Hamlet (1990)

*. Hamlet is a very long play. So even at two hours and fifteen minutes this is a radically cut version, even skipping or rearranging a number of its “greatest hits,” not to mention scrambling important plot points.
*. Some of the cuts here are obvious and (I think) justifiable. The dumb show, for example, is redundant to the point where it makes no dramatic sense at all. But I missed the opening scene with the first appearance of the Ghost, which is one of the greatest curtain-raisers ever. And whatever happened to Fortinbras?
*. To be fair, a full-text production of the play (like Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film), on stage or on screen, is likely only of interest to specialists, and Franco Zeffirelli’s version is probably a lot closer to the kind of thing Shakespeare’s audience would have seen. So the Hamlet we get here is not only defensible but smart.
*. To be sure, something is lost. I’ll give just one example of how the editing of the text weakens the reinforcing layers of the revenge theme. This is developed in the play by presenting a series of different stories dealing with the same situation: a son avenging his father. But Fortinbras, as I’ve said, is gone, so that angle is lost. Also the big embedded speech from the Player telling the story of Pyrrhus (Achilles’ son) avenging himself on Priam is left out, so another layer is lost. Hamlet’s only real foil is Laertes.
*. This is also very much a movie and not just a filmed play. This is most obvious in the rapid editing. Many Shakespeare films (and Branagh is representative of this) like to stick with long takes, allowing actors to play out scenes as complete units of speech and blocks of action, which is (obviously) how they play on stage.

*. According to one study I saw, the average shot length here is less than six seconds. This has been partly attributed to the fact that Mel Gibson is playing Hamlet and he was known as an action star (Zeffirelli cast him after being impressed by his performance in Lethal Weapon). I’m not sure that’s the reason for all the cuts though. I think they’re more likely just a concession to shortening attention spans.
*. I’m not sure if any long speeches from the play are kept intact. Alas, poor ghost! Paul Scofield only has a handful of lines. Which does allow him to drag them out in an interesting way. His enervated Hamlet Sr. is a far cry from the commanding figure we’re used to seeing.
*. Another way in which it seems more like a movie is the effect of location shooting. I think something is gained from this as well. When Hamlet claims that Denmark is a prison while standing in the great outdoors on a beautiful sunny day you get a clear picture of just how messed up he is.
*. I give Gibson a lot of credit here. He could have easily fallen on his face but he doesn’t. I don’t think he’s a great Hamlet — he doesn’t project melancholy, or excessive thoughtfulness well, and I didn’t care for his clowning around in the duel scene — but he doesn’t embarrass himself either.

*. The rest of the cast is very good. Helena Bonham-Carter is Ophelia. I’ve always thought it a terrible part (despite being an iconic one), without enough lines to make the disintegration of her character believable, but Bonham-Carter gets a jump start on all this since she’s an actress who gives an impression of fragile mental health even at the best of times. Alan Bates looks appropriately gregarious and seedy. Ian Holm is a perfect Polonius.

*. Of course it’s a post-Freud Hamlet so Glenn Close’s Gertrude isn’t a dowdy queen but a medieval MILF. This at least helps lubricate the incest angle. Close is only nine years older than Gibson, which isn’t as strained an age differential as with Olivier’s version.
*. Seeing Hamlet lock lips with his mom I had to wonder just how this reading of the play ever got traction in the first place. Is it all Sigmund’s fault? It’s not something I find in the play, but then Gertrude has always seemed to me the great mystery in Hamlet.
*. I like the look of the film. There’s an interesting vertical motif adopted throughout, using the layout of the castle to position characters looking down (or eavesdropping) on others from above. The interior stairways also give a kind of Piranesi-effect that suits the proceedings well. And I never found the setting too heavy or obtrusive, despite the castle’s rough-hewn quality.
*. So, not bad at all. I saw it when it first came out and watching it again I thought it held up very well. It actually succeeds in presenting a fresh take on the old warhorse. It works well as both an interpretation of and a more basic introduction to the play. Purists may object to all the liberties taken, but I don’t think any damage was done to the spirit of the play. Gibson doesn’t quite hold his own, but that’s mainly due to just how good the rest of the cast is. Not the best Hamlet on screen, but there’s still a lot here to treasure and enjoy.

17 thoughts on “Hamlet (1990)

      1. fragglerocking

        Over 50 movies of Hamlet in some form or other since 1900. Only one full text (Branagh). I wonder what the point of them all is. I suppose they have nothing better or original to do.

  1. Bookstooge

    Hey, a movie that you only semi-hated on. You must have loved it! 😉

    How familiar are you with the original plays and in what form? do you read the play before watching a movie adaptation or something?

    1. Alex Good Post author

      I like to read the plays over before I watch the movie. I’m pretty familiar with all of them, but always forget a lot.

      This one is actually pretty good, though it really reworks the play quite a bit. Gibson was better than expected.

      1. Bookstooge

        I can tell you are pretty familiar with the plays themselves but didn’t know if it was from repeated readings or if you refreshed yourself to be able to deal with the movie version appropriately.

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