Kozintsev's film is faithful to the architecture of the play, but the text (based on Pasternak's translation) is heavily truncated, achieving a total running time of 2 hours 20 minutes. The opening scene of the play is cut entirely, along with scenes 1 and 6 of Act IV, but other scenes are represented in sequence, even though some are drastically shortened. There is some resequencing of material in Act IV to illustrate the outwitting of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on the voyage to England. Kozintsev seeks constantly to represent the content of the play in visual terms, and there are notable sequences which are constructed without the use of dialogue (e.g. the opening scene in which Hamlet (Innokenty Smoktunovsky) arrives at Elsinore to join the court's mourning, and the vigil awaiting the appearance of the ghost).
Unlike Laurence Olivier's 1948 film, which removed most of the play's political dimension to focus on Hamlet's inner turmoil, Kozintsev's Hamlet is as political and public as it is personal. Kozintsev observed of his predecessor: "Olivier cut the theme of government, which I find extremely interesting. I will not yield a single point from this line." Where Olivier had narrow winding stairwells, Kozintsev has broad avenues, peopled with ambassadors and courtiers. The castle's role as a prison is emphasised. The camera frequently looks through bars and grates, and one critic has suggested that the image of Ophelia in an iron farthingale symbolises the fate of the sensitive and intelligent in the film's tough political environment. The film also shows the presence of ordinary people in ragged clothes, who are like the grave digger: good-hearted and only wishing to live peacefully.
The camera is continually mobile and extended shots (average length 24 seconds) enable the physical exploration of the spaces of the court and castle.
Of the castle itself, Kozintsev said: "The general view of the castle must not be filmed. The image will appear only in the unity of the sensations of Elsinore's various aspects. And its external appearance, in the montage of the sequences filmed in a variety of places". Many of the exteriors were filmed at the fortress of Ivangorod, on the border of Russia and Estonia.
Much of the film takes place out of doors. Apart from the backdrop of the castle, the imagery of the film is dominated by elements of nature. Kozintsev saw this as a vital way in which he could give visual form to the text: "Strangely enough they have always sought to film Hamlet in studios, but it seems to me that the key to reincarnating Shakespeare's words in visual imagery can only be found in nature". "It seems that the basic elements of the plastic arts are formed against a background of nature. In decisive places, they should oust period stylization (of the Tudor era, and of English affectation) and express the essentials. I have in mind stone, iron, fire, earth, and sea". These elements are present throughout, including the opening shot in which the cliff-top castle is represented by its shadow falling across the surging waters of the sea, and the final scene in which Hamlet walks out of the dark palace to sit against the rock facing the sea as he dies.