TBT: Hamlet (1996)


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?

Hamlet (1996)

The film begins somewhat literally showing Claudius and Gertrude coming from their wedding. Gertrude is in an 1890s gown but her attendants are in 1860s-ish gowns for some reason.

Hamlet (1996)

Another rather literal bit of costuming — we first see Claudius in a red uniform. Red, because he killed Hamlet’s father. Get it? GET IT?

Hamlet (1996)

Gertrude’s wedding gown on display.

Hamlet (1996)

Left to right, Laertes, Polonius, and Ophelia at the wedding, all in military uniform. Even Ophelia, which is a bit odd.

Hamlet (1996)

Full view of Ophelia’s military-style outfit at the wedding.

Hamlet (1996)

She starts the film buttoned up, and gradually loses it.

Hamlet (1996)

Hamlet, however, does not wear a uniform, just his traditional mourning black.

Hamlet (1996)

With her brother Laertes, Ophelia is still tidy, buttoned-up, her hair dressed.

Hamlet (1996)

In formal evening dress. Ophelia’s hair is like a guide to her mental state as well as her relationship to the men she’s with.

Hamlet (1996)

With her father, to whom she’s the most subservient, Ophelia wears her hair down, and she’s in a more casual outfit, collar and vest undone.

Hamlet (1996)

The scarf in her hair, the velvet vest, and the jewelry give her a slightly bohemian look.

Hamlet (1996)

Ophelia’s hair is down with her lover, Hamlet. In this film, they have a not-really explicit sex scene.

Hamlet (1996)

Full view of this middy blouse and floral skirt. Love the purse at her waist!

Hamlet (1996)

At least she gets a little detail on the shift she’s buried in…

Hamlet (1996)

The players are dressed in a nice range of middle-class Victorian clothes.

Hamlet (1996)

Gertrude has a lot of gorgeous gowns, like this dark red print (which seems a bit more 1880s bustle than 1890s).

Hamlet (1996)

Then there’s this stunning velvet tea gown, very Liberty of London.

Hamlet (1996)

In the crucial ‘closet’ scene between Gertrude and Hamlet (when Polonius is killed), Gertrude wears a Fortuny-style gown.

Hamlet (1996)

The gown’s fabric is by Patricia and Charles Lester, who’ve recreated Fortuny pleating for many film productions.

Hamlet (1996)

Close-up of the gown on display.

Hamlet (1996)

When Ophelia begins to go mad, Gertrude is seen wearing this white and black polonaise gown outfit (more of an 1880s style than her previous gowns).

Hamlet (1996)

Hair askew, madness in the air!

Hamlet (1996)

And then everyone dies!


How do you feel about Kenneth Branagh’s version of Hamlet?


About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

21 Responses

  1. Kate D

    I love the visuals, but Branagh’s portrayal of Hamlet was never my favorite. I appreciate the challenge of learning all Hamlet’s dialogue and fitting it in a movie, but he seemed so… braggy. The sing-song delivery of some of his lines didn’t seem like Hamlet acting crazy, it seemed like Ken showing off his memorization skills- more recitation and overacting than a believable character. But, it’s been a while since I’ve seen it, so maybe I’d think differently now.

    Mel Gibson is good, Ethan Hawke’s version gave me a little motion sickness from the camera work, I enjoyed the Hamlet portrayal in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and I once saw a local stage production of Hamlet which had a fantastic lead actor. Almost no costuming to speak of, but I adore The Reduced Shakespeare Company; they are hilarious and delightful.

    • Trystan L. Bass

      Yay, another Reduced Shakespeare fan! I’ve loved them ever since they started waaaaay back at the Blackpoint renfaire in CA, & I’ve seen them on stage many times. I love their Hamlet backwards in 2 minutes — ‘oob!’ ;)

      • Kate D

        That’s so cool!! I saw them live for “Completely Hollywood (abridged)” nine or ten years ago now (and got called on by Reed!), and I own all their DVDs and audio CDs. Totally love them.

        The “Romeo and Juliet” and “Hamlet” sections of their show make me laugh every time. My English minor back in undergrad was mostly Shakespeare courses, and I took “The Weird of Shakespeare” specifically so I could read “King John”, just in case I was ever in the audience when the Reduced Shakespeare Company asked, “Raise your hand if you’ve read King John? See, nobody has read it!” :P

      • Sam Marchiony

        I think the best thing I ever saw them in was Complete History of America, Election edition…. ahhh, those were simpler times.

      • Gina

        I gotta reply to this cause…when I used to work at blackpoint faire back in my highscool days I always made time to go see them a few times. They were always great! I also got the joy of seeing some of their after-hours shows they did for workers.

  2. Aleko

    Actually Branagh’s black outfit is a uniform: The double-breasted tunic and hessian boots are right for a late 19th-century jaeger or hussar, and the pieces of embroidery at collar and cuffs are definitely badges of some kind (presumably rank and/or corps) rather than just decoration. It’s more obvious when he has his jacket fully buttoned-up over a black stock: there’s no way that is civilian dress.

    • Trystan L. Bass

      But he’s not a soldier & doesn’t have a rank. He’s a student. The costume evokes uniforms without being a uniform, & he wears it open & informal through much of the film, pointedly so.

      • Kelly

        Although we never see Hamlet behaving in a military capacity, Ophelia calls him a “courtier, soldier, scholar” and Fortinbras gives the command to “bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage” and he’s going to give him a military funeral (though possibly because that’s simply the only way Fortinbras sees the world). Or maybe he’s trying to honor or emulate his dead father. I like the black uniform; it looks very like the ones used in Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night film, too.
        Speaking of Fortinbras, no shots of Rufus Sewell? My students sit up and take notice when he strides in, amid all the carnage and broken glass.
        Thanks for the pictures–it’s been ages since I’ve watched the whole thing (yeah, the Ophelia as the (maybe?) daughter of the regiment confused me, too), and I had no memory of Gertrude’s russet velvet tea gown. Gorgeous! But the one costume that I felt was a misstep was Horatio’s (Nicholas Farrell) loud plaid coat. It didn’t communicate “scholar” in any way, and it just looked like upholstery.

      • C. Handisides

        I think what they’re referencing with the uniforms is the practice of royals serving as ceremonial heads of military units. It’s not really appropriate for the original medieval setting of Hamlet, but it’s makes sense with the later period that this version is set in.


  3. Roxana

    Loved it.
    I saw it in the theatre sitting in front some kids who’d barely heard of Shakespeare and never seen any. They were mesmerized, as were we all. Thank God for the intermission though.
    I thought Branaugh was good but the best Hamlet ever was my Grandpa. He also did a fantastic Shylock and and a great Faust.

  4. kpl

    I like this Hamlet a lot, and I think the fact that it’s so obviously set in a doxastic world allows for considerable variation in fashions we would–in a film claiming to be historical in any way, at least–want to be more consistent with our world’s timeline.

  5. Susan Pola Staples

    I enjoyed this version, too. I believe I saw Reduced Shakespeare Company do Henry V at Renfaire and which I enjoyed immensely.

    I prefer Glenn Close as Gertrude but I enjoyed both HBC and Kate made excellent Ophelias.

    • MoHub

      I personally prefer Jacobi’s Hamlet, as he gave the lines some very unusual readings that imparted them with new meaning.

      Also, Claire Bloom as Gertrude, Patrick Stewart as Claudius, and Eric Porter as Polonius.

      • Shirley

        Jacobi is my favorite Hamlet too. Branagh is just way too over-the-top for my taste, and I’ve always thought Jacobi’s line readings were pitch perfect.

        • Shirley

          Oh and I forgot: the joys of Patrick Stewart with hair as Claudius! :D

    • M.E. Lawrence

      Oh, that’s a shocking (and perhaps egotistical) error on Branagh’s part. Rufus has such range.

  6. Nzie

    I saw this version in college years ago. I remember liking some things but Ophelia’s mad scene was disturbing (maybe it should be, but…). I also remember feeling like the costumes were such a limited palette and so many shots set against that B&W checkered floor that I found it a hard visual to take—confusing and overstimulating for my eyes. I haven’t seen Olivier or Hawke versions, but I have seen the Gibson version and I do think I prefer it.

  7. Brenna

    I kinda figured the bridesmaids were in “court uniform”, like the Russian court around the same time. Russian court uniform was nailed down in the 1840’s (iirc) and didn’t change until the Revolution made the Court vanish. Though, now that I think about it, that doesn’t excuse Gertrude or Ophelia in the same scene. I guess the costumer thought it looked prettier.

    • Roxana

      I assumed Ophelia was honorary colonel of some regiment as royal and noble ladies often were in Real Life. They too wore uniform tunics with long skirts. Oddly she isn’t wearing any orders or insignia.