November 1999 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

Patrick DOYLE William Shakespeare's Hamlet   Music produced by Patrick Doyle and Maggie Rodford, conducted by Robert Ziegler   Sony Classical SK 62857 [76:29]

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The Triumph of the Prince: Patrick Doyle and Kenneth Branagh's film  William Shakespeare's Hamlet

Let's talk about film not as it is, but as it could be. Film as art at the highest level, made without compromise or undue consideration of commerce. Imagine a world in which a major filmmaker could approach the greatest play ever written, and even if that play took four hours to perform, present it complete. Imagine if that filmmaker could bring to the play a fine cast, a supreme technical department and an utterly coherent vision, making the great play relevant to modern audiences. Imagine if that filmmaker could work to the highest standards of presentation, shooting a ravishingly beautiful film in 70mm, creating a work of staggering visual beauty which dwarfed all completing films. Surely for such a film there would be a level of anticipation to rival any previous spectacle? Yet in 1996 such a film was made, it was William Shakespeare's Hamlet, directed by Kenneth Branagh, with music by Patrick Doyle, and it was all but ignored, by critics and public alike.

This article will discuss some aspects of Patrick Doyle's score, and hopefully lead at least some readers reconsidering what the most under-rated film in the entire history of cinema - least some consider this claim unwarranted hyperbole, it is made after 30 years of very regular cinema going and thousands of films seen. Let me first make clear what is being discussed here. When talking about the film I am referring to seeing it in its full-intended majesty in 70mm, with 6-track sound perfectly presented on a screen measuring some 50' wide. This is an entirely different experience to seeing the 35mm reduction on a small multiplex screen, or even worse, enduring the disgracefully grainy and ill-defined video transfer. Seeing the film in 70mm brings the world of the drama fully alive, such that we enter fully into it and the four hours slip by far quicker than many films running less than half that time. When talking about the music score I am referring to the music in its intended context, as a part of the film, unless of course, specifically referring to the soundtrack album. However, I shall sometimes use the titles from the album, which are almost all lines from the play, as an easy way of refering to a particular scene.

First some context: Kenneth Branagh and Patrick Doyle have been working together for well over a decade, with Doyle originally a part of Branagh's Renaissance Theatre Company. They made their cinema debut together with Branagh's outstanding film version of Shakespeare's Henry V, and have since collaborated on Dead Again, Much Ado About Nothing, Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, William Shakespeare's Hamlet, and the forthcoming Love's Labour's Lost. The only Kenneth Branagh directed films he hasn't scored are the comedies Peter's Friends and In the Bleak Midwinter.

Following Doyle's acclaimed scores for Branagh's previous Shakespeare films, Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing, a first encounter with Hamlet via the soundtrack CD may give the impression of a disappointingly understated and subdued score. While the song 'In Pace' (derived from material from the themes for both Hamlet and Ophelia), sung by Placido Domingo, which opens the album, can sound overly theatrical. These first impressions may be difficult to overcome. On screen the song plays over the first half of the end titles, a fittingly operatic requiem as the finale to four hours of high drama, in which context it is as powerful and moving as any song ever written for the screen. Clearly it should come in place at the end of soundtrack album, but was doubtless placed at the beginning to capitalise on Domingo's name. Otherwise the disc is sequenced in film order, and while some cues are inevitably missing (most notably a solemn version of the main theme played on a church organ during an early scene between Ophelia, played by Kate Winslet, and her father and brother, played by Richard Briers and Michael Maloney), it does provide an excellent representation of the full score.

Doyle has crafted a complex score, fully supporting and greatly enhancing Brannagh's vision of Hamlet. The traditional approach has all too often lost any sense of tragedy. Elsinor is portrayed as a place of gothic gloom and misery, and from the onset Hamlet, Prince of Denmark a tormented soul. In such a version there can be no essential tragedy, for there is nothing to lose. Branagh makes Elsinor a place of light and beauty and joy. Hamlet, played by Branagh, is a happy young man, cheerfully in love with his beautiful girlfriend, Ophelia. Tragedy comes via murder and incest, which strikes a rotten blow of corruption at the very heart of the kingdom. Here, as is John Boorman's brilliant version of the Arthurian mythos, Excalibur, "the land and the king are one", such that when a corrupt king, Hamlet's uncle, who has murdered Hamlet's father, Claudius (Brian Blessed), and married his brother's wife, takes to the throne, the land itself is thrown into chaos.

The first semblance of music we hear is a church bell (there is no main title sequence), suggesting the toll for the dead, and soldiers on watch in the dark and snow. This uncanny atmosphere gives way to powerfully staged supernatural terror as Claudius's ghost incarnates through a statue of himself. Thus it becomes immediately clear what is wrong in this demi-paradise, such that while much of the score will be noble, majestic, suffused with an almost Elgarian sense of tragedy, Doyle is able to conjure a virtuoso 10 minute sequence for the main appearance of this apparition. Here Doyle follows Hamlet on a frantic chase through the darkling forest, taking the score into wild, pulsating atonal territory, using the device of a continually restless canon for Claudius, and hence into stark scoring for a bleakly modern string quartet. On screen the ghost of Hamlet's father recounts the crimes committed by his brother, and this is a very real ghost, no Freudian figment of the imagination. Rather, here is a restoration to the play of a world Shakespeare would have recognised, in which people had no difficulty in accepting the reality of the supernatural. Afterwards nature itself rebels, lightening crashes, the very earth sundering in response to the evil destroying the land. Doyle, summoning the fury of the elements unleashed, helps to craft one of the most breathtakingly visionary sequences ever put on film.

Branagh's approach to the play emphasises clarity of purpose and understanding, and Doyle is in his element with subtle underscoring of the key soliloquies of the play. He takes us deep into Hamlet's mind, with the brooding atmosphere of the "To be or not to be" sequence exploring the sonic soundscape territories akin to Jan Gabarek's Nordic jazz. A harp plays through the pastoral melancholy of the music for the speech "If once a window", a folk-like sense of loss and foreboding emerging from the most plaintively beguiling melodies. Elsewhere Doyle's central theme for Hamlet is a work of wondrous lyricism, capable of expressive pain, heroic nobility and many shades between, while a secondary theme for Ophelia has a simple, haunting loveliness, which captures the tragedy not just of a love denied, but a life sacrificed.

Before the intermission Doyle builds the drama to a new height, with Hamlet in the winter snows, an invading advancing army far below, as the Prince of Denmark declares "My thoughts be Bloody" and imperious drums sound a defiantly rousing tattoo. Here, as clearly as anywhere, the influence of the epic 1967 Russian version of War and Peace can be witnessed on Branagh's bold conception of Shakespeare's version of similarly universal themes.

After the intermission, which comes exactly two-thirds of the way through the film, Branagh builds the remaining 80 minutes like a relentless thriller, aided by Doyle's intensely powerful writing, escalating the drama to an epic fever pitch such as the screen has rarely seen. The final sequences of betrayal and slaughter in the throne room achieve an extraordinary sense of the timeless intensity of destiny being fulfilled before ones very eyes and ears. Yet inter-cut with the arrival and storming of Elsinor by the invading army, come to restore the just rule of law, the film presents a sense of tragic sacrifice made heroic and necessary, Hamlet's death a vital atonement for the restoration of the land. Tellingly, the music moves from violence to choral lament, through the mourning of 'In Pace', to the celebratory triumph of the latter part of the end titles (by which point 99% of the audience has left the auditorium) such that, as in all the greatest films, the story is told through the music. Hamlet continues through the titles, the song rightfully sorrowful for life lost so young and in the prime of love, yet rising to a heroic finale entirely in keeping with Branagh's vision, in which the final image is a statue of Hamlet being demolished and unceremoniously removed. The tragedy is over and now life can go on, the kingdom renewed. The final effect is exhilarating, uplifting almost transcendent, a testament to the overwhelming power of absolute cinema.

In an era of small, intelligent films, and big but empty blockbusters, William Shakespeare's Hamlet towers over everything else the decade has produced. Branagh's film is a monumental achievement, quite simply one of the very finest films ever made, and instrumental in this quality is the superb musical score by Patrick Doyle. If you have never seen this film properly, and given that there were on only two 70mm prints made for the UK, and few cinemas left in this multiplex era capable of showing them it is not an easy thing to do, then do make it a priority. Forget all other films, except perhaps the previously mentioned War and Peace, for this is the one to see. If there is a cinema with a 70mm projector near you, pester the management until they relent and show it. If not, travel to the next available screening. But whatever you do, see it, this is real cinema, and Patrick Doyle's score is an integral part of the glory of William Shakespeare's Hamlet.


Gary S. Dalkin


Gary S. Dalkin

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