The Play is (Still) the Thing: Branagh, Ambiguity, and HAMLET
19 August 2012
Fact: In the late 1500s and early 1600s, Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be watched, not read. Yet, as the centuries have gone by, is the same true? In today’s world, one of the main reasons people revere Shakespeare’s work is his use of language, its ambiguity and dexterity; things more easily appreciated during reading, not watching.
Yet, even though Shakespeare’s work may be more popular today with readers (scholars, students, etc), the Bard and his work is still celebrated in the traditional performative way. But, in some ways, the extensive attention paid to Shakespeare’s use of language has made it harder to create successful performances of Shakespeare’s work. Tricky thing is, in a performance, be it theatre or film, some of Shakespeare’s revered ambiguity is lost. That is, the director, screenwriter, and actor(s) make certain claims and decisions about the plot and characters which clarify the uncertainty. On one hand, these choices breathe new life into the piece, giving it a distinct tone or establishing a core theme that may reinvent or reinvigorate the work. But, on the other hand, removing any of the coveted ambiguity eliminates (or, at least, reduces) one of the key elements that earned Shakespeare his staying power over the last 400+ years.
In 1996, Kenneth Branagh, British actor, screenwriter, and director often associated with Shakespearean adaptations, took aim at one of the Bard’s most popular tragedies, Hamlet. A complex web of characters, secrecy, and madness, when boiled down to a one-line (biased) summary, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is, essentially, the story of a boy and his mother. Thus, the play’s elaborate intricacies, subplots, and details gave Branagh a lot of space for exploration and discovery when adapting the tragedy, and Branagh’s Hamlet is a bit more than a film about a boy and his mother. Even though Branagh kept nearly every word of Shakespeare’s language in the film, he removed a considerable amount of the play’s ambiguity by making clear, conscious decisions regarding blocking, characterization, and setting. Moreover, other cinematic elements, such as the film’s musical score, work in supporting Branagh’s elaborate vision and lead the audience through his dramatic vision of Hamlet.
Many of Branagh’s directorial decisions in Hamlet work well, in that the film is both captivating and clever. The setting, which Branagh modernizes slightly to the 19th century, allows a more grandiose set and costume design, appealing to the audience’s aesthetic eyes. However, when digging deeper into these directorial decisions, one eventually bumps into the choices Branagh makes regard the play’s ambiguity. For example, in a notorious confrontation between Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh) and Ophelia (Kate Winslet), Branagh makes clear claims about the characters motivations and intentions through blocking and acting decisions. To contextualize the confrontation, Hamlet bumps into Ophelia shortly after he breaks off his courtship with her, and Ophelia’s father, Polonius (Richard Briers), and Hamlet’s uncle (now King), Claudius (Derek Jacobi), are eavesdropping the two estranged lovers because they believe Hamlet is mad and they would like to know just how far gone he is. Shakespeare’s ambiguity lies in the audience not knowing if Hamlet realizes he is being spied on.
In Branagh’s adaptation Hamlet enters a great room of his castle finding Ophelia alone; Polonius and Claudius are behind a mirrored door listening and watching to each sound and movement. It is clear from Hamlet’s interaction with Ophelia that he does not know Polonius and Claudius are present; however, after his confrontation with Ophelia escalates, and an unfamiliar noise comes from behind one of the mirrored doors, Hamlet realizes he and Ophelia are being spied on; his behavior changes drastically after this realization. A simple directorial decision like this makes a claim about the play and adapts the scene in accordance with that claim.
However, Branagh goes one step further in his adaptation of Hamlet. Beyond making similar directorial decisions that offer meaning about his adaptation of Hamlet through blocking and acting, Branagh also includes montages of character’s thoughts and memories throughout the play. These continual visualizations make even stronger claims about Hamlet; claims Branagh took a risk in including within his adaptation.
For example, toward the start of the film, when Hamlet follows the Ghost into the woods and the Ghost reveals the details of his death to Hamlet, one of these visualized thought montages appears. The Ghost chronicles his death in the garden, at the hands of Claudius, and as the Ghost’s story is told a montage of the events plays before the audience’s eyes. This montage gives the audience a clear visual of the Ghost’s story as Hamlet is thinking or seeing it in his own mind.
Later in the film, during multiple scenes involving Hamlet and Ophelia, both together and respectively, these visualized thoughts return, this time as memories. Both Hamlet and Ophelia frequently relive some of their more loving and intimate moments. This is a very interesting decision on Branagh’s part because it speaks to the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia; clearly, based on these memories the two hold, their relationship was passionate and devoted. That said, the fact that Hamlet casts her aside for revenge makes his character less tolerable; seemingly callous, but more certainly mad.
Branagh’s decision to include visual montages to match character’s thoughts and memories is a risk because it removes even more of the play’s ambiguity and makes even stronger claims about the characters and their actions. Yet, in some ways this risk pays off; the montages expand the characterization and help contemporary audiences grapple with the difficult language and its dexterous ideas through visual associations. However, these montages also fail because they are unreliable. Sure, the audience learns more of Ophelia from her memories of Hamlet, but where is the visual montage when Gertrude (Julie Christie) tells of Ophelia’s death. If Branagh chooses to show the audience some events that happen “off stage,” some even prior to the play’s exposition, why not show us everything? Hamlet is full of characters explaining/discussing events for the audience to see, so why is Branagh particular about which he visualizes? Gertrude’s story about Ophelia’s accidental drowning is curious; how would she know the details of how Ophelia’s dress floated on the surface of the water before saturating and slowly dragging her body underwater if she, Gertrude, was not present when Ophelia died? And, if she was present, why didn’t she save her? There is considerably ambiguity in this monologue, but Branagh avoids it all together; his Gertrude remains rather unexplored. While some characters are overexposed others are barely tapped at all.
In all, Branagh’s Hamlet, like all Shakespeare performed adaptations, reduces the play’s ambiguity, but does so in clever and considerate ways. Yet, beyond figuring out where to block actors, how to perform scenes, and where to set said scenes, Branagh attempts to add more to his adaptation by creating this visualized thoughts and memories, and that is the weakest part of the film. The audience cannot be privy to the characters minds one scene and complete excluded the next; it is not credible. Ultimately, there is no rhyme or reason to which thoughts and remembrances are visualized, and that inconsistency feels incomplete. While the film is well constructed and entertaining, Branagh’s Hamlet falls short. There is no question…the play is the thing, not the film.