There were Olivier‘s and Zeffirelli‘s versions earlier, but nobody had the guts to put every word of Shakespeare’s Hamlet on film for over four hours. It took Kenneth Branagh to make this happen and do so in spectacular fashion. Ken, of course, stars as the melancholy Dane, and he gathered an all-star cast with Kate Winslet as Ophelia, Derek Jacobi as Claudius, Julie Christie as Gertrude, and cameos by everyone from Judi Dench to Robin Williams.
The main filming location was the grand baroque Blenheim Palace, so you know this won’t be a medieval or renaissance set story. The costume designer was Alexandra Byrne in her first movie project (she’d only done TV and theater previously). While the historical period in Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing (1993) was pretty ambiguous, this Hamlet is basically set in the late Victorian era. The women mostly wear 1890s gowns and tailor-made blouse and skirt combinations, while the men wear uniforms and suits. If anything, the prevalence of uniforms and highly tailored garments is the strongest costume theme. This makes Elsinore appear to be a militaristic court, emphasizing the fear of invasion by Norway’s Fortinbras that will happen at the end of the play.
One interesting thing to note is how richly detailed the costumes and production design are. Branagh shot this work in 70mm, much as David Lean had done for Lawrence of Arabia (1962). While this Hamlet doesn’t have the scope of Lean’s film, the 70mm was similar to the demands of high-definition TV today, emphasizing every little thing on screen. Alexandra Byrne noted in a Clothes on Film interview:
“Director Ken (Branagh) and I did Hamlet (1996) together which was shot in 70mm. It just means you learn the hard way – the camera sees EVERYTHING. Every stitch, every pile, every detail. Another challenge was that, in the story, the characters are stuck in an avalanche which meant shooting against a white background so that changed how all the colours and the silhouettes read. We watched the rushes every day though so soon my eyes tuned into the 70mm. It’s mostly something that came subconsciously in the end.”
Let’s look at some of those costumes, shall we?
How do you feel about Kenneth Branagh’s version of Hamlet?