Hamlet at Elsinore (1964)

*. It’s a shame that this Hamlet, a joint production of the BBC and Danish Radio that aired in 1964, isn’t better known. But I don’t think the BBC has ever promoted itself all that well. There wasn’t even a DVD version released until 2011, and even then it wasn’t a very clean print.
*. Then there is the title. Well of course Hamlet is at Elsinore. That’s where the play is set. The point of interest here though is that it was actually filmed entirely on location at the castle of Kronborg in the Danish city of Helsingør (in English, Elsinor). But then so what? Shakespeare had certainly never been to Elsinore, so his Elsinore was already a wholly made-up place. There’s little use of exteriors, and the interiors might have been just as convincingly rendered in a studio, without all the attendant difficulties of getting good sound while shooting on location. Meanwhile, does this look more authentic for being shot at Kronborg Castle than at Ivangorod, Dover Castle, or Blenheim Palace?
*. The producers wanted to cast actors who weren’t well known because it was thought that major stars would be a distraction. So they ended up with a cast of soon-to-be-stars, most of whom are terrific.

*. Christopher Plummer is Hamlet, a year before The Sound of Music. He’s a distinctive melancholy type here, seeming distracted most of the time. Then there’s a curious decision made not to show the Ghost, which makes him seem even more distracted, if not unhinged. I say curious because the play makes it clear that the Ghost has an objective existence. This production, however, works hard to suggest it is at least in part a mental projection. The Ghost’s speech on the ramparts is all delivered with the camera on Plummer’s face, and as he nods and grins at the Ghost’s revelations the impression we have is that he’s only being told what he already believed. There’s something more going on here than just his having a prophetic soul.

*. Robert Shaw is here a year after playing Aston in The Caretaker and Red Grant in From Russia with Love, two very different but equally chilling roles. He’s a personal favourite of mine, but even allowing for bias I still think his Claudius one of the best I’ve seen. He has a shifty look and casts a mean side eye. He walks around Elsinore bare-chested, and has more virility than is normally associated with the part (in fact, he was only two years older than Plummer, with June Tobin, who plays Gertrude, being the same age). But he’s also a bully, and like all bullies he goes to pieces at the end when Hamlet finally stands up to him.
*. Michael Caine, in his only turn at Shakespeare, is Horatio, and does a fine job playing second (or third) fiddle. Apparently he wanted to project a possible homosexual attachment to Hamlet, but even when I was looking for this I didn’t pick up much of it. What I did wonder about was Osric and Laertes. Was there something going on there?
*. Donald Sutherland is Fortinbras and he’s the only flop. And I mean flop. I don’t think I ever figured out what accent he was trying to affect. Surely not Norwegian? Listen to him say “Where is this sight?” when he comes striding on the stage at the end and try to place how he says “sight.” It’s just weird.

*. The women didn’t do as well. I think June Tobin as Gertrude and Jo Maxwell Muller as Ophelia are both very good, but they never went on to do much. Not the same opportunities? Or just different career choices?
*. Alec Clunes plays Polonius as a harmless, doddering fool. I think it was only in later productions that Polonius started to develop a bit of an edge. Here he’s still a comic type.

*. With such a cast, and some interesting creative decisions, it’s too bad this wasn’t filmed. Instead it was shot in videotape, and it shows. Director Philip Saville worked mainly in television and you really feel the limits of the small screen. As noted, the sound is awful, but also the editing is choppy and there is a repeated attempt to create depth of field that they just can’t achieve on any level. Figures even in the middle distance disappear in the haze.
*. Overall: a lot more than what you might expect, but still something less than what might have been. A good Hamlet and a standout Claudius. And the real Elsinore, if that makes a difference.

6 thoughts on “Hamlet at Elsinore (1964)

  1. Bookstooge

    So this was before Caine’s Jaws 4 days, right? From your description, a shark coming in and eating everyone would have made this a better movie…

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Yep, a whole line-up of Before They Were Stars here, including Caine. And he does quite well. As I say, the only guy who you wouldn’t think had much of a career ahead of him was Sutherland.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      It’s strictly bring your own beard. And ruff. But you get to wear your stockings down around your ankles, which is nice. I’ve never been a fan of hose.


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