The meaning of life in 70mm

“What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,

Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff

That beetles o’er his base into the sea,

And there assume some other horrible form,

Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason

And draw you into madness? think of it:

The very place puts toys of desperation,

Without more motive, into every brain

That looks so many fathoms to the sea

And hears it roar beneath.” Hamlet Act I scene iv

There’s no denying that Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is a cultural touchstone.

In David Lodge’s 1975 “campus novel”, Changing Places, the dinner party game of Humiliation is introduced: “The essence of the matter is that each person names a book which he hasn’t read but assumes the others have read, and scores a point for every person who has read it.” The repellent American academic, Howard Ringbaum, wins the game by admitting that he has never read Hamlet – at the ultimate cost of his post.

Five years ago, Michael Masiello (“lecturer in literature and composition at a big university in New Jersey. Not Princeton, the other one.”) thundered on Quora:

“REVISE Hamlet? The unimaginable arrogance it takes to imagine that one can offer the Bard a few tweaks for the most famous tragedy ever written — and deserving of every accolade it has ever received, containing, as it does, the soul of the world! An astonishing suggestion, really…”

The question that provoked this response was “What’s the best way to revise hamlet?”, which I suspect came not from a revisionist, but more likely from a student who’d found “Shakespeare exam Monday” written on the back of his hand.

Any Shakespeare student with four hours to spare could do a lot worse than getting hold of the DVD of Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 unabridged film adaptation of Hamlet (even though the full effect will be compromised by the small screen: see below).

Wikipedia: “…adapted and directed by Kenneth Branagh, who also stars as Prince Hamlet. The film also features Derek Jacobi as King Claudius, Julie Christie as Queen Gertrude, Kate Winslet as Ophelia, Michael Maloney as Laertes, Richard Briers as Polonius, and Nicholas Farrell as Horatio. Other cast members include Robin Williams, Gérard Depardieu, Jack Lemmon, Billy Crystal, Rufus Sewell, Charlton Heston, Richard Attenborough, Judi Dench, John Gielgud and Ken Dodd.”

Hamlet was also the last major dramatic motion picture to be filmed entirely on 70 mm film until 2011, with the release of the documentary Samsara, which was filmed over nearly five years in twenty-five countries on five continents. For projection, the original 65 mm film is printed on 70 mm film (the extra mms are used to record the sound).

In 2017, Jordan Hoffman wrote: “Before 2015’s The Hateful Eight it was Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master back in 2012 that had us last asking if a larger film frame (twice the size of traditional 35mm) and its richer resolution automatically made for a better filmgoing experience. A key difference that may win more converts is that (Christopher Nolan’s) Dunkirk is the type of story that exploits the scope of the format.”

Branagh himself has commented: “Pictures I’ve seen in that format are uniquely involving. They make you feel as though you can walk right into the landscape. I wanted the audience to smell and feel the atmosphere of the court, dripping with power, opulence and corruption. The increased sharpness of 65mm picks up everything; not just facial expressions, but any meaning in the actor’s eyes is caught that much more clearly. It probes more deeply into the inner life of the character…With 70mm, we get a chance to go from what is essentially a personal, domestic story about a family and its problems to the epic dimension that reflects the effects of those problems on the nation. We can go from the very intimate events in the court to the plains of northern Europe and see Fortinbras for the opportunistic leader he was, ready to invade with thousands of soldiers. 70mm is able to give that tremendous sweep so you feel the impact of the story, but it also has an incredible delicate touch, too.”

Samuel Crowl writes in The Films of Kenneth Branagh (2006):

“Stylistically, his model was not Olivier or Welles or Zeffirelli, but David Lean. Lean, who started small with Brief Encounter (1945) and two exquisite films of Dickens’s Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948), went on to become the finest director of epic movies in British film history. In Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965) and Ryan’s Daughter (1970), Lean became the master of shooting in the wide-screen 70mm format. Branagh boldly followed Lean into 70mm territory, and his Hamlet became the first British film to be shot in that format since Ryan’s Daughter. In our time, Hamlet has most often been visualized as a play about impasse; Branagh wanted to restore its capacity for expanse, sensing that impasse is most effectively realized only when set against expanse.”

You’ll have noticed the opening clip from Ryan’s Daughter at the top of this post. It’s there because the film was made in 70mm; but also because to my eye it’s a lovely example of Crowl’s “impasse set against expanse”.

The last word in this post goes to Dr Oliver Tearle, who emphasises what is mysterious, ambiguous, and cryptic in the character of Hamlet:

“This habit of Hamlet’s, his tendency to think things over, is both one of his most appealingly humane qualities, and yet also, in many ways, his undoing…Hamlet doesn’t exactly delay, or at least, he does not delay because he is indecisive, but for sound, practical reasons…”

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