Thursday, April 24, 2008

Ebertfest Report: "Hamlet ", The Endurance Test

The 10th Annual Ebertfest, opened Wednesday night with Kenneth Branagh's marathon version of Hamlet. Sadly, Roger Ebert, could not make his own film festival this year, having fallen and broken his hip while undergoing rehabilitation from his previous multiple cancer surgeries. (Although Roger's wife, Chaz, who is acting as master of ceremonies this year, said last night that he might still show up for part of it if he can get the okay from his doctors.)

The movie is visually stunning. Part of it is the 70mm format and the large screen at the Virginia Theater, show detail and richness that is lacking in the 35mm and digital formats to which we have grown accustomed. But, I am sure the movie looks good in any format. No unhappy family or troubled kingdom ever looked as good as Hamlet's or Denmark. Movies are supposed to show, as well as tell the story, and the beauty of this version demonstrates one of Shakespeare's most famous quotes, "There is something rotten in Denmark."

The "A" list cast, including even Charlton Heston, who in 1996 was only a few years away from Reaganesque dottering senility, does a fine job. Julie Christie came out of retirement, looking as lovely as ever, to play Hamlet's mother, Gertrude. Other well-known actors who appear include Richard Attenborough, Judi Dench, Gerard Depardieu, John Gilgeud, and Kate Winslet. Surprisingly, even American comics like Jack Lemmon, Billy Crystal and Robin Williams are in the movie and do very creditable jobs.

The problem with the movie is that it is just too friggin' long. We got there at 6:00 p.m. for the 7:00 p.m. showing, and with the customary late start, and the opening remarks, the movie didn't start running until 7:30. We didn't get an intermission until 10:00 p.m. and after a half hour break, we still had 1-1/2 hours to go, so we didn't get out of there until midnight, six hours after we had arrived. That's too long for any movie, no matter how good.

I have seen many Shakespearean plays over the last 50 years, and countless Hamlets, and I have never watched a four-hour version, so I wondered how this one came to be so long. Part of it, of course, is that Shakespeare only wrote the words, so the length of a play can vary greatly depending on how the words are presented, i.e. what comes between the words. Branagh makes this version longer than it would have to be because of how he presents it. The other part is that this version includes all of the fragments in various scripts and folios that are not always included as part of the text. In this case, more is definitely not better. The movie drags for long stretches of time, and it was a relief when there was a chase or fight scene, even though I am not a fan of action movies.

Besides being too long, the movie had too many British actors whose mush-mouthed diction, I just can't understand. Branagh, I could usually make out, and I could understand the Americans with their fake British accents very well, but at least half the time I only had a vague idea of what was being said by the British actors. This is a problem I have experienced at many British movies, not just this one, and I have said before, I wish they would have subtitles for Americans. I used to think it was a problem with the volume, but the sound in this movie was turned way up, in fact, at the beginning The Wife was complaining that it was too loud.

It has become traditional for the festival to open on Wednesday nights with a 70 mm print, the Virginia Theater, where the festival is held being one of the few venues in the country (and the only one in the Midwest) with a projector capable of showing 70mm. Branagh's Hamlet, released in 1996 is the last film shot in 70mm, and it was the only movie made in that format in England in 25 years.

Hollywood and the film industry have always been about money, so it is not surprising that 70mm films are no longer being made and shown, but it is, nevertheless, inexcusable. If bread customers can be given the choice between a $2 loaf of white bread and a $5.50 multi-grain loaf from Great Harvest, why shouldn't movie watchers have the option of seeing large format films on big screens instead of having to watch digital and digitally enhanced versions on television-sized screens? I think there are many people who would be willing to pay higher ticket prices to see well-made movies, but, unfortunately, theaters don't make their money from ticket prices but from selling popcorn, soft drinks and candy. People are not going to buy bigger tubs of popcorn just because the screen image is better.

If I could give a separate rating for acting, format and visuals, that part of this movie would get five stars, while it would get only two for plot and length. Since, by law, I can give only one rating, I have to give it three out of five stars.


Prairie Gourmet said...

Sorry that it was disappointing, when you were so looking forward to seeing it. I would never have lasted through six hours of sitting and midnight is way past my bedtime!

Lydia said...

Yikes - and thought the 3 hour and 40 minute movie awhile back was pushing it! If only we could have a non-director's version that cut out about half, and it'd only be too long.

Amen on the 70mm!