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Film: Shakespeare uncut

The Bard is nearly tamper-proof, but Kenneth Branagh's full-text Hamlet lets the Christian poet speak for himself

It would have been a winter of our discontent indeed were it not for the spate of Shakespeare-on-celluloid productions that have been released within the last four months. While some are attributing filmmakers' interest in the British Bard to a lack of worthy fare from contemporary writers, it should be pointed out that Shakespeare's plays have never lost popularity or gone unproduced. Every decade has seen his plays jump from the stage to screens large and small, with the happy result of enlarging the audience for Shakespeare.

Some people unfortunately pick favorite productions--ever available on video--and ignore the rest. But Shakespeare's plays have so many facets that they are nearly inexhaustible, so that there is always room for new productions.

Baby boomers will recall director Franco Zefferelli's 1969 production of Romeo & Juliet. Who among the youth of the late '60s couldn't quote the balcony scene? With its lush cinematography and faithful Renaissance setting, Mr. Zefferelli's was a classic production. Modern classroom teachers report, however, that one problem they have in teaching this play is that many of their students cannot understand why Romeo and Juliet do not just sleep together. Their passionate love demands not sex, but the mutual commitment of marriage.

Now, the '90s generation has its Romeo and Juliet, with the couple caught in the crossfire of gang warfare and urban violence. Despite the modern setting and the use of guns instead of swords, independent filmmaker Baz Lurhmann keeps Shakespeare's story and his eloquence. It is healthy that Mr. Luhrmann decided to tackle the same material, proving that Shakepeare speaks to today's grunge rockers no less than to the adolescents of his own day. Though the film is inventive and can rightly boast of artful visual elements, most audiences have not found his frantic approach as easy to embrace as Mr. Zefferelli's production.

Set in a contemporary Latino-flavored Verona (actually filmed in Mexico City), Luhrmann's version casts the rival Capulets and Montagues as financial, racial, and territorial rivals, with the rude insults and bullets flying fast. The star-crossed lovers (Claire Danes as Juliet and Leonardo Di Caprio as Romeo) are passionate and convincing. But the actors--with the notable exceptions of Harold Perrineau as Mercutio and Pete Postlewaite as Father Laurence--are clearly not at ease with Elizabethan English, and the twisting tongues struggle against the script. Verbal handicaps paired with a noisy hard rock/grunge soundtrack and flash-cut editing style have tended to leave audiences confused, and the ending blurs Shakespeare's theme of reconciliation.

Mr. Luhrmann should have taken a cue from Al Pacino, who directs, narrates, and stars in a film documenting his production of Richard III, from initial research, casting, and rehearsals to rich samples of the final product. Theater buffs, actors, English literature majors, professors, and just plain folk should enjoy seeing &quotthemselves" in this film as Mr. Pacino engages the likes of Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, Sir John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, several academic experts, tourists, and New York City cab drivers, asking them such questions as &quotDo you like Shakespeare?" and &quotDo you understand Shakespeare?"

Mr. Pacino obviously does. The discussions in the documentary lead down fascinating trails considering historical revisionism, human nature, politics, Shakespeare's imagery, iambic pentameter, and comic and tragic elements.

Kenneth Branagh, who as director and actor has given us Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing, now gives us Hamlet. Shakespeare's longest play is almost never presented in its entirety, though the directors' cuts inevitably distort the play's meaning, especially when Shakespeare's Christian themes end up on the cutting floor. Mr. Branagh's splendid rendition gives the entire text, just as Shakespeare wrote it. Contrary to the &quotstudio wisdom" that counseled Mr. Branagh to shorten the film, I've heard few complaints about the four-hour screening.

Taking full advantage of the special effects, voice-overs, and variable camera angles that the medium of film affords, Mr. Branagh conveys Shakespeare's words, words, words with refined passion and unrestrained relish. Some critics have frowned upon the film's glamorous staging, sumptuous costumes, and &quotHollywood" casting, but audiences are delighted. Thanks to Mr. Branagh's clear understanding of the text and clever direction of his cast, the film presents a brilliant interpretation.

Rather than allow Hamlet to lurk in the shadows, both visual and psychological, as most productions have done in the past, Mr. Branagh chooses to let Hamlet's agony be illuminated and reflected in the dazzling mirrors of Blenheim Palace. For the first time in decades, Hamlet is not sifted through the colander of Freudian analysis but is instead presented to audiences as an intelligent man who is caught between his sin-prone will and his Christian conscience. Listen for why Hamlet rejects suicide and how he comes to trust in God's Providence.

Not only do Mr. Branagh and his immediate cast of Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie, Richard Briers, Kate Winslet, and Nicholas Farrell deliver an incisive look at corruption in the seats of power, but even smaller parts are given interpretations that illuminate the consequences. (Of special delight is Billy Crystal as the First Gravedigger. Cameos by other surprising non-Shakespearean stars in bit parts work amazingly well: Robin Williams plays the fawning courtier Osric; Jack Lemmon shows up as Marcellus; Gerard Depardieu plays Renaldo; and Charlton Heston--who actually does have Shakespearean credentials--appears as the Player King. One of Shakespeare's strengths as a playwright is that even his minor characters are fascinating, a quality faithfully represented by such creative casting.

The only disappointing turn in this version of Hamlet is the suggestion, tied to Ophelia's bawdy rantings during her insanity, that the Danish prince and his beloved had engaged in physical intimacy. While modern audiences may take such a relationship for granted, the second relationship--portrayed briefly in flashback--goes against the grain of Hamlet's historical setting and his otherwise orthodox ethics.

In sum, running the gamut from Baz to Branagh, one might well conclude that Shakespeare is tamper proof. After all, as Hamlet says at the very end of Act II, &quotthe play's the thing/ Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king&quot--and maybe even of our generation.