In 1996, Kenneth Branagh achieved what is possibly the pinnacle of his directorial career with an unabridged, four hour adaptation of Shakespeare's classic tragedy Hamlet. Branagh's film follows in the illustrious footsteps of Laurence Olivier but takes the unprecedented step of presenting the text in its entirety, preserving the sweep and nuance of the story as Shakespeare intended it. The play – as if it needs any introduction – is regarded by many as the Bard's masterpiece and explores the tragic fall of the eponymous Danish Prince (played by Branagh), as he seeks to avenge his father's death at the hands of his scheming Uncle Claudius. As usual, Branagh was able to enlist an astonishing line-up of big names to appear in the film, among them Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie, Billy Crystal, Robin Williams and Kate Winslet. The sheer ambition of Branagh's vision also presented a formidable challenge for his regular composer and close friend Patrick Doyle. Was it important to embody the epic scope and tragic weight of this most famous of plays? Or would he need to represent the extraordinary plethora of complex, multi-faceted characters? In the end, Doyle decided the former approach was best.
This proved to be entirely the right choice as it meant Doyle's music wouldn't overcomplicate the already complex source material. His approach meshed with that of Branagh who said that the aim was to introduce the story to the widest possible audience by telling it “with utmost clarity and simplicity.” The end result is an emotionally direct powerhouse of a score. There are of course themes in it, brilliant ones at that, but not as many as one might expect, at least not in the 70 minute album release – given the length of the film, it's clear that the vast majority of the score didn't make it onto the CD.
Perhaps it's best then to see the soundtrack as a sampling of Doyle's work on the film – and what a sampling it is. The score is dominated by the stunning theme for Hamlet himself – by anchoring the score in one principal theme, Doyle reflects Branagh's desire for clarity. Introduced in the opening track "In Pace" (actually the end credits) it gets a vocal treatment from legendary tenor Placido Domingo. The theme is undeniably one of the greatest of Doyle's career – rife with beauty yet also genuine sadness and tragedy. Following that is a rousing brassy theme for Denmark itself in "Fanfare" – heard infrequently, it bookends the score and represents the might of the Danish kingdom.
Thereafter, the score is dominated by Hamlet's theme, which appears in various guises depending on the emotional state of Shakespeare's tormented anti-hero. The gentle grace of "All That Lives Must Die" is contrasted with the overwhelmingly gorgeous strings of "To Thine Own Self Be True", which positively brims with beauty. The brassy stabs and choppy strings of "The Ghost" then take things in an entirely different direction – a dark and frightening piece that hearkens back to Doyle's work on the likes of Needful Things, it churns and broods over the course of nine unsettling minutes. It also introduces the malevolent, wavering string theme for Claudius (played by Derek Jacobi), indicating his treachery and involvement in the death of Hamlet's father. Pitted against this is a plaintive rendition of Hamlet's theme, foreshadowing the conflict to come between the two men.
After this, the highlights simply keep on coming. The heavenly string work in "What a Piece of Work is a Man" is achingly sad, reflecting Hamlet's inner turmoil as he comes to terms with both his father's death and his uncle's involvement in it. In direct contrast, the lively, skipping strings and brass of "What Players are They" reflect the pomp and circumstance of the Danish court, hearkening back to Doyle's delightful work on Much Ado About Nothing.
"To Be or Not To Be", accompanying what is of course the most famous monologue in the play, is unlike anything Doyle has composed before or since. Instead of reaching for grandiose weight as he does in the rest of the score, Doyle instead presents a textural piece for low, growling choir, brushed cymbals and other eerie effects, perhaps out of a desire not to impose on the text or Branagh's delivery of it. That said Hamlet's theme is still present to connect the piece emotionally to the rest of the score.
"I Loved You Once" is a noteworthy highlight, the sumptuous, heartbreaking strings hitting heights remarkable even for this composer. "Oh What a Noble Mind" introduces the score's third principal theme for Ophelia (played by Kate Winslet) – another deeply romantic yet sad piece that has overtones of thwarted romance. Doyle claims in the album notes that he was inspired by Winslet's performance of the scene in which Ophelia reads a letter sent to her by Hamlet.
Following the bewitchingly lovely harp/oboe combination in "If Once a Widow", the second half of the score takes the music in a darker direction as Hamlet sinks ever further into madness and despair. "Now Could I Drink Hot Blood", "Oh Heavy Deed" and "My Thoughts Be Bloody" reinstate the tempestuous material from the earlier "Ghost" track, embellishing the orchestra with a host of snares and other percussive devices. The defiant statement of Hamlet's theme in the latter is especially impressive.
Yet the sense of melodic tragedy is never far away with "Alas Poor Yorick" and "Sweets to the Sweet – Farewell" featuring some of the score's most moving material. Yet by this stage the music is somewhat desolate, the humanity lessened by the overwhelming nature of everything that has happened. Following another reprisal of the noble Danish theme in "Give Me Your Pardon Sir", there's then time for a dose of thrilling action music in "Part Them They Are Incensed", Doyle reaching Jerry Goldsmith levels of excitement with racing strings and dynamite orchestration. The score then reaches its magnificent conclusion in "Goodnight Sweet Prince" and "Go Bid the Soldiers Shoot", the former understated and moving, the latter ushering in a spectacular choral statement of Hamlet's theme to bring everything to a rousing close.
Doyle has always been one of the most sensitive and melodic of film composers but Hamlet is special even by his standards, beautifully expressing the tragic nature and epic scope of Shakespeare's masterpiece. Although the score is perhaps more utilitarian than one would expect, sacrificing leitmotifs in favour of a dominant theme, this works entirely in the score's favour, heightening its emotional impact and preventing it from becoming bitty and haphazard. Scoring Hamlet presented a notable challenge for Doyle but he rose to the occasion and was deservedly awarded with an Oscar nomination for his efforts. In terms of its sheer emotional impact, Hamlet is possibly the greatest score of Doyle's career, overflowing with gorgeous melodies; one can only hope for an extended album release in future that presents Doyle's masterpiece in its entirety.