Hamlet (2009)

*. I didn’t care for this production of Hamlet. It’s very much a filmed play, of the Royal Shakespeare Company for the BBC, and I didn’t like it as a movie or as a play. So there’s a lot of blame to go around.
*. At first sight of him I thought I might like David Tennant as Hamlet. He has a shaky, neurotic look to him in his inky cloak. Then, when he gives his “too, too solid flesh” soliloquy it seems as though they’ve set it up so that he actually will melt, resolve, and whatever into the mirrored black floor (apparently borrowed from a Vegas casino). The way he bends over and then kneels down was at least suggestive of such an idea. But nothing in the direction or camerawork, which is pedestrian throughout, tries to sell such an image and in the end I’m not sure if anyone was aware of it. It’s not mentioned on the commentary or the “making of” featurette.
*. Alas, Tennant wore on me very quickly. I found him antic and annoying when he (or Hamlet) wasn’t trying to be. Look at the way he works his face in the grave scene, for example. It’s all bug eyes and a stretched mouth, the sort of big emoting that works on stage but looks almost grotesque on screen.

*. Wardrobe also lets him down. It’s a problem presented in any modern-dress production of Shakespeare: how do you render important cues in the play for antique styles of clothes? What does it mean when Ophelia talks of Hamlet appearing to her with his garters undone and his stockings down around his ankles? Well, here it means he changes out of his mourning suit and into jeans and a t-shirt.
*. And it gets worse. The t-shirt has a really awful muscle-man print on the front, which I can’t imagine a modern-day Hamlet (or David Tennant) ever wearing. It makes him look silly and goes against the producers’ desire to not want the costumes to be “distractingly modern.” That shirt is as distracting as you can get (though it may be better than the Superman t-shirt they were originally thinking of). Then there are the jeans. I hate Hamlet in jeans. And he even has them on at the end for the fencing match with Laertes! Who fences in jeans? And he’s barefoot too! It’s like I’m watching a rehearsal for a Little Theatre production.

*. The fact that it remains a filmed play means the few somewhat creative decisions fall flat. There’s a use of CCTV cameras throughout, but to no good purpose aside from underlining the obvious point that everyone is spying on everyone at Elsinore. The idea of Hamlet using a handheld camera to film himself and others (notably Claudius during the Mousetrap performance) is good, but I didn’t think it worked well in practice. As with the security cameras they should have either tried to do more with it or not bothered.

*. One-way mirrors are used in several scenes, in the same way as they were employed in Branagh’s film. I doubt Branagh was the first to introduce them but I wonder who can make that claim. In any event, I thought the CCTV cameras might have been used here as a substitute in those scenes, but I guess they didn’t feel comfortable with that.
*. I don’t want to give the impression that this Hamlet is all bad, though even at a trim three hours I can’t say I enjoyed myself much. There were some nice touches. Ophelia finding a condom in Laertes’ luggage. Gertrude indicating that she knows Claudius has poisoned the drink she was offering to Hamlet before drinking it herself. Claudius’s wonderful shrug as he quaffs the same poisonous drink at the end. Because at that point Why not? I was reminded of Patrick Stewart’s turn at the end of Green Room, and he may have been thinking of how he played this scene there.

*. I thought the cast were quite good. Stewart is great playing both Hamlet Sr. and Claudius, which makes perfect sense (they’re brothers after all) but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it done before. Oliver Ford Davies is excellent as Polonius, though he seems to be old enough to be Ophelia’s grandfather, an impression added to by his seeming to suffer from mild dementia. Penny Downie and Mariah Gale as Gertrude and Ophelia are both very good in what are difficult roles.

*. Still, I can’t rate this as anything but a disappointment. Tennant doesn’t seem out of his depth so much as out of his proper element, and the rest of the cast get no help from the director. I think I might have liked this on stage, but for some reason they seemed to really want to make a filmed play and so that’s what they got. Given the talent assembled that’s an opportunity missed.

9 thoughts on “Hamlet (2009)

    1. Alex Good

      Would like to see the Cumberbatch one. Didn’t know about Maxine Peake playing him. Was the Reeves version filmed for posterity? Never heard of it showing up on video.


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