Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Hamlet (1990)

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.

Good Points:
  • 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

Bad Points:
  • 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)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 3
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 5
Entertainment: 5
Total:  4

In Depth Review

Alas poor William Wallace?
In some ways I think this movie has been forgotten. I remember when it came out there was a huge buzz about Gibson playing Hamlet, because most viewers only knew Mel from his roles in Mad Max and Lethal Weapon. But this movie really showed audiences that Gibson had acting skill, and that he wanted to do more than action flicks. Hamlet was as much an adaptation of a classic as it was a defining moment in Gibson’s career. So when Braveheart came around, we knew Gibson could carry a historical drama.

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.
It’s a shame to write this movie off because of that perception, because there is a wealth of good performances in this film. Alan Bates brings a dangerous cunning to Claudius. I love Ian Holm’s stuffy and befuddled take on Polonius, a bit of humor in a dark story. Carter brings frailty to Ophelia, so that when we see her break down into madness, it is believable and touching. Paul Scofield brings gravitas to the role of Hamlet’s father. Even small but key roles of Horatio (Stephen Dillane) and Laertes (Nathaniel Parker) are well acted.

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.
Close does a fine job too. But there are a few moments where I’m not sure if she takes the incest angle a bit too far. You almost get the feeling that Gertrude is lusting for her son as well. It is an odd acting choice and one that Gibson seems to play into at times. Aside from those odd moments, Close does a good job, especially when she starts to lose faith in Claudius.

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.
Speaking of the previous Zeffirelli film, Romeo and Juliet featured a wonderful score by the gifted Italian composer, Nino Rota (who also gave us the music from The Godfather). This time Zeffirelli turned to another Italian film music master, Ennio Morricone. For Hamlet, Morricone keeps things dark and moody, matching the visuals of the film. The music fits the movie well, but it is actually sparsely used, coming in only when it is really needed. The final result is a score that doesn’t really stand out, but always works well within the film. Composer Patrick Doyle took a very similar approach (but with a less heavy style) when he worked with Branagh on the 1996 version of the film.

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.
Zeffirelli gives us a Hamlet that is easy to digest, and is very accessible to anyone new to the story. It gives you a taste of all the key elements, all the important speeches and dialogue, all the character interaction. It never really delves into some of the more offbeat interpretations I’ve seen in other films or productions, but plays things very straight (with the excepting being Gertrude’s odd moments). To me this is the perfect version for students studying this for the first time in Lit class. But it also works as a version of Hamlet that you can just throw on when the mood strikes, and you can enjoy for all its visual splendor as well as its entertaining story. This is far from the dud, that some reviewers make it out to be. Believe me, it could have been a whole lot worse. And yes I’m looking at you Mr. Schell.


  1. I haven't seen either version of Hamlet, though they probably would appeal to me, however, I've seen Zefferilli's Romeo and Juliet, and enjoy it quite a bit. I've also enjoyed Branagh's Henry V, so I might enjoy that version as well. When I think of Hamlet, I also think of the movie Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. I don't know that it's completely successful, but is worth watching once. Particularly if you're in the mood.

    1. Oh man, I really love the film version of "Rosencrantz and Guilenstern Are Dead". I think that was the first movie I ever saw Tim Roth in. The interplay between him and Gary Oldman is excellent. Just a really fun, absurd movie. I haven't watched it in quite a while, but I do own it. Usually when we are in a Shakespeare comedy type of mood, we watch the MST3K episode featuring "Hamlet".

      Branagh's version of "Hamlet" is really an epic visual masterpiece. But it requires a commitment to watch, clocking in at nearly four hours. But the production design is amazing, the acting is top notch and the energy level is high. Really one of the best versions of the play I've seen.

  2. Quite apart from film being a different medium than the stage (though it is, it is), if and how to update Shakespeare for a contemporary audience is always a hard question. We've all seen solutions that worked and some that didn't. I'm hoping to see MacBeth before it closes in Greenwich Village at the Players Theater: this one is a musical set in a 1920s speakeasy.

    I thought Mel's Hamlet was serviceable. As you say, there are worse out there.

    1. Oh man that sounds like a really interesting way to present MacBeth. It sounds like it could work too. MacBeth is really one of my favorite of Shakespeare's plays, and you don't get too many film versions. Roman Polanski's version is finally coming to DVD from Criterion. I've only seen clips from it, but it looks like he did a good job with it.

      I saw a version with Patrick Stewart that I reviewed for DVD Verdict. Interesting version set in the 50s behind the iron curtain. It didn't quite work for me as a whole but Stewart was really great in the role. And then there is Akira Kurosawa's version "Throne of Blood". One of my favorites.

      But I actually saw a terrible production of this play about ten years ago. Just horrid. It was so hard not to go into full riffing mode while watching. But I didn't want the family members of the actors to kill me. :)