February 03, 1997 12:00 PM

Kenneth Branagh, Julie Christie, Sir Derek Jacobi, Kate Winslet

Even the most mediocre Hamlet is entertaining. And this 4-hour, 2-minute production is hardly mediocre, with an intense lead performance by scenarist-director-star Branagh, striking wide-screen photography, intriguing casting of big-name Americans (Billy Crystal, Jack Lemmon, Robin Williams, Charlton Heston) and, of course, Shakespeare’s peerless story and language. Still, quite a few things are rotten in this particular state of Denmark.

Branagh abuses his poetic license by moving the play 600 or so years forward to the 19th century. He has explained this, feebly, by saying that the 19th-century political shifts in Europe made a better fit for the subplots of the play, in which Norway is continually threatening war with Denmark. The main effect, however, is to introduce a trickle of disconcerting anachronisms.

Worse, Branagh tolerates flagrant, melodramatic overacting by both Winslet, as Ophelia, and Michael Maloney, as Ophelia’s weepy brother Laertes. Winslet joins Maloney in giving the play a perpetual undertone of hysteria that undercuts the drama of Hamlet’s agony of indecision.

One thing Branagh gets very right is the tumultuous relationship between Hamlet and his faithless mother, Gertrude, played by the stately Christie. Jacobi, as Claudius, Hamlet’s ruthless uncle-stepfather, subtly sketches the tension between Claudius’s guilt and his enjoyment of the wages of his sins.

The Americans’ contribution varies. Lemmon, as the castle guard Marcellus, manages to get out the “something is rotten” line without grinning, but generally seems tentative and stiff. Heston, as the Player King, does indeed pronounce the speech trippingly on his tongue. It is easy to imagine his being a superior King Lear. Crystal transposes his working-class-guy shtick into the grave digger’s scabrous irreverence. Williams, surprisingly, is the least noticeable of the Americans, managing to restrain himself from using his standard foppy persona as the flamboyant courtier Osric, a part sometimes cut from all but full-length versions of Hamlet. (PG-13)

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