Thursday, February 10, 2011

Discovering Hamlet DVD Review

Before Kenneth Branagh brought his own adaption of Hamlet to the big-screen in 1996, he played the role on stage under the direction Derek Jacobi who himself played Hamlet years earlier to great acclaim. The year was 1990, and Branagh was on the brink to international stardom but not quite there yet.  

Film (4 out of 5 stars)

Since it was Branagh’s theater company mounting the production, rare opportunities came up like the concept of filming it from start to finish to show the process of how a play is put together.  Having been captivated by seeing Jacobi’s Hamlet when he was young, when Branagh had the chance to play the role he asked Jacobi to direct the production despite the actor never having directed before.  The combination of the two actors was intriguing enough to director Mark Olshaker to decide to film the proceedings.
This behind the scenes look was filmed during the four weeks the theater company had to learn their lines, build the stage, block the action, and prepare the technical aspects as well.   We get to watch the play slowly unfold as the actors begin acting with their lines in hand, and how they progress through opening night where it all comes together.
The documentary is smartly edited to veer between backstage views of the production and interviews with the cast and crew interspersed throughout.   The interviews offer a fascinating view of the challenges, fears, and the joy of mounting a play as famous as Hamlet is in the short time-frame that they had.  The documentary focuses mainly on Jacobi who at the time, was the most famous person present and his past portrayal of Hamlet commanded immediate respect from the cast and crew.
I wasn’t happy to see Branagh get shortchanged by the film who despite playing the title character, isn’t given the amount of attention that I felt he deserved.  He is interviewed throughout the documentary, but not as much as Jacobi and even worse there isn’t a retrospective interview like Jacobi has.
When you consider how interesting that interview would have been considering that just six years later, Branagh would direct a major epic film about Hamlet which would be the first movie to include every line from the play.  It would have been nice to hear how the play influenced the film or how the lessons he took with him from the play were put to use later.  I also didn’t like the fact that the viewer doesn’t get to see the results of all that work.  We never find out how it was received or what it looked like which was very anti-climatic.

Video (2 out of 5 stars) 

This 1.33:1 transfer looks about as good as you would expect from a filmed stage show on DVD.  There’s quite a bit of grain and colors and detail are lacking, and black levels are inconsistent.  Frankly, it looks about one step above watching a videotape.   Most of the fault lies with the poor filming conditions as the stage isn’t set up well for spontaneous filming.  The pictures is clear enough to see what’s going on but it was a shock to go from Blu-rays back to this kind of quality.  I’ve been spoiled too long!

Audio (2 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

The Dolby Digital stereo track fairs a little better as the dialogue is mostly clear and understandable.  There is a slight hiss throughout the track however that was a little distracting but it wasn’t bad enough to ruin the experience.

Special Features (4 out of 5 stars) 

What this disc lacks for in video and audio quality, it makes up for in extras.  There is an additional three and a half hours of additional footage that wasn’t included in the documentary.  Quite a bit of it should have been included in my opinion, especially considering that the entire documentary doesn’t even hit the hour mark. With extra interviews with Jacobi and the cast, there is a treasure trove of interesting information for those that seek it. I also liked the roster of the famous actors that played Hamlet on stage through the years. Each has a little tidbit about them and I thought it was a nice touch to add.

Final Thoughts (3 out of 5 stars)

Having been involved in past plays including Hamlet, I really found this to be very interesting and enlightening.  I think that even people that have had no involvement in theater would also enjoy this documentary since it is a very human endeavor that most could relate to.  Watching a group of people attempt something extremely difficult in a short amount of time, usually always provides people something to cheer for.  This is a great behind the scenes look at what goes into putting on a play and I recommend it despite its anti-climatic ending and poor audio/video quality.
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