NEW YORK — The challenge of producing William Shakespeare's most celebrated tragedy, "Hamlet," has fascinated stage artists for centuries and film artists for almost as long as film has existed.
The legendary Sarah Bernhardt pantomimed her way through "Hamlet's Duel" way back in 1900, and a new book called "Shakespeare and the Moving Image" lists no fewer than 46 other film versions, plus almost 100 others that draw on the drama in some way.
Among the widely seen adaptations are those of Laurence Olivier - still the standard by which others are judged - and the recent Franco Zeffirelli edition with Mel Gibson as the Melancholy Dane.
Given the play's perennial appeal, it was just a matter of time before today's most culture-struck pop moviemaker, Kenneth Branagh, added his contribution to the "Hamlet" interpretation sweepstakes.
Branagh's previous pictures include a moody "Henry V" and a spunky "Much Ado About Nothing," both well crafted if less than thrilling. Always ready to do things in a big way, he throws a long shadow on his "Hamlet" predecessors by the sheer hugeness of his approach. For one thing, he has filmed the drama in a 70-mm process that gives a crystal-clear image on even the largest screen.
For another, he presents the tragedy's text more completely than any other version, clocking in at a little over four hours, not counting a much-needed intermission. (A shortened 35-mm version will probably be sent to theaters after the full-length edition has its first run.)
Are his ideas exciting enough to keep moviegoers in their seats for every syllable of Shakespeare's play, which even serious stage directors generally trim to a manageable three hours? Or will audiences echo Polonius's words when one of the Players rattles on with a lengthy speech: "This is too long.... Prithee, no more"?
All in all, prospects are good for Branagh's film, at least with people who share his taste for Shakespeare on a grand scale. Visually, the spectacle is indeed spectacular. Few moviegoers give much attention to behind-the-scenes camera techniques, but even the most casual observer will notice how crisp and colorful the picture looks in its 70-mm format.
More important is the quality of the acting, and here the verdict is mixed. Branagh is not known for modesty, and both his performing and his directing are designed to keep him at the center of the show for as many of its 240-plus minutes as possible. Most of the time he keeps his formidable energy under control, turning in a portrayal of the Danish prince that's usually persuasive and occasionally quite touching.
His work is less engrossing when he lapses into an overheated rant-and-rave mode, a failing that also intrudes on his filmmaking style. Someone should inform him that less is more, even in a superproduction like this. Take the swordplay in the last act, for instance: It's exciting until he pushes it too far, having Hamlet hurl a blade at the king across the room, then drop a chandelier on him as if the Phantom of the Opera were in town. Too much!
Back on the positive side, Julie Christie is an interesting and appealing choice as Gertrude, and Derek Jacobi is an effective Claudius if not a towering one. Kate Winslet makes a strong impression as the desperately sad Ophelia, confirming her reputation as one of today's most promising young British stars. Billy Crystal is his usual winning self as the Gravedigger, in one of the quiet moments when the movie is at its best.
By contrast, the Players scenes make a terrible waste of fine actors like Charlton Heston, in the season's worst haircut, and John Gielgud, in a cameo so tiny it hardly exists at all. Grard Depardieu shows up for about a minute, continuing his apparent effort to appear in every movie made this year. Robin Williams and Jack Lemmon are among others who put major talents into minor roles with so little impact that the overall effect is mere showing off - look how many stars want to work with me! - on Branagh's part.
Coming at the end of a year that saw "Romeo and Juliet" transformed into a postmodern melodrama and "Richard III" into an Al Pacino documentary, the most notable thing about this "Hamlet" may be how traditional it is. True, the details of the setting are closer to 19th-century England than Denmark in the middle ages. Also true, the casting doesn't shy away from diversity in accents, ethnicities, and other personal qualities. Still, the atmosphere is far removed from our own era, and the characters wear old-fashioned clothes, speak in Elizabethan rhythms, and comport themselves like Shakespeareans of bygone days.
When all is said and done, this respect for convention may be the production's most enduring element. Whether its initial four-hour run fares well or poorly at the box office, it promises to be a mainstay of the Shakespeare-film circuit - in classrooms, festivals, and living rooms - for a very long time to come.
* 'Hamlet' has a PG-13 rating. It contains sword fighting, poisoning, and other violence, and also some brief but explicit sensuality.