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At the Movies

Big, long 'Hamlet' plus 'Secrets and lies'


Kenneth Branagh's production of the uncut text of "Hamlet" (Castle Rock) is easily the longest picture of the month -- four hours, with a brief intermission two-thirds of the way through. Many will prefer to wait for the two-and-a-half-hour version, which will open soon. Branagh shouldn't have had his hair dyed, but it's unfair to ask him to be Laurence Olivier. Besides, it's the only chance you'll ever get to hear all of Shakespeare's lines in a movie theater. This impelled my Swiss daughter-in-law to exclaim, "France and Germany have nothing like it. Racine and Goethe don't project that passion!"

As a long-time drama teacher, I salute the future classroom possibilities of this "Hamlet." One could stop the video to learn how the plot threads are connected, and ask students to decide what cuts they would make in their own hypothetical productions. But there is irony in Branagh's project. Everything makes me believe that Shakespeare himself would have dropped hundreds of lines and radically reconceived his play if he had been asked to translate "Hamlet" to the screen.

Unlike some academic drones, Shakespeare was no victim of bardolatry and was quite content to make his plays up out of bits and pieces from popular genres, in this case exploiting the fashion for revenge tragedy. He was careful not to lose contact with his unruly, popular audience. The best Shakespeare movie will surely come from directors -- like Orson Welles and Olivier -- who have developed such an intimate familiarity with the plays that they can exercise a magisterial freedom, seeing them freshly in film terms.

In contrast, Branagh is caught between a false ideal of textual fidelity and a hectic anxiety that his audience needs to be titillated by earthquake special effects or the awkward use of stars like Jack Lemmon and Gerard Depardieu in bit parts. Worse, he undermines the text he pretends to honor by quick visual inserts in the middle of speeches, pictorializing bits of exposition, including a shot of Hamlet as a child, amused by Yorick's clowning, or -- against the evidence of the text -- showing Ophelia and Hamlet in sexual dalliance.

Branagh's production succeeds, nevertheless, by making sense of the convoluted subplots of the original, always severely truncated in the theater and in earlier film versions. His own performance as Hamlet doesn't bring out the character's melancholy depth but is serviceably energetic, and his reading of "O that this too too solid flesh might melt" should encourage lazy moviegoers to attempt further decoding of Shakespearean syntax. Derek Jacobi is outstanding as the usurper, Claudius. Julie Christie and Kate Winslet are good as Gertrude and Ophelia. Billy Crystal is an enjoyable gravedigger.

I was less happy with the choice of Blenheim Castle as Elsinore even though it allowed for impressive cinematography, by Alex Thomson, in outdoor scenes and the huge hall where Claudius first holds state. One of the problems of rethinking Shakespeare for the movies is that the plays establish their shifting locations through poetry and are never circumscribed by household furniture. The 19th century furnishings of Blenheim make the tragedy seem petty and give the exaggerations of the climactic fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes a touch of the absurd. Such cavils, however, only suggest that I have an unrealizable cinematic Hamlet in my mind. I remain grateful for the ambitious gallantry of Branagh's new version.

Jane Campion's "Portrait of a Lady" (Gramercy) shows a talented director exercising a healthy freedom in adapting a classic novel. The purists are wrong to deny her the right to do so, but the film's Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman) is less interesting than Henry James' heroine. The movie never projects a sufficient sense of Isabel's potentialities for us to consider her later entrapment as more than another sad story of a bad marriage.

Campion makes her feminist intentions clear in a prologue in which contemporary young women comment on the act of kissing. Then, in the opening scene, Isabel rejects a marriage proposal from the wealthy Lord Warburton and walks nervously over the grounds of Gardencourt, her uncle's English estate. She has defied social expectations by spurning a "successful" marriage, but the movie doesn't spend enough time to establish why her dying uncle (Sir John Gielgud) would encourage his tubercular son, Ralph (Martin Donovan), to marry Isabel, or why Ralph might want to participate vicariously in his cousin's quest for freedom. Ralph gets his father to change his will and leave Isabel a fortune so that she can follow her large hopes, though even in the novel one is right to suspect that her belief that she can do anything she wants contains the seeds of tragedy.

Campion's desire to make a feminist "Lady" is undermined by stressing Isabel's fear of her own sexual longings. After she dismisses a second suitor (the American Caspar Goodwood), the camera finds her swooning at the imaginary importunities of three male admirers.

When Isabel goes to Italy, she is quickly maneuvered by Madame Merle (Barbara Hershey) into the orbit of the self-centered aesthete Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich). A striking seduction scene follows.

Campion has a strong cinematic sense, and gets fine work from Donovan and Hershey as well as the mannered performance she wants from Kidman. The photography of Stuart Dryburgh leaves us with memorable images of Gardencourt, Rome and Florence, and of Isabel alone in front of an avenue of poplars.

Far more successful is Mike Leigh's highly original "Secrets and Lies" (October Films), which won the 1996 Palme d'Or at Cannes. Leigh develops his scripts in collaboration with his actors, who go through a long rehearsal period in character, improvising much of the material that will become part of the final, fixed script. His films provide a close look at lower-middle class English life, revealing -- without cynicism -- a largely static and dreary world that is also absurdly humorous. His new movie should finally earn him a broad international public, since its generosity of spirit and strong emotions connect with basic concerns about family relationships.

Cynthia Rose Purley (Brenda Blethyn) is a large-hearted Cockney mother with two illegitimate daughters. During the course of the action, she discovers that the first, Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), whom she gave away at birth, is black. Such a twist could easily have led to sensationalism or sentimentality, but "Secrets and Lies" takes a more complex and rewarding course.

Cynthia at first resists seeing Hortense, a skilled optometrist who is in mourning for the foster mother who brought her up. Though Hortense is upset at what seems like a mistake when she begins to search for her birth mother, her inner calm enables her to persist in a difficult and initially unrewarding quest.

Both actresses are superb in very different roles. Though some will resist the emotional roller coaster performance by Brenda Blethyn, most will be overwhelmed with laughter and compassion by the time Cynthia confesses her "secret" at a birthday party for her younger daughter, Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook).

By the time we get to this uproarious and painful climax to the movie, it's clear that Leigh isn't some pedantic sociologist presenting a thesis on class and race. He builds his plot casually, first showing Cynthia and Roxanne working at menial dead-end jobs, then cutting to Cynthia's photographer brother, Maurice (Timothy Small), and his sad, middle-class wife (Phyllis Logan), and finally moving on to observe Roxanne's harsh rejection of her mother before involving us in Hortense's puzzled quest.

There is a hilarious sequence in which Maurice patiently encourages reluctant couples to pose for photos. It supports Leigh's unflinching yet sympathetic observation of people who badly need each other even when they are ill-matched.

Cynthia and Hortense work through the nervousness of their first meeting. Though there are shocks for both, they begin to appreciate their new discovery.

As in any Leigh film, the ensemble work is splendid. Though Brenda Blethyn has the most memorable role and should be a strong contender for Academy Award honors, all the actors are so convincing that "Secrets and Lies" often seems like a documentary. Though we go through a demanding emotional workout, the movie manages to end on a note of hope. Its secret lies in the director's sympathetic realization of how near to tragedy our everyday encounters can be, even when they remain comic.

National Catholic Reporter, January 17, 1997