March : Kenneth Branagh and the Importance of Fortinbras–What you Focus on (part one)

Hello! Why don’t we return to one of the old guard for this month’s posts—the Bard. 

I believe it was Mortimer Adler that read Hamlet over again every year, gaining new insights with each look. You could say society is in the same bucket; new adaptations of this play focus on different things, and different waves of academics bring out one theme or focus, only to be surprised by a later insight from a different voice, highlighting another aspect of the story.

Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Hamlet did that for me. Here’s the backstory:

I’d read this play once before, and was reading it again this year for Literature. I’ve recently enjoyed indulging in adaptations (studying something is an easy excuse), and as you all have seen I’ve gone rather wild with Wuthering Heights. So I watched Branagh.

Reading Hamlet, I found Fortinbras a rather odd thorn. Perhaps a loose end. The arrogant, power-hungry Norwegian prince who conquers Denmark in the end. What was he doing there? He wasn’t in the story enough to really contribute to thematic significance, and his entrance at the end is almost random and seems quite the convenience for our esteemed author. However, Branagh gave Fortinbras more of a presence in his adaptation. Fortinbras already was sprinkled throughout the beginning of the play, but Branagh gave him more wordless shots, flashbacks, and made it always ominous. The viewer is definitely more aware of the threat he poses to Denmark, and of the dramatic irony that the Danes have no idea. 

The Man Himself (Fortinbras)

As the film progresses, so does Fortinbras’ looming figure. Branagh highlights the huge scope of the threat during one of Hamlet’s soliloquies as the camera zooms out, leaving Hamlet a speck before Fortinbras’ enormous army (which Hamlet has no idea is actually marching to Denmark). 

a bit hard to see, by the army is all the little ridges and specks lining the plain behind Hamlet. Watch the movie to see the grandeur of this scene for yourself :/

Act 5 is the most marked difference of all. While in the play, Fortinbras only appears with his entrance at the end, his approach is frequently shown by Branagh, heightening the peril. The audience is agonizingly aware that, the whole of act 5, Fortinbras is swiftly taking a defenseless Denmark—and, again, Hamlet and crew have no idea. The action of act 5, the duels, the poisonings, that seem in the script so all-consumingly important, are constantly juxtaposed with shots of the massive approaching army. In Branagh’s version, Fortinbras is of as great importance, if not more, than the intrigue within Denmark.

Look out for the next installment, up later this month!

~Phlox

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