After the death of the King of Denmark (Brian Blessed), Prince Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh) is visited by the spirit of his father. He is told that the King's death was by no means an accident and that the King's brother Claudius (Derek Jacobi) carried out the murder to gain control of the throne. Hamlet vows to avenge his father's death.
Meanwhile, Claudius has married the late King's wife, Gertrude (Julie Christie), and is enjoying parading as the King. After Hamlet's occasional lover Ophelia (Kate Winslet) tells Claudius of Hamlet's changing attitude, Claudius worries that Hamlet is on to him.
I, like most in Britain, studied Shakespeare as a part of English Literature during compulsory education. The choice of play was entirely up to teachers; some had Romeo and Juliet, others The Tempest. I was a Hamlet man, myself. I even got to watch excerpts of Kenneth Branagh's epic film and had to write an essay on it.
Now, in this review I won't bother going back to the detail of my 16-year-old days that mentioned the symbolism of a black and white floor against the otherwise colourful scenery. I certainly won't mention that Hamlet was a man with a bit of the Oedipus complex about him; and Ophelia the Electra complex. Those days are over now, and I really wonder what my teachers were telling me.
What I will say is that Hamlet is a masterpiece. Everything from the four hour run time to the picture perfect 19th Century updated scenery points to Hamlet being the epic that Branagh envisioned.
As well as directing, Branagh cast himself in the lead role, which can often lead to devastating effects due to the conflict of interests. For Branagh though, he was also surrounded by a stellar ensemble who - rightly - take some of the shine off of the role of Hamlet as they each grapple for attention.
For me, the stand out was Kate Winslet. Sure, we know her as Rose from Titanic and some of us might have seen a few of her later films, but this is pre-nearly-drowned-by-an-iceberg Winslet. The unheard-of Winslet. And she is excellent. Portraying every emotion from loved-up confusion to downright bonkers, she more than proved this wasn't just an audition for James Cameron.
The other members of the cast include Brian Blessed, who is ideal as Hamlet's father's bellowing ghost, Julie Christie acting in another epic following Dr Zhivago (she must wonder where her life has gone) and, bizarrely, Robin Williams in a brief cameo at the end. Williams' role is tragic, but I just expected him to burst out with something funny each time he spoke. I should also mention my favourite French actor, Gérard Depardieu, who appears briefly.
To be honest, with all the work that went into Hamlet and creating something that was very similar to Shakespeare's original work (with the exception of a few theatrical embellishments, thanks to flashbacks), it would be a tragedy to not give the film anything other than five stars, right?