The film is notable as the first unabridged theatrical film version of the play, running just over four hours. The longest screen version of the play prior to the 1996 film was the 1980 BBC made-for-television version starring Jacobi as the title character, which runs three-and-a-half hours.
The play's setting is updated to the 19th century, but its Elizabethan English remains the same. Blenheim Palace is the setting used for the exterior grounds of Elsinore Castle and interiors were all photographed at Shepperton Studios, blended with the footage shot at Blenheim. Hamlet was also the last major dramatic motion picture to be filmed entirely on 70 mm film until 2012, with the release of Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master.
Kenneth Branagh as Prince Hamlet, the story's protagonist and Prince of Denmark. He is the son of the late King Hamlet and heir to the throne of Denmark. At first, Hamlet is mournful of his father's death and dissatisfied with his mother's swift remarriage to Claudius. However, Hamlet is later told by the ghost of his father King Hamlet that Claudius murdered him, usurping his title. Upon knowing this crime, Hamlet is sworn to avenge his father's murder. Branagh's interpretation of the title role, by his own admission, was considerably less "neurotic" than others, removing the Oedipal fixation so prominently featured in Olivier's 1948 film among others. During the scenes in which Hamlet pretends to be insane, Branagh portrayed the Prince as manic.
Derek Jacobi as King Claudius, the story's antagonist and brother of the late king. He murdered his brother Hamlet by pouring poison into his ear while he slept. He then quickly usurps his brother's title and quickly marries his widow. At first, believing Hamlet to be mad by the loss of his father and rejection from Ophelia, Claudius is persuaded by Polonius to spy on Hamlet. When Claudius later learns Hamlet knows of the murder, he tries to use Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of Hamlet's schoolmates, to have his nephew murdered. Although Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are more than willing to serve Claudius, they have no idea that he wants Hamlet dead.
Julie Christie as Gertrude, Queen of Denmark and wife to both the late King Hamlet and King Claudius, whom she married swiftly following the former's passing—ignorant of the foul play that caused his death.
Richard Briers as Polonius, the Lord Chamberlain. An impertinent busy-body, Polonius believes Hamlet to be mad and convinces Claudius to join him in spying on the prince. He is eventually murdered while eavesdropping by Hamlet, who mistakes him for Claudius.
Kate Winslet as Ophelia, noblewoman of Denmark and daughter of Polonius. Ophelia was the romantic interest of Hamlet, until advised by her father Polonius and brother Laertes to end their relationship. She is eventually driven mad by both Hamlet's rejection and her father's murder and drowns herself.
Nicholas Farrell as Horatio, a good friend of Hamlet whom he met while attending Wittenberg University.
Michael Maloney as Laertes, the son of Polonius and brother of Ophelia. After instructing his sister to have no further relations with Hamlet, he departs for Paris. Upon news of his father's murder, Laertes returns to Denmark, leading a mob to storm the castle. Claudius explains to him who the real killer was and incites Laertes to kill Hamlet and avenge Polonius' death. He later conspires with Claudius to murder Hamlet during a fencing duel.
Rufus Sewell as Fortinbras, the Norwegian crown prince. Played mostly in flashback and frequently referenced throughout the film, Fortinbras and his army storm Elsinore castle during the final scene, assuming the vacant throne of Denmark.
Robin Williams as Osric, the Elsinore courtier sent by Claudius to invite Hamlet to participate in the duel with Laertes.
Gérard Depardieu as Reynaldo, a servant to Polonius. He is sent by Polonius to Paris to check up on Laertes.
Timothy Spall as Rosencrantz, a courtier friend of Hamlet who is sent by Claudius to spy on Hamlet.
Reece Dinsdale as Guildenstern, a courtier friend of Hamlet who is sent by Claudius to spy on Hamlet.
Jack Lemmon as Marcellus, a sentry at Elsinore who, with Barnardo, alerts Horatio of the appearance of King Hamlet's Ghost.
Ian McElhinney as Barnardo, a sentry at Elsinore who, with Marcellus, alerts Horatio of the appearance of King Hamlet's Ghost.
Ray Fearon as Francisco, a sentry at Elsinore and the first character to appear on screen.
Billy Crystal as the First Gravedigger, a sexton digging Ophelia's grave who makes a case as to why she should not receive Christian burial before making quick dialogue with Hamlet. He later presents the skull of Yorick to Hamlet, not knowing of Hamlet's history with the jester.
The film uses a conflated text based on the 1623 First Folio, with additions from the Second Quarto and amendments from other sources. According to a note appended to the published screenplay:
The screenplay is based on the text of Hamlet as it appears in the First Folio – the edition of Shakespeare’s plays collected by his theatrical associates Heminges and Condell and published in 1623 by a syndicate of booksellers. Nothing has been cut from this text, and some passages absent from it (including the soliloquy "How all occasions do inform against me ...") have been supplied from the Second Quarto (an edition of the play which exists in copies dated 1604 and 1605). We have also incorporated some readings of words and phrases from this source and from other early printed texts, and in a few cases emendations from modern editors of the play. Thus in I, 4, in the passage (from the Second Quarto) about the "dram of eale", we use an emendation from the Oxford edition of the Complete Works (edited by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, 1988): "doth all the noble substance over-daub" – rather than the original's "of a doubt".
Despite using a full text, Branagh's film is also very visual; it makes frequent use of flashbacks to depict scenes that are either only described but not performed in Shakespeare's text, such as Hamlet's childhood friendship with Yorick, or scenes only implied by the play's text, such as Hamlet's sexual relationship with Kate Winslet's Ophelia. The film also uses very long single takes for numerous scenes.
In a radical departure from previous Hamlet films, Branagh set the internal scenes in a vibrantly colourful setting, featuring a throne room dominated by mirrored doors; film scholar Samuel Crowl calls the setting "film noir with all the lights on". Branagh chose Victorian era costuming and furnishings, using Blenheim Palace, built in the early 18th century, as Elsinore Castle for the external scenes. Harry Keyishan has suggested that the film is structured as an epic, courting comparison with Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments and Doctor Zhivago. As J. Lawrence Guntner points out, comparisons with the latter film are heightened by the presence of Julie Christie (Zhivago's Lara) as Gertrude.
The score to Hamlet was composed and co-produced by frequent Kenneth Branagh collaborator Patrick Doyle and conducted by Robert Ziegler. Doyle composed three primary themes for the film to accompany the characters of Ophelia, Claudius, and Hamlet, which are varied throughout the score. The "simple, childlike" theme for Ophelia is mostly string-dominant, often performed by a string quartet yet occasionally accompanied by a full string ensemble or mixed chorus. For Claudius, Doyle composed a theme in the form of a demented canon, using more 20th century harmonies. The theme for Hamlet was considered by Doyle to be "the most daunting and elusive" to conceive, before settling upon a more "simple" motif to accompany the contemplative character.
The soundtrack was released 10 December 1996 through Sony Classical Records and features twenty-six tracks of score at a running time of over seventy-six minutes. For his work on the film, Doyle received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score.
In Pace (3:07) – performed by Plácido Domingo (this is heard in the film during the closing credits)
Hamlet was screened out of competition at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival. A shorter edit of the Branagh film, approximately two-and-a-half hours long, was also shown in some markets.
A 2-Disc DVD was released in the US and Canada on 14 August 2007. It includes a full-length commentary by Branagh and Shakespeare scholar Russell Jackson. A Blu-ray Disc was released on 17 August 2010 in the US and Canada with similar additional features, including an introduction by Kenneth Branagh, the featurette "To Be on Camera: A History with Hamlet", the 1996 Cannes Film Festival Promo, and a Shakespeare Movies Trailer Gallery.
Hamlet was not a success at the box office, mostly due to its limited release. The film earned just over $90,000 in its opening weekend playing on three screens. It made just over $30,000 in the Czech Republic (the film's only foreign market) and ultimately played on fewer than 100 screens in the United States, bringing its total gross to just under $5 million on a budget of $18 million.
Hamlet received overwhelmingly positive reviews. It currently holds a 95% rating at Rotten Tomatoes with the consensus, "Kenneth Branagh's sprawling, finely textured adaptation of Shakespeare's masterpiece lives up to its source material, using strong performances and a sharp cinematic focus to create a powerfully resonant film that wastes none of its 246 minutes."
Roger Ebert, film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, awarded the film four stars, comparing it to Laurence Olivier's lauded 1948 version, stating, "Branagh's Hamlet lacks the narcissistic intensity of Laurence Olivier's (in the 1948 Academy Award winner), but the film as a whole is better, placing Hamlet in the larger context of royal politics, and making him less a subject for pity." Janet Maslin of The New York Times also praised both Branagh's direction and performance, writing, "This Hamlet, like Branagh's version of Much Ado About Nothing, takes a frank, try-anything approach to sustaining its entertainment value, but its gambits are most often evidence of Branagh's solid showmanship. His own performance is the best evidence of all." The New York Review of Books praised the attention given to Shakespeare's language, "giving the meter of the verse a musician's respect"; Branagh himself said his aim was "telling the story with utmost clarity and simplicity."
Some critics, notably Stanley Kauffmann, declared the film to be the finest motion picture version of Hamlet yet made. Noted online film critic James Berardinelli wrote the film a glowing four star review and went so far as to declare the Branagh Hamlet the finest Shakespeare adaptation ever, rating it as the best film of 1996, the fourth best film of the 90s, and one of his top 101 favourite films of all time, saying, "From the moment it was first announced that Branagh would attempt an unabridged Hamlet, I never doubted that it would be a worthy effort. After all, his previous forays into Shakespeare have been excellent. Nothing, however, prepared me for the power and impact of this motion picture. Hyperbole comes easily when describing this Hamlet, decidedly the most impressive motion picture of 1996. Nothing else this year has engaged my intellect, senses, and emotions in quite the same way. I have seen dozens of versions of this play (either on screen or on stage), and none has ever held me in such a grip of awe. This may be Branagh's dream, but it is our pleasure."
The film did have its detractors, however, with Lloyd Rose of The Washington Post calling it "the film equivalent of a lushly illustrated coffee-table book" and Desson Thomson writing of Branagh's performance: "the choices he makes are usually overextended. When it's time to be funny, he skitters over the top. When he's sad or touched, he makes a mechanical, catching noise in his throat." The notoriously severe John Simon also criticised the film, calling Branagh's performance "brawny" and "not easy to like" and stating that Branagh's direction used "explicitness where Shakespeare ... settled for subtlety or mere suggestion". Leonard Maltin, who gave the film a positive three stars in his Movie and Video Guide (and gave the Olivier version of Hamlet four stars), praised the cinematography by Alex Thomson, but stated that "Branagh essentially gives a stage performance that is nearly as over-the-top as some of his directorial touches."
Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet ranks No. 3 on Rotten Tomatoes list of Greatest Shakespeare Movies, just behind Akira Kurosawa's Ran (1985, based on King Lear), which ranks in second place, and Branagh's own Henry V (1989), which ranks in first place.