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Hamlet on film

This is it. The final Hamlet-related post. Here's an index to the earlier ones:
Hamlet, pt. 1: My abbreviated version of the play
Hamlet, pt. 2: The quoteskimming post
Hamlet, pt. 3: Who's there?
Hamlet, pt. 4: The Lady doth protest too much, methinks
Hamlet, pt. 5: Polonius is a bad guy

As I said yesterday, I could probably have devoted an entire month just to talking about Hamlet. There's just so much going on in that play. There's the drama of the actions within the play, of course – intrigue and swordplay and comedy and murder. But I think it's the psychological stuff (mostly found in the soliloquies, but found also in conversations with others – Hamlet's conversations with Horatio and Gertrude, for instance, reveal quite a bit of what's going on in his head) that makes it truly fascinating. And oh, the lovely lines. But I digress.

This post is about the several movie versions easily available for you to watch. I saw the last three on the list when they were first in the theatres, and again within the last week, so I'm pretty confident in my comments about them, which represent my opinions, and not anything more official.

In 1948, Sir Laurence Olivier committed his Hamlet to the screen. It's a black and white version, and, although I've not seen it, I understand that it's pretty fabulous.

In 1964, Richard Burton appeared on stage as Hamlet. His entire stage performance was captured on film. Again, I've not seen this one. My understanding is that it contains some excellent performances, but is not particularly "cinematic" in nature. (It is, after all, a video recording of a live play, and not actually a movie.)

In 1990, Franco Zeffirelli (director of the excellent 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet) selected Mel Gibson to star, casting Glenn Close (only 9 years older than Gibson) as Hamlet's mother. Perhaps this explains why the two of them ended up making out with open mouths in Act IV, but it skeeved me out. Also, Gibson's performance was a bit yeomanlike, a word which here means oversimplified and not particularly inspiring. Also? Zeffirelli made some odd choices in what he kept in, what he left out, and the order in which things occurred, in my opinion, in order to come up with a movie that runs about 2 hours and 10 minutes in length. The film is terribly dark (literally – they shot most of it at night, with people wearing dark clothing mostly, and it's all very medieval looking). Great performances by Ian Holm as Polonius and Alan Bates as Claudius. Michael Maloney, who played Rosencrantz here, turns up as Laertes in Branagh's 1996 version.

Six years later, Kenneth Branagh undertook his own big-screen production of Hamlet, starring and directing the film. It's wide-screen and visually stunning – mostly the set is black and white and red all over, and the picture is super sharp and well-lit, with tons of scenes shot uninterrupted from one camera. Further, the film is "the complete Hamlet", running just over 4 hours in length (apparently there was a 2-1/2 hour "cut" version, but I've never seen it). Ordinarily, theatre troupes make some cuts here and there; Branagh keeps all possible scenes in. The performances that seem the most out of place are those of Jack Lemmon as Marcellus and Billy Crystal as the grave digger (he kept a NY accent somehow, and it really seemed out of place); otherwise, the performances are gorgeous, particularly those of Branagh, Nicholas Farrell (Horatio), Kate Winslet (Ophelia), Richard Briers (Polonius), Michael Maloney (Laertes), and Derek Jacobi (Claudius). My favorite Hamlet on film, hands-down. (So far – more on that in a moment.)*

In 2000, Ethan Hawke starred in a Hamlet set in New York City in the year 2000. The movie is even shorter than the Zeffirelli film (at just under 2 hours), but it manages to retain most of the key lines and scenes, albeit occasionally out of order (Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy comes after his showdown with Ophelia, as it did in the Zeffirelli, for instance). The update here totally works for me in some ways, even though (or perhaps because) it's stripped so far down. Great turns by Julia Stiles (Ophelia), Liev Schreiber (Horatio) and Kyle MacLachlan (Claudius) as well as Hawke. Distracting product placement choices include scenes in which King Hamlet's ghost is overshadowed by Pepsi machines and Hamlet's "to be or not to be" soliloquy is overpowered at "to sleep, perchance to dream" by Blockbuster boxes.

*Last week's Much Ado About a Contest winner, Tessa Gratton, tells me that David Tennant is going to reprise his role as Hamlet for BBC2. And lookie here: BBC2 confirms it! Tennant will be joined by all members of the original cast that appeared on stage with him, including Patrick Stewart as Claudius. (Excuse me while I have inappropriate thoughts about both Tennant and Stewart, which may or may not include the word "sandwich", were I to describe them for you.)

Dear God, please let the BBC make this eventual production available on DVD. Pretty please? I promise to be a very, very good girl. Amen.

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( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 10th, 2009 04:35 pm (UTC)
Dude, Patrick Stewart as Claudius?! They'd better make it into a DVD!

The Ethan Hawke one sounds interesting.

When Mr. Future Boreal Owl heard that Mel Gibson was starring in Hamlet, he said, "Is it a comedy?" That was before all of Gibson's weird behaviour and Mr. Boreal mistook this Mel for Mel Brooks, but still... It sounds as if he got it right, by accident. ;-)
Jun. 10th, 2009 04:48 pm (UTC)
The Mel Gibson Hamlet isn't particularly funny, nor is it particularly deep and complex. Gibson played the role fairly straight - he was actually good in it, but I disliked (in many ways) the way that Zeffirelli chose to tell the story: he made too many cuts and rearranged things, and the way he wanted Glenn Close and Gibson to play the scene inside "the queen's closet" read as incestuous, which was twistier by far than it needed to be.

Jun. 10th, 2009 04:56 pm (UTC)
I've never watched any movie of Hamlet...partly because I had to read the play a billion times (it's my most-read Shakespearean play), and the last thing I wanted was to watch a movie of it! (My only exception, as noted before, was Rosencrantz & Guildenstern ARe Dead, but that's not exactly Hamlet, hehe).

I'll keep my eyes open for the David Tennant version, however.
Jun. 10th, 2009 05:19 pm (UTC)
The Branagh version is glorious - the picture is sharp, it's wide-screen, well-lit, perfect sound, pitch-perfect performances almost across the board. It's long, if you watch the full-length version, but it's so wonderful that I confess to having watched it TWICE last week (once through as the film, then again with the commentary playing - you miss nearly all the dialogue if you listen to the commentary).

But yes, I'm terribly excited about the David Tennant version. Because, well - David Tennant. Also, Patrick Stewart. I think both of them are dead sexy.
Jun. 10th, 2009 05:49 pm (UTC)
I saw part of the Ethan Hawke one on television recently when I was flipping channels. It was really unique.

But you missed an important version of Hamlet and one that shaped my view of the play for my whole young life. The Gilligan's Island version -- it was a musical. I can still sing some of those songs too (not well, but with the right words).
Jun. 10th, 2009 05:59 pm (UTC)
Wow! I must have been asleep at the wheel! Sorry I missed that one.
Jun. 11th, 2009 01:30 am (UTC)
That will be Patrick Stewart's second turn as Claudius for the BBC. He played the role opposite Derek Jacobi (Branagh's Claudius) as Hamlet in the late 70's. That version, available on Netflix and at most local libraries (It was part of the BBC/RSC release of most of Shakespeare's plays in a box set format), is one of my favorites, on par with Branagh's as far as the acting goes. And it always tickles me for some reason that Stewart is two years Jacobi's junior. I'm odd like that.

Legend has it that there is a black bound copy of Hamlet that has been passed down by the best Hamlet of each generation in British theatre circles. As the story goes, Olivier gave it to Jacobi for his RSC turn in the role and Jacobi gave it to Branagh after they wrapped on his film version.
Jun. 11th, 2009 03:49 am (UTC)
Ooh - what great information!
I can't believe that Patrick Stewart played Claudius in the late 70's - he was the right age to play Hamlet back then! I am very much hoping the BBC production comes out on DVD. It must, right?

I LOVE that legend you shared. I sincerely hope it's true. And I wonder who the next recipient will be - Tennant maybe?
Jun. 11th, 2009 04:26 am (UTC)
Re: Ooh - what great information!
I do hope it comes out on DVD, I'm fascinated to see what thirty years has done to his interpretation of the role.

It was strange enough to see him with hair on the top of his head in the Jacobi version (and curly hair at that!). I've only got an ancient VHS copy, but here is a clip from YouTube (couldn't find any good ones with Stewart, sorry!) -

Jun. 11th, 2009 12:57 pm (UTC)
Tanita Says :)
Inappropriately and startlingly loud laughter over that last line.
Still giggling.

Hamlet was the first Shakespeare Fresca piece I saw -- the lovely outdoors while people lay piled on the stage was so great...
Jun. 11th, 2009 01:34 pm (UTC)
Re: Tanita Says :)
I'm so pleased to know that I amuse anyone other than myself. I continue to laugh at my "sandwich" line. Because I do indeed laugh at my own jokes.

I saw Twelfth Night in an outdoor venue - it was great.
Jun. 11th, 2009 10:51 pm (UTC)
My husband and I saw the David Tennant production on our honeymoon, and it was fabulous (though I will say I thought the pre-intermission section was better than the post-intermission section). I had an aisle seat, and DT passed within a few inches of me several times, as did Patrick Stewart (who is *fit* for being sixty-whatever). I'm interested to see how the scenes with the players transfer to film - they were really brilliant on-stage.

I must confess that I've never seen the Kenneth Brannagh Hamlet. I know - shameful! I did see the Ethan Hawke version and was really disappointed. The only things I liked about it were the performances by Julia Stiles, Liev Schreiber, and the guy who played Horatio.

Incidentally, have you ever heard the episode of This American Life where they profile a prison drama program where the actors put on Hamlet one act at a time? http://www.thisamericanlife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?episode=218 It's really a powerful piece.
Jun. 12th, 2009 01:12 am (UTC)
I haven't heard any of This American Life. I'll check it out - it sounds fabulous.

I was disappointed when I first saw the Ethan Hawke version, in large part because the SCREAMING product placement mortified me. Knowing that it was going to be there, however, I found myself more able to tune it out. I thought that Kyle MacLachlan's performance as Claudius was pretty great, I must say - smooth businessman, cossetting husband, but absolutely ruthless (as when he punches Hawke in the stomach when enquiring where Polonius's body is). I'd rank it higher than the Mel Gibson Hamlet overall, because I think that the edits made more sense in the Hawke version. The Branagh is, however, the very best.

I love the story katsie shared above:
Legend has it that there is a black bound copy of Hamlet that has been passed down by the best Hamlet of each generation in British theatre circles. As the story goes, Olivier gave it to Jacobi for his RSC turn in the role and Jacobi gave it to Branagh after they wrapped on his film version.

I sure hope that's true.
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )

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