#4: Hamlet (1990)
Franco Zeffirelli is a creature of opera, and was friends with Maria Callas. He directed the version of La Traviata I attended at the Met. Yet when he directs films of Shakespeare, he avoids the bombast and hyperbole of the operatic mode altogether.
His Hamlet is earthy.
The problem with Hamlet, as Laurence Olivier simplistically put it in his own epigraph to a film version of the play, is that “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.” The prince of Denmark is charged by his father’s ghost to enact vengeance in Act 1. Emerson Venable tried to reconcile the four act delay of this revenge in his short book from 1912, The Hamlet Problem and its Solution—which is a more complex way of saying that Hamlet’s mind was a powerful engine of philosophy and conscience. He delays killing Claudius because he worries his own motives are too impure—his “prophetic soul” wanted to kill his uncle before he knew the new king was guilty.
Zeffirelli gives his Hamlet a medieval setting, and focuses on Hamlet’s worries of mortality, that the mind will become food for worms, then dust. The opening shot is of the prince pouring earth over his father’s sepulcher.
Olivier’s Hamlet isn’t bad, but isn’t necessarily good, either. I hate to say it, but the 1948 film isn’t dramatic enough. Olivier is skinny, and Hamlet comes off as a feckless aesthete.
Zeffirelli’s solution was to cast Mel Gibson, of Bird on a Wire fame.
Before the sanctimoniousness of Braveheart, before the snuff film of The Passion of the Christ, before his anti-Semitic run-ins with the police and consequent disgrace, Mel Gibson was a talented actor, an athletic one capable of menace. (Except for the ending, Lethal Weapon was actually a good film, before all those sequels.) When Hamlet is told the news of Claudius’s betrayal, he watches the king from above the castle and strikes the roof with his sword, sparks flying. His mind is undoing him, but his body threatens to undo him as well.
Ian Holm is a lucid Polonius, comic and shrewd.
Helena Bonham Carter is sublime as Ophelia.
The part of Ophelia is really the litmus test of any production of Hamlet—she suffers directly what Hamlet thinks he is suffering. She cannot be the perfect daughter and lover, and is destroyed by what the royal court of Denmark carelessly asks of her. Her mad scene is unforgettable.
Glen Close shines as Gertrude, a difficult part to make likable.
Alan Bates as Claudius, the venerable Paul Scofield as the ghost, and Nathaniel Parker as Laertes all do revelatory work as well.
Hamlet is a moody play. As my friend Numsiri once had to point out to me, it’s a bummer. But Mel Gibson squeezes out as much mook humor as can be discovered in the part.
The scenes from the play are not only truncated—the Polish plot is withdrawn entirely—but boldly re-arranged as well. This Hamlet moves with a good momentum, and drives its story home masterfully. It is also the Hamlet that turned me solidly into the Shakespeare junkie that I am. It is my Hamlet.
John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.
Don Royster said:
You hit the nail on the head. I think that it is difficult to translate a play to film, especially Shakespeare. Zeffirelli did an excellent job of this.