Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film 2

82. Grigori Mikhaylovich Kozintsev and Iosef Shapiro’s Hamlet

I am not sure why I enjoyed this Russian Hamlet so much. Jaded churl that I’ve become. I have had a surfeit of Hamlet (this is my eighth for this blog), and I don’t see that Kozintsev and Shapiro’s’s gorgeous, yet understated presentation is breathtakingly original.

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I have no right to judge the Boris Patsernak translation, as the subtitles are those of the bard (“Nyet, m’lord”).

The acting isn’t bad. Mikhail Nazvanovas Claudius seems interesting, and Anastasiya Vertinskaya as Ophelia is arresting.

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Innokenty Smoktunovsky is completely adequate as Hamlet—it should be telling that he’s not the first actor I want to discuss in this film. His legs are really skinny, which look pigeon-like in his tights.

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But he avoids Orsinoesque levels of angst. The whole cast seems to have a stoic approach, and I must confess I am unfamiliar with Russian film of this period to see a clear cultural rule in the performances. 1964 was eleven years after the death of Stalin.

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I suppose I feel about this Hamlet something like what I felt about Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. It was competent enough, and felt both superior-looking and familiar. Few complaints. Pass the Grey Goose.

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The lived-in sensibility of this Denmark encompasses the additions Kozintsev, Shapiro, and Pasternak have added. The extras react in surprising ways to the action, which lets the political aspect of the story to feel immediate. Claudius’sopening monologue is repeated like gossip in the court, as if by an anxious chorus. Later, the courtiers try to keep up when Claudius applauds “The Murder of Gonzago.” They falter instantly when the king cannot maintain the charade.

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An insensate Ophelia is dressed in mourning clothes by servants. Laertes is shown fetching his ancestral sword before confronting the royal family for his father’s murder. The visual language of cinema enhances the story, letting the plot emerge rather than racing to squeeze a tragedy into two hours. (The running time is 2 hours and 20 minutes, but doesn’t feel that long.)

This is what I think people mean when they say setting is a character. A well-established setting can make the fiction seem more real–the setting of a story is as important as characters. (This does not mean that might heart and brain are interchangeable; the setting-is-character theory seems really lazy to me.)

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The crisp cinematography by Jonas Gritsius shows off the ancient castle with regal, Renaissance pomp, and the lives lived within such beautiful cages, too. The depth of field and painterly composition of shots makes the viewer, or this rogue at least, become absorbed. This is the best-looking Hamlet I have seen, a world above the gauzy haze of Olivier’s 1948 version.

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One of the highlights of this Hamlet is its cinematic ghost, with a gothic cape perpetually unfurling behind it in slow motion. It’s difficult to convey a Renaissance sense of dread over hauntings, but this film’s apparition makes an impact.

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Dmitri Shostakovich’s music splits the difference between modern orchestration and classical brutalist music, but also conveys court music with a light touch. This is a soundtrack I would gladly own. At times, music and action sans dialogue carry this film. If you don’t love Shostakovich, stop reading this blog right now. Or give him a listen while you read.

Solomon Virsaladze’s costumes are outstanding. The Renaissance wardrobe looks authentic without looking ridiculous.

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Gertrude appears at the start of the play in mourning clothes, including black chiffon gloves that look too dainty and sexy for mourning (or maybe just Byronic in taste). Gertrude’s vanity is especially apparent in this version. When Hamlet looks what’s he’s killed behind the arras, there were royal dresses adoring headless mannequins.

Okay, I officially like this Hamlet more than The Rise of Skywalker, but less the than the nearly perfect Zeffirelli versionIf this 1964 Hamlet ever comes out in blu ray format, or whatever high-resolution format comes next, I recommend picking this one up.


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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.