Running just over four hours in length, Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 production of “Hamlet” isn’t exactly the kind of film that the casual moviegoer pops in on a rainy day, but is instead tailored almost exclusively to cinephiles and diehard fans of Shakespeare. That’s because unlike previous film adaptations of the famous play, Branagh’s version is the first (and probably the last) to utilize the full text, resulting not only in one of the most ambitious studio movies of the last 15 years, but also the most complete film adaptation to ever be made. It just so happens to be one of the best, too, thanks in part to Branagh’s skillful direction, a treasure trove of fantastic performances (including Derek Jacobi as Claudius and Julie Christie as Gertrude), and gorgeous cinematography that benefits from Branagh’s decision to shoot the movie in 70 mm.
It’s completely coincidental that “Hamlet” was released around the same time as the formative years of my literary studies, but although I was already quite taken with Shakespeare’s play by the time I stumbled onto Branagh’s film, it only further deepened my appreciation for the work. And once you see his version of “Hamlet,” it’s really difficult to accept any other. I’m certainly not alone, either, as many people had been clamoring for the film to be released on DVD for years before Warner Bros. caved in with a belated 10th anniversary special edition. (And on my birthday, no less.)
Thankfully, we didn’t have to wait nearly as long for the Blu-ray, and the fact that it’s being released the week after my birthday makes me believe that, in some cosmic way, I’m somewhat responsible. So if you’ve been counting down the days until you could experience Branagh’s “Hamlet” in high definition, you’re welcome. Unfortunately, while the film looks brilliant in HD, there are no new special features to speak of. Granted, the ones that appeared on the two-disc DVD were already pretty good – the commentary by Branagh and Shakespeare scholar Russell Jackson is entertaining and insightful, and the making-of documentary “To Be on Camera,” although a bit dated, features some nice interviews with the cast – but surely they could have dug up something from the archives. Not that it will matter. Anyone that owns the DVD will want to pick up the Blu-ray strictly for the technical upgrades. And when you’re dealing with a movie with such lush production values, it’s more of a necessity than a luxury.