© 2002 Debra Murphy
In a Catholic family which includes a daughter who wore a Braveheart tee threadbare, a mother who has seen Signs three times on the big screen, and several men folk who, in spite of the female Murphys’ incessant pratings about Mel Gibson being one of the Almighty’s prettier creations, are nonetheless willing to admit that the man, after all, can act, not to mention, direct, it should come as no surprise that this 1990 film, directed by the flamboyant Franco Zeffirelli, is not known as “Zeffirelli’s Hamlet” but “Mel’s Hamlet.” What is surprising, perhaps, is how much this film adaptation has grown on Clan Murphy over the years, in spite of Zeffirelli’s mutilation of Shakespeare’s text. Cut by half ― nay, chopped, hacked, eviscerated, generally shot all to hell. No Fortinbras, nary a complete soliloquy, except for the inevitable “To be or not to be,” and lines reassigned all over the place. Still, this two-hour script of a four-hour play should have been enough to make these bardolaters grieve…were it not that the acting and staging of what remained was so remarkably satisfying.
To begin, Zeffirelli is an Enthusiast with an operatic streak. His many virtues and occasional vices, cinematically speaking, appear to stem from a temperamental tendency to what the Italians call sprezzatura. Let us say, “dying in his own too much.” But Zeffirelli has taken his over-the-topness down a notch in this film, befitting the bracing North Atlantic setting designed by the brilliant Dante Ferretti. Zeffirelli has thereby resisted the temptation to Wagnerian excess that I, for one, would have loathed. Instead, the medieval Norse Elsinore that the filmmakers have created, an elemental time and place in which springtime seems like a promise never kept, is subdued in color and ornament but rich in texture. It reels with labyrinthine staircases leading everywhere and nowhere at the same time, as in one of those dizzying Escher lithographs. More to the purpose, perhaps, Zeffirelli and his cast put their sets to good use. The actors move, interact, fill the stage ― unlike the Talking Heads productions one so often sees, in which characters stand around babbling beautifully, but never seem to inhabit their spaces, let alone live in them.
I was impressed, too, as I have been before, with Zeffirelli’s talent for getting inside the rhythms and Weltanschauung of another century, another culture. With a play like Hamlet, this time-traveling facility can be especially valuable, as it has become notoriously difficult for us twenty-first century postmoderns to wrap our imaginations around a world in which vow-breaking, adultery, incest, and fratricide/regicide are deeply shocking crimes, worthy of gasps rather than snickers; in which a belief in Ghosts, Angels, Demons ― even Eternal Damnation ― are tenable metaphysical positions held by sophisticated, educated, people. But that was the world Shakespeare lived in, the world his text hands us, and many directors, circumscribed by their own broad-minded relativism (not to mention, devotion to Foucault-laced lit crit) cannot seem to stage it any longer without dragging in boatloads of irony. What the audience is usually left with is a Prince of Denmark whose much-ballyhooed “nobility” consists of little more than a furious facility for skewering hypocrisy (Branagh) or a rebel-without-a-cause ennui (Almereyda).
Zeffirelli, however, by all accounts (like his star, Gibson, at least in theory), still adheres to many of those traditional concepts, which form the subtext of this Elizabethan revenge play. The anti-anti-hero they give, therefore, looks a good deal more, I suspect, like the tragic hero of former ages than has been seen for some time. Burdened, baleful, a little batty, yes, and ultimately broken, but no deconstructed Hamlet this…and my goodness, how refreshing it is.
As for Gibson himself, there has always been something a little ADHD about the actor, and he holds the screen with his energy as much as his good looks. In the role of Hamlet, his athleticism and animal spirits imbue the top-heavy Dane (always “thinking too precisely on the event”) with an intensity and edginess that I found most appealing. Not that there’s anything blunt or un-intellectual about Mel’s Hamlet, either, let us hasten to add; just that, for once, I was able to believe that the Prince of Denmark was by nature a robust male with an intact personality ― until, at least, he returns from university to find his familiar Elsinore transmogrified into the Twilight Zone.
Too, and to his credit, Gibson is one of the few Hamlets I’ve seen who actually thinks his words as he speaks them; is even surprised on occasion ― nay, horrified ― by his own suddenly tempest-dark thoughts and impulses. This, too, was refreshing, as actors aren’t the only ones who know these lines so well they could recite them in their sleep.
The rest of the cast is excellent, though the mangled dialogue frequently leaves the actors with insufficient material to build their characters’ motivations. Helena Bonham-Carter comes across as too feisty and ornery to suit my personal taste in Ophelias, but her mad scenes are nonetheless deeply affecting. Paul Scofield is a soft-spoken, purgatorial Ghost whose impact proves no less powerful for the actor’s restraint. Ian Holm’s busy-bee Polonius is not so much malicious as enormously irritating, as he should be, I suppose, mixing the devil’s own pride with a fawning servility towards his sovereign ― Alan Bates doing a finely calibrated “bloat king” Claudius. The latter is an interpretation for which I usually care little, as it runs the risk of lessening the danger the character should pose to our protagonist, but it works well here as performed by one of Britain’s most seasoned performers. Kudos, too, for Nathaniel Parker’s endearing Laertes, who proves a worthy mirror-image for Hamlet’s faltering will-to-revenge; one can see the poor man’s fury, shame, pity, and befuddlement, all in the space of a moment, particularly in the engrossingly staged final swordplay with Hamlet.
Special mention, I think, needs to be made of Glenn Close’s Gertrude. In spite of her occasionally off-putting Brunhilde-ish get-ups, she is primo throughout. She is also the first actress, in my viewing experience, to nail the poisoning scene. No delicately swooning Gertrude this, as is so common even with the finest actresses. Her Gertrude’s death is not only not pretty, as they say, it’s just about what one would expect, if one really thinks about it, from a fast-acting “potent poison” capable of reducing an otherwise vibrant woman to a lump of worm food in the space of a couple of minutes. As someone who has worked in hospitals with the very sick and dying, all I can say is, “Yep.”
Least favorite scene: Ophelia’s overtly challenging interchange with her father upon Laertes’ departure. In response to Polonius’s command that she no longer see Hamlet, Ophelia spouts off with a perfectly sarcastic “I shall obey, my Lord.” To my way of thinking, any young woman (especially in that day and age) strong enough to stand up to her paterfamilias in such a ballsy manner should have the whatsis to keep a good grip on her wits when the obnoxious old so-and-so is later killed. The whole episode came across (to me) as an ill-advised and anachronistic concession to the ravenous demands of feminist criticism, and certainly proved a source of cognitive dissonance vis-à-vis Ophelia’s later unraveling. ..
Favorite scene: The Hamlet-Gertrude “shenting scene,” in which an enraged Hamlet mimics “making love over the nasty sty” on top of his own pole-axed mother. For Hamlets, this scene is like the tenor’s big aria at the climax of an opera; which means that to be fully satisfying, the Hamlet in question must have had the good sense to check himself till then; must have saved something for the finale. Gibson, in keeping with his legendary ability to project rage on screen (think of the revenge-of-his-wife scene in Braveheart ― yikes!) does just that and the result, when he finally lets fly here, is a doozy: It takes little imagination on the part of the audience to understand why Gertrude is hysterical with fear that her son is about to kill her, perhaps even rape her.
But that’s still not the (perdona me) climax, for a second later Close manages a one-eighty that few actresses could navigate: She vises her out-of-control son in a violent lip-lock, and it is Hamlet’s turn to be shocked nearly out of his skin.
Okay, so maybe the whole Oedipal thing has been done to death in the last fifty years of Hamlet productions. Goodness knows I’ve often wished to see just one Closet Scene which didn’t end up in Gertrude’s bed, with Gertrude’s robes falling sexily off her shoulders as her son tosses her about; but in these folks’ skillful hands the effect is grisly rather than titillating. This is something of a ghost story, after all, and we should come away just a little freaked out.
I’m reminded of the cover of the program for the Tygre’s Heart Shakespeare Company’s 1997 production of Hamlet, which read:
Father dies. Mother marries uncle. Dead father visits son. Son plots revenge. Stepfather plots sons death. Mother is poisoned. Son is poisoned. Dying son stabs stepfather.
Hamlet. Suddenly your family seems normal.
Now if only, this had been a nice, plump three-hour Hamle with “Rogue and peasant slave” and “O how all occasions” speeches left intact.