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Kenneth Branagh's 'Hamlet' is a masterpiece

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Sometimes, a film less than 90 minutes is too long, because the performances and story are superficial. But other movies with complex stories that are well cast and directed can hold a viewer's attention for several hours. Yesterday, this column reviewed "Gone With the Wind," a 4-hour epic. A more recent example of a memorable 4-hour film is "Hamlet," from 1996.

Over the years, there have been several film versions of Shakespeare's classic tragedy "Hamlet." This version stars Kenneth Branagh in the title role of the forlorn Prince of Denmark. At the beginning of the story, Prince Hamlet's widowed mother, Gertrude (played by Julie Christie), has recently married her scheming brother-in-law, Claudius (played by Derek Jacobi), shortly after her husband's untimely death. Hamlet finds the marriage disturbing and unseemly as he feels she has not spent enough time mourning. A little later, his father's ghost comes to him and tells him that his nefarious uncle killed him in order to gain the throne. Hamlet and a group of actors team up to create a play that reenacts the killing. He is convinced that Claudius's response to it will signal whether or not he is responsible for the king's death.

Kenneth Branagh also directed the film, and he has a lavish, over-the-top style that works well with this majestic story. Also, he makes the film visually stunning. It was shot in 70 mm, which makes the picture very clear. The costumes, as well as the set designs are all masterfully done.

The cast is first-rate. Kenneth Branagh is very good in the lead role. Also, Julie Christie is excellent as Gertrude, Hamlet's somewhat naïve mother. Another great performance is by Kate Winslet, who plays Ophelia, Hamlet's suicidal girlfriend.

"Hamlet," in spite of its length, is a must-see for Shakespeare fans.


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