan to get rid of Hamlet: In a duel Laertes shall wound him with a poisoned blade or he shall drink of Claudius's poisoned wine. This scheme ends deadly for all (but one).
Kenneth Branagh, who once again directed, performed and wrote the screenplay for "Hamlet", is most renowned for his adaptations of several Shakespeare plays. Branagh has been Oscar-nominated for his screenplay and direction of "Henry V"; later he mustered Keanu Reeves, Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton and Kate Beckinsale, who was little known then, for "Much Ado About Nothing"; several other adaptations followed. His most elaborate film is still this four-hour version of Hamlet, which is the only unabridged film version. It has been filmed in breath-taking 70mm. This is an incredible rarity, especially if the duration - or length - of the film is borne in mind (about 7km). Nowadays films are commonly shot in 35mm, which is less brilliant, and at the utmost a very few action sequences are shot in 70mm, because it is easier to process or enlarge (this has been done e.g. in the last Bond movie "A Quantum Solace"). Not only this technical fact, but also the cast list speaks for the excellent quality of the film: Julie Christie, Billy Crystal, Gerard Depardieu, Charlton Heston, Jack Lemmon, Rufus Sewell, Robin Williams and Kate Winslet. Such a prominent cast was Castle Rock's condition to produce this film after Branagh's flop "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein". Unfortunately the film was an underachiever at the box office.
The story of the philosophizing procrastinator and melancholiac Hamlet is gently transported from Shakespeare's time into the 19th century. Therefore it was possible to shoot at Blenheim Palace, ten kilometres away from Oxford and within reach of Shepperton studios. The palace and its park offer a phenomenal setting, and the production design is flawless. That is the reason why in addition to the screenplay the design and the costumes are Oscar-nominated, as well as the dramatic soundtrack by Patrick Doyle. The film didn't win many awards, though.
But despite — or maybe because of — the rather deterring length of 242 minutes and the fear of some people not to be able to understand texts by Shakespeare, this quite unknown film is a jewel. Every detail in design, music and performance is perfect. You wouldn't want to compare it to the adaptation with Mel Gibson, because latter came off badly. No other film adaptation of this play is as visually stunning and as gripping, and the clear depiction greatly helps to understand the text fully. Once you start the film, time flies. You'll get sucked into the intricate plot, and when you reach the intermission, you could take a pee break. But you surely won't!