Hamlet on Screen
Hamlet may very well be the single most iconic character in all of English literature: The melancholy Dane brooding whether "To be or not be," holding aloft a skull and sadly intoning, "Alas, poor Yorick." Young actors see Hamlet as the first of two towering peaks required to summit (the other, King Lear, reserved for the end of their career), and many have plummeted during the ascent. Hamlet allows as many shades and nuances as there are actors to give him breath: he is as mercurial, maddening, and complex as just about any real human being (Harold Bloom might argue more so). The many film versions have plumbed varying depths of his character, but each adds a tile to the larger mosaic of Hamlet on screen.
With his Caesar haircut, Roman profile, dimpled chin, noble bearing, and melodious voice Laurence Olivier for many is the Platonic ideal of “Shakespearean thespian.” His towering reputation as the classical actor of the twentieth century has overshadowed his innovations as a director, on full display in his bravura adaptation of Hamlet. Olivier fully exploits the possibilities of cinema: expressionistic chiaroscuro, Dutch angles, deep slanting shadows, fogbound sets. He also adds a spicy dash of Freudian symbolism, beginning with casting an actress thirteen years his junior as Gertrude. Purists who object to the liberties taken by recent filmmakers should recall that Olivier not only excised Fortinbras, he got rid of the entire Rosencrantz and Guildenstern subplot! He slashed the play, re-assigned lines and even rewrote some lines. And for good measure he intones at the beginning of the film, “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.” Well, glad to have that cleared up! Quibbles aside, Olivier was the first great popularizer of Shakespeare in the film medium, and Hamlet earned four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor. It remains catnip to cinephiles as well as Bardolaters, and is deservedly a part of the prestigious Criterion Collection.
Soviet Russia, at the height of the Cold War, produced one of cinema’s most visually arresting adaptations of Hamlet. Grigori Kozintsev directed from a translation of the play by famed novelist Boris Pasternak, with a soundtrack by composer Dmitri Shostakovich. While Olivier focused almost exclusively on Hamlet’s inner turmoil, Kozintsev broadens the canvas to encompass the larger political backdrop, more in line with Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 version. Elsinore Castle has a real physical presence in the film, shot in beautiful deep-focus black-and-white (Hamlet pursuing the Ghost of his father on the castle ramparts, accompanied by the percussive sounds of Shostakovich, is an astonishing sequence). For the Bard completist, check out Kozintsev’s fascinating Shakespeare: Time and Conscience, parts of which recount his experience working on the film).
Like so many of the plays filmed for the BBC in the late seventies and early eighties, this Hamlet compensates for low production values with top-notch performances. Derek Jacobi's Prince of Denmark is a complex and embittered intellectual, whose occasional bursts of love, faith and even fury can quickly evaporate into weary skepticism. He is a postmodern, almost "deconstructed" Hamlet -- attractive, sensitive, even high-minded on the surface, but underneath a man whose sanity and noble intentions are ultimately untrustworthy. Patrick Stewart’s Claudius is no lecherous drunkard, as in many productions, but the capable CEO of the troubled state of Denmark, able to woo both Queen and Court. Claire Bloom is a beautiful, regal and sympathetic Gertrude—a Queen worth killing for. Eric Porter as Polonius also gives a benchmark performance, playing him as a generally well-meaning but cunning (and occasionally addle-pated) Chief Bureaucrat of the realm.
In 1990 the casting of action movie star Mel Gibson as Hamlet may have struck some as a publicity stunt. But recall the scene that introduces Gibson’s character in Lethal Weapon: he has a gun in his mouth and is on the verge of pulling the trigger. Gibson has always excelled at demon-haunted characters with deep reserves of pain, paranoia and rage; appropriately, then, his Hamlet is all-of-the-above along with impulsive, self-destructive, and charismatic. Franco Zeffirelli, whose Romeo and Juliet (1968) injected youthful vigor into cinematic Shakespeare, knew what he was about in casting Gibson, and surrounded him with an able supporting cast: Glenn Close, Ian Holm, and Helena Bonham-Carter. Rumor had it that back in 2000 Gibson explored directing Robert Downey Jr. (then in the mire of his drug trouble) as Hamlet in a stage production -- a tantalizing 'what if'...
This epic, 4 hour adaptation comes close to a ‘definitive’ screen version of Hamlet, at least in offering the full and unabridged text. Filmed in luscious 65mm, it is a red-blooded, lavish, glamorous, star-studded affair. Elsinore Castle is a hall-of-mirrors where vanities, deceptions and stratagems play out on an epic canvas. The uncut text fleshes out characters and subplots, reminding us that Hamlet is a political drama as much as personal psychodrama. Supporting characters shine: Richard Brier’s Polonius is cunning as well as comical; Brian Blessed is a terrifying Ghost; Rufus Sewell commands his limited screen time as Fortinbras (usually cut out entirely). Derek Jacobi is a calculating, chilling Claudius -- the blonde hair he shares with Hamlet suggests his designs on Gertrude may have begun long before the play begins. The movie star cameos are hit-and-miss, with Charlton Heston a surprisingly affecting Player King, Billy Crystal a decent Gravedigger, but somewhat distracting turns from Gerard Depardieu, Robin Williams and Jack Lemmon. Branagh, as actor and director, tends to veer between sublime and silly, but his vaulting ambition covers over relatively minor faults – his Hamlet is a love letter to Shakespeare and a gift to bardolaters.
How quickly a “modern” update of a classic play shows its age: in this Hamlet from the ancient year 2000, the young prince ponders “To be or not to be” while wandering the Action aisle of a Blockbuster Video. Twenty years later Blockbuster Videos seem as antiquated as ruffs and quill pens.Otherwise this remains a smart, fascinating take on the play. Ethan Hawke is a Hipster Hamlet, a spoiled beatnik wannabe poet/musician/artist whose black wardrobe is as much a fashion statement as a symbol of mourning. The ‘play-within-a-play’ is brilliantly reimagined as an arty shorty film directed by Hamlet (next stop: NYU film school). Kyle MacLachlan—fluent and natural with the language—is a pitch-perfect Claudius, playing him as an oily, honey-tongued executive. Sam Shepard is a pained Ghost, more haunted than haunting, and his scenes with Hawke are genuinely poignant. Bill Murray employs his comic timing to great effect as Polonius and Julia Stiles (who also starred in the Bard-inspired O. and Ten Things I Hate About You) is a moving Ophelia. The strong performances are what endure in this version, even as the attempts to “modernize” the play now seem quaint and dated.
This Hamlet is bracingly original, fresh and innovative. The set is stripped bare: a red carpet and some throw pillows surrounded by cave-like walls with a diabolically crimson cast. Only a handful of actors enact the entire dramatis personae (the same actor plays Claudius and the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father – an inspired move). Adrian Lester is the lodestone rock as Hamlet, in an astonishing and revelatory performance. He beats his head, froths at the mouth, disarms his opponents with cutting wit and unexpected flights of lunacy. He is sensitive, collegiate, philosophical, and dangerous.His heated encounter with Rosencrantz, -- “Will you play upon this pipe?” -- bristles with anger, hurt and sarcasm, culminating with Hamlet ready to impale Rosencrantz with the pipe. He is also charming and thoughtful, truly a “noble mind o’erthrown.” Be warned: this is not Hamlet 101 -- acclaimed director Peter Brook performs re(or de-)constructive surgery on the text: slicing, dicing, and rearranging. (For starters, the play-within-in-a-play is performed in ancient Greek without subtitles – which gives you an idea of how uncompromising the production is). But Lester is so brilliant that I finally understood many lines that had long since confused me, including the ambiguous last: “The rest is silence.” If you think you know Hamlet, check out this version and meet him again as if for the first time.
David Tennant, of Dr. Who fame, earned accolades for his 2008 Royal Shakespeare Company performance as Hamlet. This filmed version makes it easy to see why: Tennant is a mad, moving and mercurial Hamlet, on the knife’s edge of sanity. With his large expressive eyes and aquiline features, Tennant is spellbinding; as an actor he understands the power of silence, of pauses, as Hamlet works through his existential questions and conscience-stricken doubts, always “thinking too precisely on the event.” Patrick Stewart – who played Claudius in the 1980 BBC production starring Derek Jacobi – takes on the role again, while adding the part of the Ghost. Other versions have staged this ingenious maneuver (Peter Brook’s Hamlet, for example), but it is a pleasure to see Stewart (who won an Olivier award for the stage incarnation) explore the duality of the two parts, and one can never have enough Stewart in any case.