Friday, November 25, 2011

MOVIE REVIEW: Hamlet (1990)

I have been enmeshed in Shakespeare's Hamlet for the better part of a month now, as my teacher and I are working through a unit on the play in our 12th grade English class. This makes about four times I have read the play, and one time I've seen it performed (that one time being when I watched a filmed stage production starring Kevin Kline). When one watches or reads a play that many times, faults that weren't initially apparent inevitably reveal themselves. All one can hope for is that in those multiple experiences with the play, the beauty of the its triumphs will grow exponentially and thereby overshadow its shortcomings. Hamlet is a play that accomplishes this, and so I don't hesitate to call it a magnificent work.

However, my experience with Franco Zeffirelli's 1990 film was much more limited until recently. I had seen clips of it, and I knew that it starred Mel Gibson, Glenn Close, and Helena Bonham Carter. But it wasn't until my teacher told me she was going to show it to our class that I decided to sit down and watch the entire film. In brief, I was disappointed.

Mel Gibson as the title character in Franco Zeffirelli's Hamlet

The main source of my disappointment is the casting of Mel Gibson as Hamlet. I feel Mel Gibson is a world-class actor. He is very competent in both comedy and drama: an achievement not many actors can claim. But in my humble opinion he is not the right actor to play Hamlet. His masculinity and Australian gruffness do not work in his favor. Those qualities make it very hard for me to accept him as a pensive, introspective royal with a tragic tendency to delay action. And while I think it's wonderful for actors to try new types of roles, the reality is if they do so, they must really disappear into the role. Mel Gibson does not disappear into Hamlet. In fact, it is one of his lesser performances. Until I saw him in this role, I didn't notice his trademark "heavy breathing occasionally interrupted by exasperated dry swallows" acting technique (but by the end of the movie, it was all I could think about every time he was on screen). Aside from a slight British accent, this is Mel Gibson, doing the movie star thing and playing himself.

Truthfully, he is very good in some scenes, most notably the climatic scene with Gertrude (set in her bedroom). But on the whole, I prefer a somewhat more effeminate actor for my Hamlet. And I prefer a more masculine actor for my Laertes. Nathaniel Parker plays the part in this version of the story, and he comes across as pretty unintimidating. One of the main purposes of the character of Laertes is to serve as a foil for Hamlet, and to demonstrate through his decisive action how pathetic Hamlet really is. When you take a pasty Brit with long hair and a high voice and you put him up against a bearded Mel Gibson, that dynamic is pretty much destroyed.

I was also annoyed by the way some of Hamlet's lines were moved around. Most notably, the "Get thee to a nunnery" lines have been divided into two distinct parts. In the film, Hamlet says part of it to Ophelia when they meet in the castle, and the remainder later on after the play. I can't really see why Zeffirelli does this; it serves only to irritate those who know the play well enough to detect the change. The "To be or not to be" soliloquy was also moved so that Hamlet gives it after the aforementioned meeting with Ophelia, as opposed to before. This change bothered me less than the others because I saw a certain logic to it: in the play the soliloquy comes before he realizes Ophelia has agreed to spy on him, whereas in the film it comes after. Having Hamlet contemplate suicide after he has been betrayed by everyone, including Ophelia, makes a certain amount of sense.

One thing Zeffirelli gets absolutely right is the casting of the supporting roles. It should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen any of her other performances that Helena Bonham Carter is great as Ophelia, particularly in the scenes after she has gone mad. Her performance in those scenes evokes a perfect mixture of creepiness and pity. Glenn Close is also very good in the part of Gertrude. I was especially delighted with the moment when she realizes she's been poisoned. You can see her face change as she goes through a series of shocking realizations: that she's been poisoned, that she wasn't poisoned by just anybody but by her husband, that he was also trying to poison her son, and that he was the one who had poisoned her first husband. It sound silly in writing, but it looks great on film. Alan Bates turns in a very capable performance as Claudius, particularly in the later scenes where Claudius and Laertes plot against Hamlet. He is super slimy and just evil -- the serpentine side of his character is on full display. I also have to single out Paul Scofield, who plays the ghost of King Hamlet, for special praise. He brings so many things to his few scenes: a palpable suffering, a deeply-felt sense of longing, a quiet rage, and a truly otherworldly aura. And thorough it all, he manages to be both frightening and sympathetic.

Helena Bonham Carter as Ophelia

Additionally, the sets and the costumes are extraordinarily beautiful. The movie just looks fantastic, and for a fan of the play it's a thrill to see the story brought to life like this. I honestly could not tell if they were on set or on location sometimes (Scotland and England stand in for Denmark, and I hope for the sake of the Danish people that their countryside is half as breathtaking).

But on the whole, the movie suffers from the abridgement and reduced running time. Characters don't have enough time to develop, and key subplots are dropped. When one reads the play, Hamlet's inaction is positively agonizing. But when the play is reduced by half its length, it doesn't have quite the same effect. His inaction is less pronounced, and his rashness is more apparent. His killing of Polonius and his appearance at Ophelia's funeral are much more upsetting here than the reading of the play because we don't know Hamlet's mind half as well. Some might welcome the chance to judge Hamlet purely by his actions, but I've always felt that the great strength of the play was the way in which the audience was able to explore the mind of the protagonist -- a mind more fully developed than those of most real persons we meet -- and then struggle with the task of passing judgment on him.

I would still recommend this movie to fans of the play, if only because of the costume and set design (both Oscar-nominated). But it is not a great adaptation of the play. I give it a 7 out of 10.

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