Sunday, 28 April 2013

Hamlet on the Screen: 
Olivier (1948), Burton (1964), Smoktunovskiy  (1964), Williamson (1969), Jacobi (1980), Gibson (1990), Kline (1990), Branagh (1996), Hawke (2000), Lester (2002), Tennant (2009)

Hamlet (1948)

Laurence Olivier – Hamlet
Basil Sydney – Claudius
Eileen Herlie – Gertrude
Jean Simmons – Ophelia
Felix Aylmer – Polonius
Terrence Morgan – Laertes

Directed by Laurence Olivier.
B&W, 155 min. Music by William Walton.

To be, or not to be
O, that this too, too solid flesh would melt
Meeting with the Ghost


Olivier's Hamlet is visually spectacular for its time. The camera work is rather shaky, sometimes annoyingly so, but the dark, brooding, menacing atmosphere is superbly conveyed. It is a film noir in every sense of the word. The text is very heavily cut, but unlike some critics (which include the much loved by me Ethel Barrymore), I don't in the least regret the complete omission of Guildenstern, Rosencrantz, Reynaldo and Fortinbras, nor the much abridged parts of Osrik and the first gravedigger, amusing as they are. It's a very clever adaptation. Olivier clearly intended to bring forward Hamlet's internal conflicts at the expense of politics and other side issues, and for my part he was quite right. The only cuts I seriously regret are, of course, Hamlet's soliloquies; especially the third one is nearly completely missing. These should have been retained at all costs.


Laurence Olivier as Hamlet
What I like most about Olivier's portrayal is his restraint. Sad to say, but it seems that with the passing years Hamlet, at least on the screen, seems to wear his heart more and more on the sleeve. Not so Olivier. Which makes the several lines he cries out all the more effective; for example, the frantic (triumphant?) ''Is it the King?'' in the Closet Scene. Most of the lines, however, are spoken with singular detachment, rather deliberately and with many subtle nuances that can be appreciated only after several viewings. This melancholy, this subtle ''madness'', seems to me much more suitable to the character than the unabashed histrionics often adopted in modern times. Such approach as Olivier's makes you pay attention to the words, whereas more robust performances actually make you neglect them.



Laurence Olivier as Hamlet: meeting the Ghost
Should I be forced – Heaven forbid! – to choose but one Hamlet for my desert island exile, I will certainly go with Olivier's. By no means do I agree with everything in his interpretation; it is not perfect but only the least imperfect one – and only as far as I am concerned. To take but one example, I think Hamlet's blatant pro-Oedipal kisses are a dramatic mistake. By providing too easy and too obvious an explanation, they dilute the dramatic tension between mother and son, and all but ruin one of the most terrific scenes in the play. But such ''mistakes'' are rare.


Olivier's Hamlet: Elsinore in fog
I would not go as far as to claim, as some film critics have, that Olivier's greatest contribution on the screen was as a director. Far from it. But he is nonetheless fine a director for that. Leaving aside the haunting and already mentioned atmosphere, which easily rivals Orson Welles' in Macbeth (1948), Olivier passes with flying colours few other tricky obstacles. Soliloquies shown as thoughts are usually dull, but here, largely thanks to the direction, they are actually very effective, most notably the one behind the King's back and the beginning of ''To be, or not to be''. The latter is also one of the most unforgettable moments visually, with Olivier sitting on a rock high above the sea, as if amidst nothingness. The close-up in the beginning, which is abruptly interrupted by ''perchance to dream'', is especially memorable, showing Hamlet's face brightly lit while his eyes tend to be hidden in shadows. It's a startling image, not easy to forget. The movie's full with such glorious moments.

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet: "To be, or not to be"
The rest of the cast is completely unknown to me. The only exception is Jean Simmons whom I have seen in a very different role before: Evie Bishop in Sanatorium (1950) based on Somerset Maugham's eponymous short story. She makes a cute Ophelia that excites much more sympathy that her paper equivalent. This is one of the greatest dangers – and greatest advantages – of seeing plays: the acting and the physical appearance of the characters may lead one to conclusions difficult to support by reading of the text only. Basil Sydney and Eileen Herlie, as Claudius and Gertrude respectively, are somewhat artificial and not terribly convincing. Felix Aylmer is a charmingly pompous Polonius.

Hamlet (Laurence Olivier) and Ophelia (Jean Simmons)
Olivier's Hamlet is neither definitive nor perfect. No single movie or theatre production is. Only mediocre art receives definitive and perfect interpretations; Hamlet is far too great for that. The important thing is to see as many and as different interpretations, not just of the title part but of all others, as possible. You may – and indeed you should considering its historical importance – start with Olivier's masterpiece. But it should never remain the only one you have seen. It's just the beginning of a very long – possibly endless – quest.


Gamlet (1964)

Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy – Hamlet
Mikhail Nazvanov – Claudius
Elza Radzina- Szolkonis – Gertrude
Anastasiya Vertinskaya – Ophelia
Yuri Tolubeyev – Polonius
Stepan Oleksenko – Laertes

Directed by Grigory Kozintsev.
B&W, 140 min. Music by Dmitri Shostakovich.

Hamlet and the Ghost
Hamlet and Yorrick
The inset play

Grigori Kozintsev's 1964 movie is a real symphony in black and white, considerably helped in this respect by the fine score of Shostakovich. Shakespeare in Russian is, of course, very weird, all the more so since the English subtitles on the DVD don't always give the original accurately, but the translation of Boris Pasternak retains much of the spirit and there are relatively few cuts.

Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy in the title role is every bit as terrific as his name is difficult to spell. This is no accident. The man had a most distinguished career on both stage and screen in the former Soviet Union. His Hamlet is in the Olivier-inspired melancholic tradition, yet it has nothing to do with slavish imitation. If anything, Innokentiy is even more restrained and detached than Larry. Somehow it works, and it works well. Even in Hamlet's most vigorous scenes – the brutal ones with the ladies, the ''antic disposition'' – there is singular calm in the acting. Like every great actor, Smoktunovskiy says a great deal with every glance or gesture, so much so that the language barrier is easily broken down. It is ludicrous to say that words don't matter that much in Shakespeare, but in this very special case it happens to be true.

Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy as Hamlet
Kozintsev's aesthetic vision may also owe something to Olivier's (and thus indirectly to Welles'), but that's not to say he is an imitator, nor even that he was necessarily inspired by his great predecessors, still less that his work would have been impossible without theirs; this is the nonsense that critics are fond of writing. One of the most striking things about this movie is the great number of outdoor scenes, for example including the inset play and Hamlet's death, both traditionally staged ''indoors''. Kozintsev never fails to capture the best each scene has to offer, be it the grandeur of the Ghost's appearance or the pathos of Ophelia's madness.

The supporting cast, though entirely unknown to me and somewhat overshadowed by the Prince, is generally excellent, especially Ophelia whose combination of innocence and vulnerability has seldom been captured so well. The movie on the whole is a visual tour de force for Russian cinema from the 1960s. Even by modern standards, the imaginative direction and the subtle, entirely devoid of histrionics, interpretation of Hamlet's mental struggles make for a compelling experience. It's a gem that clearly demonstrates that great literature can survive translation and transcend ideological borders.


Hamlet (1964)

Richard Burton – Hamlet
Alfred Drake – Claudius
Eileen Herlie – Gertrude
Linda Marsh – Ophelia
Hume Cronyn – Polonius
John Cullum – Laertes

Directed by Bill Colleran and John Gielgud.
B&W, 191 min.
           
To be, or not to be
O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I
Hamlet and Polonius

This is the most curious Hamlet on film in my experience. It is not a movie at all, at least not in the conventional sense of the word. It is a filmed record of stage performance, namely Richard Burton's legendary Hamlet on Broadway in 1964. Recorded in front of a live audience, in modern dress and with virtually no sets, it is a stark experience, yet rather suitable to the play's introverted character. We should be grateful that such gem has been preserved in good (for their time) picture and sound, for I don't know of any other video record of Burton’s Hamlet, but this is no reason to neglect its one glaring defect.

This is the camera work. Whether by design or by necessity, I don't know, but it is very distant and rather crude. There are those who say this was deliberate in order to recreate the feeling of being there, live in the theatre, and that the rest of us, who complain about the lack of close-ups, are missing the point. But I think it's the other party who’s missing the point. We may all agree that there is a kind of magic in the live theatre that the screen can never recreate. That’s exactly the point. It’s no use trying. Being there live and watching a video shot from the point of view of somebody who was there are entirely different things.

But this is all by the way. The shaky camera work and abrupt editing can be annoying now and then, but it's easy to get used to them. Besides, there are many shots that do resemble close-ups; they are certainly close enough to appreciate facial expressions. The sound is excellent and every word comes through distinct. Despite its shortcomings, this film is a unique opportunity to enjoy an interpretation of Hamlet which, I believe, is entirely without precedent as far as filmed versions are concerned.

Richard Burton as Hamlet
Richard Burton as Hamlet
Burton’s Hamlet is athletic, aggressive, frenetic and splenetic, with rapid delivery of the text and elaborate body language. Seldom is there a calm moment in the speech or a tranquil reflection in silence. He's angry, violent, hysterical. He’s also compelling, riveting, mesmerising. He’s an oldish looking Hamlet, but there is nothing feeble or decrepit about him. Burton’s magnificent voice carries well and far his vast array of tones, inflections, shouts and whispers; considering the often amazing speed of talking, his pronunciation is remarkably clear. All in all, it's a spellbinding spectacle that easily overrules personal taste or prejudice. An extraordinary example of the angry, full of histrionics Hamlet, yet entirely different than Jacobi or Branagh, another two actors who seem to favour – but on a less intense scale! – the energetic ''Angry Teenager'' approach as opposed to the ''Melancholic Dreamer'' in the best Olivier-inspired fashion.

The rest of the cast contains some great hits and some great misses. Chief among the latter is the uncommonly dull Ophelia of Linda Marsh. But Hume Cronyn is a fantastic Polonius, rich in comic detail to which Burton fully responds; their “fishmonger scene” is hilarious. Eileen Herlie is a much more accomplished Gertrude compared to her wooden performance in Olivier’s Hamlet eighteen years earlier.

Burton's Hamlet is in some ways like Olivier's Othello: highly controversial interpretation, often perplexing in the extreme, yet oddly charismatic and thoroughly entertaining. There are countless things I disagree with. I think Burton's frequent overacting misses the point of some scenes and pushes others almost beyond the limits of endurance. No matter. While it lasts it glues me to the screen. This is acting in the grand style and on the grand scale. Rare as it was half a century ago, today it is non-existent; it is just impossible to happen. Don't miss the opportunity to experience it, technical shortcomings of the movie or interpretative differences with Burton notwithstanding.


Hamlet (1969)

Nicol Williamson – Hamlet
Anthony Hopkins – Claudius
Judy Parfitt – Gertrude
Marianne Faithfull – Ophelia
Mark Dignam – Polonius
Michael Pennington – Laertes

Adapted and directed by Tony Richardson.
Colour. 117 min.

O, that this too, too solid flesh would melt




This is a very curious movie in almost every aspect. It is unlike any other screen adaptation of Hamlet I have ever seen. Even the end credits are unusual: they are spoken, not written. There is no reason why originality should go hand in hand with wisdom and depth, but I think this is the case here.

To begin with, Tony Richardson's direction is highly unorthodox, to say the least. Most of the movie, including the group scenes, consists of (near) close-ups. This can be disconcerting to some viewers and it has given rise to the derisive phrase ''soap opera style''. But there is nothing wrong with the method if it is combined with great acting where, needless to say, facial expressions are of the greatest importance. You may be sure that you will get lots of such acting here.

The production is a bizarre mixture of sumptuous costumes (apparently Elizabethan) and sparse sets; thanks to the direction the latter are almost never shown. Weird touches abound. For instance, the Ghost ''appears'' as nothing else but strong white light and a voice that sounds like computer-generated. Otherwise the lighting is scanty but often imaginative and effective. In the rare instances when something of the sets is actually seen, as in the case of the brick wall during the first two meetings with the Ghost that all but anticipates Pink Floyd's a decade later, the effect is striking. On the whole, it is a minimalist and claustrophobic production, but ingeniously realized as to enhance the drama.

The adaptation itself is no less idiosyncratic. It is extremely fast-paced yet seldom seems rushed. There are some scenes, most notably the one at the graveyard and the final massacre, where Richardson fails to bring off all the play has to offer, but in general he is remarkably successful. It is astonishing how few cuts there are. The whole movie is only about five minutes longer than Almereyda's modernist interpretation (with Ethan Hawke in the title role) which has the honour to be the shortest Hamlet on screen, but it also suffers from very heavy and disfiguring abridgement. That Richardson has managed to keep so much of the play under two hours is a kind of miracle.

But this is all more or less by the way. I have always looked askance to the relatively modern preoccupation with directors, no matter which art (theatre, cinema, opera) is discussed. Whatever merits and defects the direction (and the production) may have, it is by the cast that an interpretation of Hamlet must stand or fall.

Nicol Williamson is a Hamlet no less startlingly original than Tony Richardson's ideas of adaptation and direction. Instead of melancholy or anger, the most often encountered leitmotivs, he invests the Dane with a sardonic sense of humour. All of his soliloquies are retained, virtually complete, and delivered with a nearly constant streak of mockery. This is not to say that his interpretation is one-dimensional. Far from it. Anguish, passion, pain, rage, even a hint of melodrama (in the end of the Closet Scene), they all are present in Williamson's complex portrayal. But it is the prodigious sense of the ridiculous, rooted perhaps in Hamlet's profound disillusionment with the world but certainly backed up by his caustic wit, that makes this interpretation vastly entertaining and captivating.


Nicol Williamson as Hamlet
The rest of the cast is uniformly strong and well tuned to Nicol's attitude. It is a pleasure to see the very young Anthony Hopkins as a lusty Claudius who enjoys with gusto the carnal pleasures of life; the character is perhaps a trifle simplified, his dark sides being toned down, but there is vividness and charm that more than compensate for that. Judy Parfitt is a sensuous and strong-willed Gertrude, with magnificent pale blue eyes fatally compromised by the horrible white-face make-up. The same facial defect applies to Marianne Faithfull also, but that doesn't hurt her performance; she is marvellously amusing when responds to Williamson's flippantly naughty remarks. Mark Dignam is a rather conventional Polonius, the classic pompous old fool, and Laertes is distinctly disappointing, but no matter. Among the minor parts, the gold goes to the great Roger Livesey whose jovial face and rough voice suit the parts of Lucianus and the Gravedigger to perfection; admirers of Laurence Olivier will surely remember him as the father in harrowing family drama of The Entertainer (1960), also directed by Tony Richardson.

Taken as a whole, this is a remarkably original and powerful adaptation. Also, I can't help thinking it is rather neglected and underrated; it is seldom reviewed and hard to find (it used to be available complete on YT but no longer is). It is true that this is not the most alluring Hamlet visually. It is a modest filmed record of a stage production that has no ambition to match the splendour of Olivier's, Kozintsev's, Zeffirelli's or Branagh's large-scale spectacles (the last two of which were made decades later). But it is the acting that really makes Hamlet a great masterpiece. And the acting is of the highest quality here. The neglect is unjust. It would be a great loss to posterity if it turns to oblivion.


Hamlet (1980)

(TV, BBC, The Dramatic Works of Williams Shakespeare)

Derek Jacobi – Hamlet
Patrick Stewart – Claudius
Claire Bloom – Gertrude
Lalla Ward – Ophelia
Eric Porter – Polonius
David Robb – Laertes

Directed by Rodney Bennet.
Colour. 223 min.

O, that this too, too solid flesh would melt
To be, or not to be
Hamlet and Ophelia


I may be wrong but I do think that the Histrionic School tends to misrepresent Hamlet's character. Burton, Branagh, Kline and Jacobi are the most distinguished members of this school I have seen on the screen so far. (I have yet to see David Tennant's Dane, but judging from excerpts he may well be a student in the same educational facility.) Vastly different as these four great actors are, they share the same passion for consistent overacting of every line that can possibly be hammed up, thus reducing Hamlet from the introverted, disillusioned and spineless thinker suggested by the text, and supported by the Melancholic School, to an angry, frustrated and violent teenager whose main occupation is to take in others by putting an antic disposition.

Since there are no such things as representation and misrepresentation but only thinking that makes them so, the Hammy Hamlet is not necessarily a bad thing. It is just another way of interpretation, quite different than the Brooding Hamlet but equally valid. In fact, keeping in mind that there are certain confrontations in the play (most notably the Closet scene and the Nunnery Scene) where aggression in indispensable, this separation of schools is something of an oversimplification. Virtually every interpretation of Hamlet must contain both ''schools''. That said, I still think the division is a sensible one – especially if not taken too seriously.

Strangely enough, Derek Jacobi is the most histrionic of the quartet great actors mentioned above. Yet he is the only one I find entirely convincing. I don't really know how that could be. The only lame explanation I can offer is that Jacobi's acting is more accomplished and his portrayal more coherent than any of the other three. There is a kind of naturalness that never allows you to think of an actor playing a part. Jacobi always gives the impression of spontaneity, and that includes even his most ridiculously hysterical moments, such as for example his convulsions on the floor after the meeting with the Ghost or his stupid shouting with the sword in the middle of ''O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I''. It takes truly great acting to convince me that such monstrosities are parts of Hamlet's character as a whole.

Hamlet (Derek Jacobi) and Claudius (Patrick Stewart)
Jacobi's Hamlet is a blistering rendition; he makes even Burton and Branagh, both of them explosive Danes, look like tired old men. He rants, raves and rambles; saws the air and chews the scenery; chuckles, cackles and guffaws; sneers, mocks and ridicules; whines, grumbles and moans; shouts, yells and whispers. All that, and a great deal more, is delivered with just about the most perfect diction imaginable; many a Prince may well take an elocution lesson or two from Derek. Finally there emerges an angry, bitter and sarcastic Hamlet, more akin to a ''practical joker'' (in Auden's memorable description about Iago) who plays tricks for his own satisfaction, than to a prince who is troubled by the incestuous marriage of his mother or the murderous deeds of his uncle. I do not think this is a true interpretation, certainly not true to Shakespeare's text. No matter. It is an irresistible recreation.

But even Hamlet, mighty character as he is, cannot make the whole play alone. That's why we are lucky to have one of the finest supporting cast ever to have graced a screen adaptation. Even relatively minor parts such as Horatio, Osrik, Rosencrantz, or Guildenstern receive the same lavish treatment as they did from Shakespeare who made them remarkably vivid and individual for people who appear so little on the stage. The other major characters besides Hamlet, on whom the play depends more than you might think, are shrewdly cast and brilliantly executed.

I must confess I am somewhat smitten with Claire Bloom. Not only does she look quite alluring for her 49 years, but she is possibly the finest Gertrude in my experience so far. It's a difficult part to pull off convincingly, partly because the little text, and partly because of Hamlet's brutal treatment. But Claire does a wonderful job conveying both the Queen's strength of character (I think this is the only Gertrude I've seen who actually slapped her son) and her essential innocence as far as the ''incestuous'' marriage with Claudius is concerned. This is the best kind of interpretation: the one that makes you rethink the whole part. There is more in Gertrude than is dreamt in your philosophy, Hamlet.

The rest of the cast didn't cause any such wow-there's-more-in-this-character-than-I-thought reactions, but it's nonetheless stunning for that. Patrick Stewart is a wonderful Claudius, courageous and resolute, possessor of masculine charm that makes him popular but is often missed by other actors. Perhaps he downplays a bit the King's guilty conscience, but that actually makes dramatic sense. If he repents his past crime so deeply, how come that he plans it twice more until the end of the play? For twice does he plot Hamlet's death, first by sending him to England to deliver his own death warrant, and then in that amazing scene – for my money, one of the most chilling in the whole play! – when he and Laertes discuss in detail the poisoning of the Prince. The only explanation, it seems to me, is that Claudius' contrition is, if not entirely phoney, hardly anything more than momentary weakness.

Lalla Ward is not the prettiest Ophelia imaginable, but she is definitely among the most poignant ones. She presents Hamlet's once-beloved in a completely one-dimensional fashion, virtuous and innocent, ignorant of how the world works, weak and unable to resist her father's scheming, still more incapable of comprehending Hamlet's predicament and behaviour. As a compensation for this one-sidedness, Ward invests her Ophelia with rare coherence and plausibility, neither of which is always the case with actresses who try to introduce some (perhaps unsupported by the text) complexity of mind or subtlety of emotion. See Lalla Ward's ''madness scene''. If it doesn't awake your deepest compassion, I really don't know what could.

Polonius and Laertes, the old court fool and his loyally revengeful son respectively, are the most conventional and stereotyped among the major characters. So are they acted here. However, neither Eric Porter nor David Robb has anything to be ashamed of in his performance. Maybe some of Laertes' passionate rhetoric in the last two acts falls a little flat – by no means a rare occurrence in movie versions – but that is a very minor quibble.

Last and least, but still important, the production employs the stagy studio system typical for the legendary BBC series of Shakespeare's complete dramatic works completed between the late 1970s and the mid-1980s. Except for the lavish Elizabethan costumes, the production is relentlessly minimalist; locations are suggested by a few familiar objects rather than shown in their entirety. It is generally dark and grim, but the scanty lighting is perceptively used to make a dramatic point; bluish backgrounds are especially successful in conveying an infinite space, perhaps thus hinting at the play's universal significance. The direction is workmanlike rather than illuminating, but it gives you an ample opportunity to appreciate the acting.

All in all, there is a lot to recommend this movie to any Shakespeare enthusiast, especially if he has read the play recently but not seen any movies yet. It should be noted that this adaptation does use a virtually uncut text – some 16 years before Branagh's mighty spectacle. That's the chief reason, not a slow pacing, why it's three and a half hours long. Decent theatre-orientated production and superb all-round cast are its other great virtues. Dereck Jacobi's extremist Hamlet, extreme in every possible way, is the main bone of contention. If you dislike his interpretation, you may well find the whole movie unendurable. But if you find him compelling, even against your own will and judgment as it happened in my case, you are in for an unforgettable adventure.

Unless you are addicted to blockbusters like Zeffirelli's or visual feasts that border on ostentation like Branagh's, do give this Hamlet a try. You might be surprised how fast three and a half hours could pass. The one and only quality you need to have in advance is a keen interest in Shakespeare and his most famous tragedy.



Hamlet (1990)
(TV, Great Performances)

Kevin Kline – Hamlet
Brian Murry – Claudius
Dana Ivey – Gertrude
Diane Venora – Ophelia
Josef Sommer – Polonius
Michael Cumpsty – Laertes

Directed by Kevin Kline.
Colour. 182 min.





As Hamlet adaptations go, this one is quite a mixed bag. Since I am no fan of foggy darkness or modern dress, and my aesthetic sense is gravely offended by sparse sets in all shades of grey, I will pass over the production itself. Nor do I wish to elaborate on Kline's direction which is accomplished in a conventional sort of way. Let's concentrate on the acting and the characters, especially considering the relatively uncut nature of this version that offers you virtually all material Shakespeare thought necessary to invest in his characterisation.

Kevin Kline as Hamlet
Kevin Kline is a very interesting but very uneven Prince. The main cause of my disappointment with his Hamlet is the same as with Branagh's: too much ham. The ''antic disposition'' is rife with the most violent histrionics. No matter how funny these may be – and there are some positively hilarious moments during the charade with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern or the inset play – they quickly become tedious. In some of the ''serious'' scenes – most notably the confrontation with Ophelia and the Closet Scene, but to a lesser extent almost everywhere else – Kline resorts to dreadful overacting that reduces my sympathy for the Dane to nearly non-existent levels. Dramatic intensity and sweeping passion may very well be achieved without shouting at the top of your voice or doing frantic gymnastics that any gibbon could envy. I do not know if Hamlet's instructions to the players in Act III, Scene 2, are Shakespeare's own thoughts how acting should be done. But it's an excellent advice anyway.

Nor do not saw the air
too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently;
for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say,
the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget
a temperance that may give it smoothness.

In those relatively rare moments when Kevin Kline is kind enough to avoid the blatant hamming up of each line, he is a force to be reckoned with. ''To be, or not to be'' and ''How do all occasions conspire against me'' are two fine examples how effective, indeed how shattering, calmness, restraint and, above all, carefully inflected delivery of the text can be. However, even here Kline's interpretation is sometimes compromised by haste, monotony or indifference. Any of these is harmful to a part in which every word matters so much.

The rest of the cast is the same perplexing mixture as the protagonist. The not-so-young-as-she-looks Diane Venora easily steals the show as a genuinely tragic Ophelia, almost strong enough to stand against her father but ultimately crushed by Hamlet's cruelty. The ''mad scene'' is completely insane, not inappropriately so, and the rest is singularly natural, coherent and convincing portrayal. Of all others only Brian Murry made any impression on me, Polonius, Gertrude and Laertes being insignificant cameos, rather than vivid characters. I do think Claudius is the hardest part in the whole play – after Hamlet, of course. He has, though admittedly on a smaller scale, the same duality that makes the Prince such a magnetic creature. The King does have conscience that troubles him, but that should not be overstressed, for then his late and ruthless plans to eliminate Hamlet become implausible. I admire Brian Murry's performance because he conveys something of this complexity.

Taken as a whole, Kevin Kline's Hamlet is certainly worth-seeing, especially as a preparation for other rather long versions, such as Jacobi's (1980) or Branagh's (1996) for example, that use much fewer cuts than usual and present the Prince as a volatile creature prone to put on his ''antic disposition'' every few minutes. It is essential to distinguish these portrayals from that of Richard Burton, the most histrionic, but also the most consistent, of all. As far as the production, the direction, and the rest of the cast are concerned, excluding Ophelia and Claudius of course, they have to be endured rather enjoyed.


Hamlet (1990)

Mel Gibson – Hamlet
Alan Bates – Claudius
Glenn Close – Gertrude
Helena Bonham Carter – Ophelia
Ian Holm – Polonius
Nathaniel Parker – Laertes

Directed by Franco Zeffirelli.
Colour, 130 min.







Zeffirelli's Hamlet is nowhere near as good as his fantastic Romeo and Juliet but it is nonetheless fine a movie for that. The screenplay, significantly, is ''based on the play by William Shakespeare'', which should prepare one for considerable liberties with the original text. These are judiciously done. The numerous cuts, though more extensive than in almost any other version, detract little from the power of the original. There are some imaginative new scenes and redistributions of lines. For instance, the movie opens, not on the platform with Barnardo and Francisco trying not to die of cold and fear, but with the funeral of the old Hamlet. The sets and the costumes are in Zeffirelli's typical style, sumptuous and historically accurate, and there is little to complain about his imaginative direction. Choosing a crypt for ''To be, or not to be'' is a brilliant idea: it finely evokes the preoccupation with death in the words.


Mel Gibson as Hamlet
Even today, after such towering performances as in Braveheart and The Patriot, Mel Gibson, leaving aside matters of age, is not a very likely choice for Hamlet. Franco must have created quite a scandal in 1990, for then the most profound work of Mel Gibson still was Lethal Weapon. Shaking off several tons of silly prejudices, Mel does a great job. He is quite a bit more passionate than Olivier but generally very convincingly so. Unlike Burton and especially Branagh, he seldom resorts to histrionics. The most notable examples are the two places where overacting is almost essential: the Closet Scene and the confrontation with Ophelia. All in all, a remarkable performance that exceeded my expectations by far.


Hamlet (Mel Gibson) and Ophelia (Helena Bonham Carter)

The supporting cast is top-notch. Alan Bates is a crafty Claudius, if a little stilted in his soliloquies. Glenn Close manages well the ungrateful part of Gertrude; her death scene is superbly done. Helena Bonham Carter as a convincingly defiant Ophelia and Ian Holm as a buffoonish Polonius complete the list of actors who have no reason to be ashamed of their performances. It was a pleasure to see again John McEnery as a very serious, even sinister, Osrik; 22 years earlier he was a fantastic Mercutio in Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet.

One last note about Zeffirelli's version. If your DVD contains the documentary ''Mel Gibson: To be, or not to be'', don't miss it. Such fun! It is Mel himself who is the narrator and he is very witty. They went to Scotland for some outdoor shooting and everything was great, except the weather: they looked for something dark and angry but it was like Miami. Together with many similar jokes, Mel has some extremely perceptive things to say. In addition to his perfect description of the character – ''Hamlet is more than a part. It's an assault on your personality. Every passing day his doubts become more your doubts.'' – I liked best his casual remark during rehearsals that he would like to try this on the stage, night after night, constantly making it better. He ended laughing: ''You know, I wouldn't mind shooting the whole thing again.''

There are also many charming outtakes and behind-the-scenes interviews with the cast and the director. You just have to see, to take but one example, Franco's hilarious parody of hammy acting in ''To be, or not to be''. It is indeed seldom that I find among the additional materials on a DVD something that is so entertaining and so worth watching.



Hamlet (1996)

Kenneth Branagh – Hamlet
Derek Jacobi – Claudius
Julie Christie – Gertrude
Kate Winslet – Ophelia
Richard Briers – Polonius
Michael Maloney – Laertes

Directed by Kenneth Branagh.
Colour, 242 min. The most complete text of all versions.






Of all movie versions of Hamlet I have seen, Kenneth Branagh's is by far the longest, the most stunning visually, the most unabashedly histrionic – and the most disappointing. The Victorian sets and costumes are a trifle weird but the feast for the eye is quite impressive enough not to bother with minor issues like that. The use of the complete text is highly commendable, but it would have been nice if many of the lines hadn't been spoken with the speed of machine gun. Perhaps this appalling speed of speaking was inevitable. Otherwise the movie would have been twice longer than its present 242 minutes.

Branagh's Hamlet: Act I, Scene 2
Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet
But the real problem is the histrionics. You know what to expect from the very beginning, when Barnardo nearly breaks the neck (and the back) of the poor Francisco by pushing him to the ground. Branagh's Hamlet often resembles a deranged lunatic who needs the straitjacket much more than Ophelia does. I am not sure this has much to do with Shakespeare's Hamlet. To be sure, there is some evidence in the play that the Prince is genuinely crazy, but this is brutally overemphasized in the movie. For if Hamlet is clinically insane, which Branagh's obviously is, he loses an essential part of his attraction; his actions become too easy to explain yet too impossible to analyse. The sardonic sense of humour and the ''antic disposition'' are similarly overblown. The former is a far cry from Olivier's aloofness or the quiet intensity of Mel Gibson or Adrian Lester, and the latter wouldn't fool people far stupider than Polonius – especially this Polonius. In short, Branagh's Hamlet is more like a character assassination than Shakespeare's creation. Forgive me, Kenneth, but I don't buy a Hamlet who shouts at least half of his lines.

Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh) and Gertrude (Julie Christie)
Other characters and relationships in the movie are also distorted to the point of burlesque. The blatant flirtations of Claudius and Gertrude soon after the old Hamlet's death are really quite unnecessary, not to say dramatically ridiculous. The character of Polonius is transformed out of recognition: from the pompous old fool generally portrayed to a sinister master of court intrigue who suffers from no scruples. If this rather adds to the dramatic impact of the play, as do the graphic scenes of Ophelia's madness, Hamlet's lunacy certainly does not. And it is the latter, alas, that bursts the screen.


Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh) and Ophelia (Keate Winslet)
Of course, it is not all that bad. Even Branagh has his moments. ''To be, or not to be'' is delivered with a wonderful calm and in front of a two-way mirror behind which Claudius and Polonius are hidden, which is dramatically very ingenious. Another great moment is Hamlet's poignant premonition of death – ''there's a special providence / in the fall of a sparrow'' – immediately before the final fight. This is beautifully acted and beautifully shot, with a close-up of Hamlet's face and a single tear coming down from one of his eyes. But these are exceptions. For the most part, it's either too fast or too wild, or both.


Derek Jacobi as Polonius
The supporting cast is a mixed bag. Two outstanding actors – Derek Jacobi as Claudius and Richard Briers as Polonius – dwarf pretty much everybody else. These include Julie Christie as a dull Gertrude, Kate Winslet as a decent if far from exceptional Ophelia, and Michael Maloney as a semi-hysterical Laertes. One of the minor charms of the movie is a lot of big names in small parts: Charlton Heston (Player King), Richard Attenborough (English Ambassador), Jack Lemmon (Marcellus), Gerard Depardieu (Reynaldo), Billy Crystal (First Gravedigger), Robin Williams (Osrick), John Gielgud (Priam) and Judi Dench (Hecuba). Apart from a few slight mishaps – Billy Crystal is too young for his part, Jack Lemmon's too old – the cameos are very entertaining. I was especially moved by Charlton Heston's delivery of the story of Pyrrhus; it almost brought tears to my eyes, too. The only really bad miscast is Rufus Sewell. But who cares about Fortinbras anyway?


Richard Briers as Polonius
Taken as a whole, Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet is a baffling affair. It says something that I was able to watch all of it in one long sitting; many a movie twice shorter has taxed my patience a lot more. I also enjoyed greatly the visual splendour, even if it occasionally borders on ostentation as in the second scene that is usually put on the DVD cover. Yet very few moments were really memorable. Even fewer brought some insight into the story or the characters that the text itself and the other versions hadn't supplied already. When he said that Hamlet ''has the kind of power, energy and excitement that movies can truly exploit'', Kenneth Branagh was perfectly right. But I am not sure this is the right way of exploitation.


Hamlet (2000)

Ethan Hawke – Hamlet
Kyle MacLachlan – Claudius
Diane Venora – Gertrude
Julia Stiles – Ophelia
Bill Murray – Polonius
Liev Schreiber – Laertes

Directed by Michael Almereyda.
Colour, 112 min.






This version is worth seeing for the same reason as Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) – because New York looks so great. Well, that’s unfair. The latter has at least the lovely Audrey Hepburn, if little else, to recommend it. Let this gentle hyperbole not mislead you that this is a bad movie. It is not. It is just mediocre. And it has come too late on a stage too crowded.


Ethan Hawke as Hamlet, the Ghost is hanging on the wall
The adaptation is ingenious and visually spectacular. There is no reason to suppose that “Denmark” wouldn’t work swimmingly as a mighty corporation. After all, you would kill your brother just as gladly for that as for any medieval kingdom, wouldn’t you? And it does work. Sort of. A good use is made of cameras, computers, faxes and other technological toys that make our civilisation seem so advanced, for example by making “The Mousetrap” an amateur compilation of archive footage (with Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet as a soundtrack) or the Ghost  (Sam Sheppard) appearing on a PC monitor. Further video references range from John Gielgud to James Dean. But the net effect is one of confusion rather than illumination. Further downside is that the play is by necessity very heavily cut and rearranged, seldom to any improvement of the dramatic value.


Hamlet (Ethan Hawke) and Ophelia (Julia Stiles)
Ethan Hawke doesn’t look as boyish as he did a decade ago in White Fang, but he still falls, not unsuitably, in the “Hamlet as a frustrated teenager” category. He does have his moments in a generally understated interpretation, occasionally punctuated by tightly controlled outbursts of passion, but after Larry, Mel and Ken (for this was the fourth Hamlet I saw), Ethan didn’t add any important insights. Nevertheless, he is the major reason to see, and even occasionally revisit, this movie.


Hamlet (Ethan Hawke) and Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan) in New York
Julia Stiles is an indifferent Ophelia who benefits from her relationship with the ''Prince'' being toned done and made more poignant in comparison with other versions. Kyle MacLachlan completely misses the intensity and the duality in the part of Claudius. Bill Murray could have made a wonderful Polonius if he hadn’t tried so hard to be so serious. Diane Venora is a decent Getrude, but any piece of wood would have made a better Laertes than Liev Shreiber.

On the whole, this is an enjoyable if forgettable movie. At 112 minutes, it is by far the shortest Hamlet on the screen yet. But it is not a good introduction unless you have an extensive knowledge of the original play. As far as the modern setting is concerned, Almereyda's attempt pales in comparison with Baz Luhrmann and Richard Longcrain whose Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Richard III (1995), respectively, are the best achievements in this department as far as I'm concerned.


Hamlet (2002, TV)

Adrian Lester – Hamlet
Jeffery Kissoon – Claudius/Ghost
Natasha Parry – Gertrude
Shantala Shivalingappa – Ophelia
Bruce Myers – Polonius/First Gravedigger
Rohan Siva – Laertes/Guildenstern

Adapted and directed by Peter Brook.
Colour, 134 min.






It is mightily wrong to regard this movie as "Brook's Hamlet". Most certainly, it is not. It's Adrian Lester's Hamlet. It matters not that he looks like he's about to plunge into some of Bob Marley's greatest hits. This is an understated but very subtle and altogether extremely powerful performance. It will repay re-visiting. Fabulous diction, too; one could easily take a dictation and write down the whole part (or what's left of it).


Adrian Lester as Hamlet
Adrian Lester has a kind of quiet intensity that is quite deceptive; a lot can be missed if one is not concentrated. He can be quite funny when discussing different cloud shapes with Polonius or ''country matters'' with Ophelia, yet in the ''fishmonger scene'', and even more so in the confrontations with both ladies, his quietness often assumes sinister dimensions of suppressed aggression. The occasional explosive outbursts are not his forte, but I do wonder how even then he manages to preserve his marvellous elocution. Hamlet's great soliloquies – ''O that this too too sullied flesh would melt'', ''O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!'', ''To be, or not to be'' – are not just the highest points in the play, but also Adrian Lester at his absolute best. All these are delivered in the same calm but strangely moving way, with rich, expressive voice and minimal body language. They define the noun ''soul-searching'' so perfectly that they may be put in any English dictionary. This is great acting. The more attentively one explores it, the more one gets.

In the beginning I was unpleasantly surprised by the heavy abridgement and the vast liberties taken with the play. For instance, the movie starts without ceremony and with ''O that this too too sullied flesh would melt'', the original opening being entirely cut; the ultra-hyper-mega-famous “To be or not to be” is moved right before Hamlet’s leaving for England, that is quite bit later than its usual place. But the unpleasant surprise wore off rather quickly. The abridgment is actually supremely well done, hardly noticeable if one is not intimately familiar with the original. This is Peter Brook's greatest contribution. I do not wish to elaborate on the minimalist production adorned with bright, almost garish colours, and situated entirely in a small and decrepit French theatre. One is wise not to be expect more from TV productions directed by Peter Brook.

On the other hand, I have always liked productions which emphasize the personal struggles of the characters, while dispensing with the largely irrelevant (and, let's admit, not terribly prominent) politics. It's been seriously suggested that politics in Hamlet – as well as in Lear, by the way – really matter so much that one just can't cut them without an irreparable loss. I think this is tosh. Politics are just a spice, not the main dish. How well one can do without them is eloquently demonstrated in this production.

I also love the international cast. An Indian Ophelia and a Japanese First Player are very fresh touches indeed. Another clever one is to have the old Hamlet and Claudius played by the same actor; this eliminates any part that physical attraction may have played in Gertrude's infatuation, and so makes the situation more interesting. Guildenstern is a very exotic-looking fellow, too. He apparently comes originally from the South Seas; his doubling as Laertes, unlike the Claudius/Ghost case (but like the one of Polonius and the First Gravedigger), makes no dramatic sense at all, but let that pass. No one from the supporting cast is any match for Adrian Lester. But, then again, no other character is any match for Hamlet either. All give good performances – except the rather dull Gertrude and a Polonius that somewhat falls between the chairs of the old fool and the master of court intrigue.

But it's Adrian's show all right. Shakespeare wanted it that way, and so did Brook. Terrific interpretation, hard to find but worth searching for. Indispensable for anybody who cares about Hamlet.


Hamlet (2009)

David Tennant – Hamlet
Patrick Stewart – Claudius/Ghost
Penny Downie – Gertrude
Mariah Gale – Ophelia
Oliver Ford Davies – Polonius
Edward Bennett – Laertes


Directed by Gregory Doran.

Colour. 180 min.

To be continued...

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