"Angels and ministers of grace defend us!"
You've seen The Lion King, right? It's like that. But with people.
I love Hamlet. I don't know which I'd pick if I had to choose a favourite Shakespeare play, but Hamlet would definitely be up there, and it must be the play I've seen the most often and in the most different versions, even beating Much Ado About Nothing (Hamlet and Much Ado were the two Shakespeare texts I did for my English Literature A-Level) and at least equaling Romeo and Juliet (if you don't count the ballet). Just choosing a page quote for it is nearly impossible because half the expressions in the English language seem to have come from this play alone.
Zeffirelli productions are usually attempts to present sometimes very famous stories in a "realistic" a manner as possible - see also Romeo and Juliet and Jesus of Nazareth. And so we have a medieval-set Hamlet - reflecting the origins of the story rather than Shakespeare's own period - filmed on location in gloomy castles and on windswept hills (how hilly is Denmark? hmm) with the occasional sea view. To be honest, I'm not sure it works for me in this case. There's something strangely artificial about parts of Hamlet that, for me, works a bit better in a later period - Elizabethan or later. Of course people in the medieval period did take part in sword fights, but usually (as I understand it) in big festivals and games involving jousting and wrestling and all sorts of other things as well. Hamlet and Laertes' initially terribly polite bout seems somehow more suited to the fencing setting in the Kenneth Branagh version than to medieval broadswords. On the other hand, Zeffirelli's desire to make it look genuinely Scandinavian does mean we get to see Glenn Close with some truly epic hairstyles and odd headgear.
Since we can't all be Kenneth Branagh and sit everyone down in a cinema for four hours, this version is also dramatically cut down to just over two hours, and several sections have been moved around as well. This can be a bit confusing if you know the play very well, but it mostly works. I missed the traditional opening with the first appearance of the ghost - it takes him absolutely ages to appear in this one - and there was one line of Claudius' I was very surprised to see cut. The irony of Hamlet's central refusal to kill him while praying which leads to the sprawling tragedy of the second half is rather lost if you don't hear Claudius say that his prayers are not heartfelt enough to reach heaven. On the other hand, some scenes which are described in the play are visualised here, particularly surrounding Ophelia and on the ship to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and that's always a nice way to broaden the scope of the production for film.
Zeffirelli assembled a fairly eclectic cast, but it mostly works pretty well. Mel Gibson as Hamlet is pretty good - a bit stare-y in places, but he brings a reality and a humanity to the character that is sometimes lacking. (I always remember Cher in Clueless 'remembering Mel Gibson accurately', and wonder at that, because although he was a big sex symbol back in 1990, the beard and blond bowl cut he sports here aren't really doing much for him, and nor is the rabbit-in-headlights look). Helena Bonham Carter played Ophelia back when she was known for playing secretly passionate English roses in Merchant Ivory productions, and this is what she plays for the first part of the film, until she goes mad towards the end, at which she is, of course, brilliant (though audiences didn't know that in advance back then). Nathaniel Parker (Inspector Lynley, or older Dunstan from Stardust) is how I picture Laertes in my head, and after wondering why Horatio looked so familiar throughout the entire film, I saw at the end that it was a smile-ier Stannis Baratheon, and felt vaguely like I should watch the whole thing again with this in mind. It's hard to say who is more perfect casting for Polonius - Ian Holm or Richard Briers - but Holm is excellent here.
Glenn Close as Gertrude is an excellent actress, but her portrayal of the character is a bit too giddy-schoolgirl for me, covering Claudius in kisses and generally throwing herself about the place. This production really plays up the Oedipal overtones to the scene between Hamlet and Gertrude in her bedroom - this is always a scene that's both violent and intimate, but at one point here it looks almost like a rape scene, and she calms him down with a massive smacker on the lips (right before the Ghost of Dad turns up again, presumably peeved that he's put a stop to one pseudo-incestuous union only accidentally to encourage an actually incestuous one). I'm never sure how I feel about Oedipal interpretations of Hamlet, but since Freud used it as his chief non-Greek example of the complex it's inevitable that some Oedipal overtones will creep in, especially given the bedroom setting - but this one perhaps gets a bit carried away with it.
I like this film. It's not my favourite screen interpretation of Hamlet - that's definitely Branagh's - and it's never made the same sort of impression on me as the stage productions I've seen (one back around the millennium starring Samuel West and the David Tennant one). But it's a perfectly enjoyable interpretation, and one of the shortest, so if you ever want to introduce someone to Hamlet in just a couple of hours, this is the film for you!
Notes and Quotes
- The gravedigger is Jim from The Vicar of Dibley. It's weird hearing him deliver lines without breaking into "No no no no no no no no yes."
There are too many famous quotes in Hamlet to list them all but here are a few favourites:
Polonius: To thine own self be true.
Hamlet: There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Gertrude: The lady do protest too much, methinks.
Hamlet: We are arrant knaves all; believe none of us.
Hamlet: The rest is silence.
Horatio: Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!
Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.