You know what is kinda weird when you look back at it? The 1990s gave a little renaissance of Shakespeare adaptations. I’m not sure if this all started because of Kenneth Branagh’s wonderful adaptation of Henry V in 1989, or maybe because independent studios were flourishing. Who else but an independent studio was going to take a chance on a Shakespeare adaptation? Well Mel Gibson would. Who would have thought? Franco Zeffirelli apparently.
So stop me if you’ve heard this story. Prince Hamlet (Mel Gibson) has a major case of depression because his father has died. To add to this, his mother Gertrude (Glenn Close) has remarried the new king Claudius (Alan Bates), who was her brother in law. Ouch. Then the ghost of Hamlet’s father (Paul Scofield) appears and tells him the horrible truth: Claudius killed him to steal the crown!
Hamlet desires revenge, but must tread carefully. So he feigns insanity to hide his plotting. Unfortunately his sweetheart Ophelia (Helena Bonham Carter) doesn’t know that to make of this, even though her father Polonius (Ian Holm) has some definite ideas. Eventually tempers will flair, rash and bloody deeds will abound and poison will be imbibed. The only question at the end of all this is whether Hamlet will get his revenge.
- Some solid and excellent acting by the whole cast
- Amazing details in set and costumes bring the medieval setting to life
- The film moves at a quick pace building up to the finale
- Purists beware, this version of the play has been trimmed and edited to suit film and modern storytelling conventions
- Sticks with the standard interpretation of characters and events
- Gibson goes a bit over the top at times
This version of Hamlet focuses on the story and making the most crowd friendly version of the story. The film drives forward as Hamlet moves from key scene to key scene but with some dialogue (and monologues) moved around, and some scenes shifted or omitted completely. Production elements are wonderful and some of the camera work and visuals are masterful. But this film version will appeal more to people who don’t take every word Shakespeare wrote as gospel. Well worth seeing for some excellent performances and the visual style Zeffirelli brings to the movie.
Scores (out of 5)
In Depth Review
|Alas poor William Wallace?|
Because really that is what Zeffirelli has given us, Hamlet as a straight up historical drama. This is not a delving into the text, like the Kenneth Branagh version, or a modern revision like the version Ethan Hawke starred in. This is the bard’s play streamlined down into its basic plot, with everything clearly mapped and executed. If you are open to that concept, then you’ll enjoy the film. If you feel that Shakespeare is all about the language and the subtext, then you’ll find this film disappointing.
|Polonius explains it all.|
If I have any criticism it is with Gibson and Close. Gibson tries his hardest and that may be the problem. When he is on, he’s very good. Hamlet’s melancholy and anguish feel real and palpable. But there are moments where his rage seems too fiery and too intense. Hamlet is a thinker, not a man of action. I always felt he had a slow burning cold rage. Still it is a minor issue and for the most part Gibson delivers in the role.
|This scene goes into whole weird area.|
One of the main reasons to see Zeffirelli’s version of Hamlet is his visual presentation of the story. He keeps the setting of medieval Denmark, with it’s cold dark castle, broadswords and earth colors. David Watkin’s cinematography uses shadows and natural light to amazing effect. Location shooting in Scotland and Kent provides some amazing backdrops to the action. During the burial scene for Ophelia, the vibrant green grass contrasts with the pale white skin of the dead girl and the black outfits of the mourners. But it is the darkness of the castle that seems to swallow Hamlet and many of the other characters up. Warm torchlight or candlelight provides pools where characters seem to be isolated from the background and each other. It really is a wonderful look, something Zeffirelli excelled at in his version of Romeo and Juliet back in 1968.
|Ophelia is shocked to see she isn't in a Tim Burton movie.|
I’ve seen many Shakespeare fans deride this film for all the changes to the script and scenes. To them, the Bard is untouchable. But I think the film that Zeffirelli constructed here works wonderful as a straight film. The pacing is perfect, and actually builds up to the climax with each scene feeling like it adds to the momentum. Compare this to the Branagh version, which is the entire play filmed in its entirety. Branagh’s film moves in fits and starts, even though the energy is high and the acting impeccable. But the goals of the two films are very different. And I actually enjoy both of them for different reasons.
|Hamlet watches for the conscience of the king.|