Author Archives: Alex Good

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015)

*. Going Clear is a documentary about the Church of Scientology based on Lawrence Wright’s 2013 book of the (nearly) same title. Directed by Alex Gibney, it’s a well-crafted film that plays much like a double-wide 60 Minutes episode. The history of the church’s founding by L. Ron Hubbard is described and then the story brought up to date with the various scandals it has been involved in. There are plenty of moments that will have you shaking your head, or rolling your eyes.
*. Any study of a cult raises two questions. The first has to do with the word “cult.” Is Scientology a cult or a bona fide religion? That’s an interesting question in the history of these things, as evidenced by the shabby roots of Mormonism and Christianity itself (the latter being a despised Jewish sect, originally). Hubbard’s “space opera” mythology is patent nonsense (the time scales, for starters, are impossible), but every faith has its loopier elements, like Jesus coming to America or a virgin birth.
*. In the end, the question of whether Scientology was a religion had to be determined by the Internal Revenue Service in the U.S., and when they held, under duress, that it was, it gave the church not just legal imprimatur but a renewed breath of life. That is, tax exempt status. Without so finding the story of Scientology may well have ended, as they didn’t have the money to pay their bills.
*. To my eyes I think Scientology can lay claim to being a religion. Any religion or church today though is also a business, and Scientology is rather more geared toward the bottom line than most. As Hubbard himself once summed his mission up: “MAKE MONEY. MAKE MORE MONEY. MAKE OTHER PEOPLE PRODUCE SO AS TO MAKE MORE MONEY.” That said, Scientology does at least make the usual nods toward self-improvement and saving the world.
*. The second question raised by cults has to do with how people fall for them in the first place. From an objective point of view, Scientology is total nonsense. Despite its claims to being scientifically based it hasn’t a shred of science to back up any of its claims. But there are always seekers looking for a larger meaning or purpose to their lives, and then a next generation who are born into the faith. Then once in, especially in the case of Scientology, it’s very hard to leave. The church is a little like a roach motel.
*. This is what is meant by the prison of belief: being so invested in a system of belief (and we can extend this from a religion to a political party, or the fandom surrounding a celebrity) that it’s no longer possible to back out. One simply doesn’t have the emotional or psychological resources to achieve escape velocity.
*. I think Going Clear works very well as an exposé, and special credit has to be given for proceeding in the face of one of the most litigious organizations on the planet. As a cult of celebrity Scientology has little time for God or gods but instead holds up money and fame as life goals. Most of their practice is pitched as therapeutic, with its biggest stars representing the kind of transfiguration that can be achieved. That the rest of it is so corny and shoddy (the cartoonish mythology, the silly sailor suits, the giant portrait of Hubbard with his hand resting on a globe like some kind of Bond villain) it can only raise a smile. But to be John Travolta or Tom Cruise . . . isn’t that like touching the face of God? Or becoming God oneself?
*. Obviously the current head of the Church, David Miscavige, does not come off well. Indeed, the testimony here paints him as a violent sociopath with delusions of grandeur. But Tom Cruise fares little better as celeb pitchman. Receiving an oversize Medal of Valor (for what?) and then saluting the aforementioned portrait of Hubbard is beyond satire. But of course it’s all a bit darker than that.
*. Lawrence Wright: “Probably no other member of the church derives as much material benefit from his religion as Cruise does, and consequently none bears a greater moral responsibility for the indignities inflicted on members of the Sea Org [Scientology’s executive body], sometimes directly because of his membership.” One wants to ask Cruise how he sleeps at night, and Rainier Wolfcastle’s answer comes to mind: “On top of a pile of money, with many beautiful ladies.”
*. Given how secretive and paranoid an organization the Church of Scientology is, Going Clear is probably about as deep an investigation as you’re going to see. It’s also fairly presented, not coming across as having any axe to grind. Indeed, even former members of the Church who are interviewed are surprisingly forgiving. The contrast to Scientology’s all-too predictable response — going on the attack — speaks volumes, both about them and the times we live in.

The Many Saints of Newark (2021)

*. The Many Saints of Newark is a prequel to the popular HBO series The Sopranos, telling the story of Tony Soprano growing up as a mob brat in Newark, New Jersey. Except teenage Tony, played by James Gandolfini’s son Michael, is only a minor character in an ensemble cast. The tag line asked “Who Made Tony Soprano” but that rarely feels like a question that’s in play. Indeed, I was about halfway through the movie before I started wondering what I would say if someone asked me what this movie was “about” beyond saying that it’s a prequel to The Sopranos.
*. This is a movie built more around characters and incidents than plot. I guess a lot of things happen, meaning various people get killed in odd and violent ways, but it’s hard to see them as being particularly significant or consequential. Unlike in the series, where the big death scenes were all memorable because they involve characters we’d gotten to know and care about. Here every whack only gives rise to a shrug.
*. In the renaissance or second golden age of television that took place over the last twenty years The Sopranos stands out not just as the godfather and trendsetter but I think still the greatest achievement. It was a show remarkable for its quality, especially in terms of the writing and acting. But this movie is no Sopranos, despite being, I think to its detriment, a work in the same mold.
*. I don’t mean that as a knock, but it does suggest how the origins of The Many Saints of Newark shaped the kind of a movie it is. In the past, when we spoke of a movie being a small-screen experience it was meant to diminish it, television being a ghetto for C-list stars and low production values. In the twenty-first century, however, the cable series became home to the best writing in the business, and drama where the actors weren’t just stars running around in capes and tights. In other words, if you were really interested in film at this time you were just as interested if not more in what was happening on the small screen than at the cineplex.
*. That said, there are problems with taking the same approach to the big-screen format. A cable series has the time to develop character and narrative at a pace and with a depth that a 90 or 120-minute film just can’t. The plot, such as it is, is here compressed to the point of absurdity and incoherence. Sure there’s tension between Dickie and Junior, but enough for Junior to put out a hit on him? That seemed incredible to me, as did the idea that Dickie’s main squeeze would be not just sleeping around on him, but hopping into bed with his main rival, who also happens to be a Black man (this in 1972). The only reason for this is to give Dickie a reason to kill her in a dramatic scene at the beach. In the series, when Adriana or Christopher Moltisanti got killed it came as shock but both deaths were perfectly prepared for. Here the murders of Giuseppina and Dickie are just dropped on us.

*. Put another way, this is a movie that feels like an episode, or a pilot to a spin-off series, rather than a stand-alone film. As such it has all the strengths of TV — and it’s directed by Alan Taylor, a fellow who has a standout list of cable credits but not many quality features to his name — but all of the weaknesses as well. Even the ending, with its mid-credit sequence, teases a sequel. Just as the most successful model for filmmaking at this time became the creation of franchises, what seems to be getting established here is a multi-platform Sopranos “universe.”
*. You’ll have guessed I was disappointed by The Many Saints of Newark, no doubt in part because of how much I loved the show. For movies making the same jump I’d certainly rate it higher than Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, but below El Camino, the Breaking Bad movie. And El Camino wasn’t great.
*. There just isn’t enough room here to develop any of the characters or for any interesting plot lines to develop. I also thought the cast a big letdown. Alessandro Nivola and Michela De Rossi are bland as the leads. Jon Berthal as Tony’s dad is just a brute, and a minor part anyway. Michael Gandolfini has an uncanny resemblance to his dad, but doesn’t carry any of the sense of budding cunning and danger that the character needs. Vera Formiga makes the redoubtable Livia into a more passive figure. Again: in a series, minor characters in an ensemble have a chance to grow and be developed. Here they remain sketches. Ray Liotta’s jazz-loving and Buddhism-curious inmate is just one such character who might have turned into something interesting over the course of a couple of seasons. But here he’s just a spot of colour, while Leslie Odom Jr.’s Harold McBrayer only remains “someone to keep an eye on.”
*. So instead of a tight plot there’s a string of what feel like random episodes that don’t add up to much of anything. Young Tony steals an ice cream truck. A rival gang member is tortured by having an impact wrench stuffed in his mouth. As it dragged on I kept looking forward to hearing “Woke Up This Morning,” which I knew was going to come right at the end. When it finally played I was all smiles, in part because it was so familiar and because it was something they couldn’t mess up, but maybe even more because I knew the movie was over. At least for now. There was poor box office but it did well streaming so it’s likely there will be a second part, and maybe even more, to come.

Snake Eyes (2021)

*. I’ll start off with a paradox. Snake Eyes is one of those movies that makes you wonder why they bothered to make it, even as it’s perfectly clear why they made it.
*. Why is the fact that this movie exists so obvious? Because it takes a well- and affectionately-known brand and sticks it into a popular genre formula. Basically it’s a superhero movie, with lots of action and . . . well, not much else. But that’s what audiences seemed to want.
*. So why is it so hard to figure out why they bothered making it? Because everything they were trying to do here was being done or had been done already, and done better. A night fight on a highway between the hero and a bunch of goons on motorbikes with guns and swords? That was John Wick 3: Parabellum. Snake Eyes came out a couple of years later, and though I don’t think it was ripping John Wick off, Parabellum did it so much better it makes the scene here kind of pointless, especially since they were going for the same audience.
*. Add in the fact that they couldn’t show any blood or real violence because they wanted a PG-13 rating (G. I. Joe is a wholesome all-American hero), and the fact that the almost entirely Asian cast is low wattage, and you get the feeling you’re being seriously shortchanged. This despite the fact that they didn’t skimp on the production, giving the film a $100 million budget.
*. The plot is the usual crap. Henry Golding plays Snake Eyes. Really, that’s all the name he has. Friends call him Snake. When he’s a kid he sees his dad being killed by gangsters and he swears revenge. All grown up, he infiltrates a yakuza family because he sees this as a way of tracking down his dad’s killer. Except he’s being used by a bad yakuza gang to steal a sacred magic power stone called the Jewel of the Sun from a good yakuza gang that Snake can only become a member of after passing three tests set by the family’s resident ninja masters . . .
*. I’m not even going to bother typing any more of this hooey. You’ve probably recognized all the usual plot points. As for action, basically there’s a lot of swordfighting because yakuza gangsters in Joeworld are all samurais. Bloodless swordfighting, by the way. In any event, I didn’t think the action was original, or interesting, or even very well done. In fact, it’s all very expensive looking and dull, like most late-Marvel efforts. Robert Schwentke directs, and it may have made more sense to just give the reins to a stunt coordinator. I get the sense that Schwentke might have thought he had a story to tell here, along the lines of Marvel meets Infernal Affairs, but if he did then he was badly mistaken.
*. There’s also a pit filled with giant anacondas. I kept wondering what they were feeding these guys. A herd of cattle a day? Or were they magic snakes that didn’t need to eat? This was the single question that I spent most of my time thinking about while I was watching this movie.
*. There’s just nothing good to report here. Golding is a capable, charismatic actor but he’s miscast here. He’s charming without being dangerous. Andrew Koji plays “Tommy,” who apparently is going to turn into someone called Storm Shadow if the series continues, which it likely won’t. Samara Weaving plays Joe Team warrior Black Widow. Just kidding! Her character’s name is Scarlett O’Hara. Not kidding! Because she has red hair! Úrsula Corberó has to totter about on six-inch stiletto heels as the villainous Baroness Ana DeCobray. She works for the generic terrorist organization Cobra, naturally. Did I say this was a movie based on action figures and comic books? You were expecting characters with real names?
*. I guess I’m not the target audience. I never had G. I. Joe action figures when I was a kid, never watched the Saturday morning cartoons in the 1980s, never read the comic books, and indeed never saw the two previous films in this franchise: The Rise of Cobra (2009) and Retaliation (2013). From what I understand this was to be a reboot, and as an origin story it didn’t require my doing any background work anyway, so I don’t think I missed much. Seeing as it bombed there is some doubt as to whether they are going to do any follow-ups. Or maybe they’ll just have another reboot. Why? Why not? I don’t know.

Julius Caesar (1953)

*. Julius Caesar is usually stuck together in my head with A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet as making up Shakespeare’s high school trilogy. Which makes me wonder how often, or even if, Shakespeare is taught in high school today.
*. Well, suffice it to say that once upon a time schoolkids did watch movies like this in class to go along with their reading of the plays. Because it was Shakespeare and it had the kind of cast that seemed very educational. You couldn’t go wrong with names like James Mason and John Gielgud, Greer Garson and Deborah Kerr. Everyone knew who they were.
*. Everyone knew who Marlon Brando was too, though at the time his being cast as Mark Antony was quite a reach. They even had Paul Scofield waiting in the wings if Brando’s screen tests hadn’t worked out. But the jump from Stanley Kowalski in a wifebeater to Antony in a toga (or bare-chested) didn’t turn out to be that great, and Brando took some tips from the pros and always knew how to play to the camera if not on the boards. So he remains the film’s main draw today.

*. I say that because the rest of the cast of Very Fine Actors seem out of place next to him. That’s not usually how it works. A rough American often stands out in a mostly-British (and Shakespearean trained) cast. But here it’s Mason (as Brutus) and Gielgud (Cassius) who don’t belong. Gielgud is surprisingly lean and hungry, but his wig looks ridiculous. Mason, an actor I almost always enjoy, is miscast (though he had played Brutus on stage). He’s just too soft-spoken and frankly wimpy. We can believe his being scared of a ghost. Meanwhile, he isn’t helped by making him into a cowardly assassin, and looking like he’s in drag when done up in his Roman armour. That latter wardrobe error is a huge embarrassment and I don’t know how it got through.
*. Louis Calhern wasn’t a Brit, but he plays one as Caesar. He’s just old stuff-and-feathers and doesn’t have any of the fierceness and steel that we might expect. Yes, Shakespeare’s Caesar is a pompous ass at times, but we can never be sure how much of that is an act. Probably most of it. Calhern seems more like a 1950s chairman of the board and not someone who was ever a warrior.

*. The result is the kind of movie that could reliably be shown to high school students. It’s mostly faithful to the text and you can hear all the lines being enunciated clearly. But today it feels stuffy and stiff. Every single speech seems practiced and rehearsed, and the characters don’t appear to be interacting or engaging with each other but delivering lines for the audience. At times they don’t even look at who they’re talking to but turn away from them to directly address the camera, which goes beyond being merely awkward into downright weird territory. Apparently Joseph L. Mankiewicz was chosen to direct because he was so good with dialogue. He wasn’t showing it here.
*. They were originally going to shoot in Italy, but then decided Italy could come to L.A. Specifically, the sets from Quo Vadis were dismantled and flown from Rome to MGM’s backlot. Oh, the irony.
*. Before Olivier’s Henry V it was thought Shakespeare couldn’t pull box office. Producer John Houseman even said that the success of Henry V led to this film being made. It did well enough, and Houseman later said it made more money than any of his other pictures. But it doesn’t work for me. Still, if you’re cramming for an exam and haven’t cracked open the play yet it might help you make the grade.

Collective (2019)

*. In my notes on Spotlight I mentioned how it was a sad movie not just for its subject matter as for its elegiac tone in being about the death of the newspaper industry and journalism in general. Movies like All the President’s Men now seem part of a past we are no longer connected to, especially when Woodward and Bernstein on the fiftieth anniversary of Watergate could declare the crimes of Donald Trump exponentially greater than Nixon’s, which turned out not to mean anything at all. Meaning that even if we still had a functioning news ecosystem it likely wouldn’t matter to a public so invested in manufactured narratives and quick to call anything they disagree with fake news.
*. Collective is a documentary that drives this point home even further. It starts off with the Colectiv nightclub fire in Bucharest, Romania in 2015 that killed 64 people and injured many more. Some horrific footage taken inside the club provides one of the more shocking moments in the film as the whole place basically bursts into flame in a matter of seconds.
*. In the aftermath of the fire the club owners were charged with negligent homicide and bodily harm but the story being investigated in this film has to do with the substandard medical treatment provided victims of the fire who subsequently died in hospital due to cost-cutting and corruption, and in particular the dilution of anti-bacterial disinfectants. It’s broken by a team of reporters for the daily Gazeta Sporturilor or The Sports Gazette. And if you’re wondering why a sports paper was breaking this story you’re not alone. Even Romanians express surprise. Nothing much is said in explanation of this but the implication is that most of the news media were in the tank with the government.
*. The big boost Collective got as a documentary, what in fact made it possible in the first place, is the fact that the government in power at the time of the fire was replaced by a temporary non-partisan caretaker administration that was tasked with looking into these matters. This allowed the filmmakers access that would never have been granted in any other circumstances I can imagine. Are things any better in our own health care systems? I think so, but perhaps not so much as we’d like to think.
*. Aside from the reporters, the main character in the drama is Vlad Voiculescu, the interim health minister who seems a well-meaning young man trying to get to the bottom of a truly miserable situation.
*. The whole system is rotten with corruption. In what is probably the most striking moment in the movie Voiculescu talks to a doctor who tells him of how other doctors at the hospital she works at bribe the heads of surgery so that they can then take bribes from the patients. Voiculescu can only respond initially with a laugh of sad amazement and then ask “How did hospitals get so bad? And doctors? It’s their humanity, after all.” To which the doctor replies “Well, as my mother put it, we’re no longer human. We doctors, we’re no longer human beings. We only care about money.” The matter-of-fact way she says “we’re no longer human” is as chilling and unforgettable line you’ll hear in any movie.
*. The end of the film is as dark as everything that has gone before, with the return to power of the same Social Democratic government that had been in charge before (these ironic party names are a feature of dysfunctional democracies). Apparently in that election there was a turnout of less than 40%. This despite the anti-corruption rallies we see in the street.
*. All of which brings us back to the death of the news and the feeling that nothing matters anymore. What good did any of this reporting do? It’s been said that speaking truth to power doesn’t mean much because power doesn’t care, but what if nobody else cares? We’re not living in an age of post-truth or post-facts so much as one of post-political engagement. And, as the doctor’s diagnosis has it, on our way to becoming post-human.

Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021)

*. More CGI sludge from Marvel. I wish I could be more upbeat about this one, but that’s all it is.
*. As I said in my notes on Venom (which also left me underwhelmed), the character of the dark alien symbiote has potential. But it’s still left undeveloped. Tom Hardy plays journalist Eddie Brock without the scruffy charm of a Ryan Reynolds or Paul Rudd. He just doesn’t seem a good fit for a project like this because while the material might be a bit darker than usual, it’s still an action comedy, a buddy movie where the buddies inhabit the same body.
*. The core of the film should be the bickering between Eddie and Venom, who are often made out to be an odd couple heading for a divorce even though they need each other. But their back-and-forth just isn’t fresh or funny.
*. Meanwhile, the villains are another poorly matched pair. First there’s Woody Harrelson as Cletus, a redneck serial killer on death row who gets infected by the symbiote when he bites Eddie. Which I guess isn’t quite as silly as Peter Parker being bitten by a radioactive spider, but it’s right up there. Somehow the symbiote turns Cletus into a far more powerful creature than Venom named Carnage. Then, playing Harley Quinn to Carnage’s Joker is Naomie Harris as Shriek, a bad girl who can scream really loud. Since the symbiotes can’t stand loud noises this would seem to make them incompatible, but love may find a way. Or not, when it turns out three’s a crowd.
*. Harrelson and Harris should have been great in the parts but they are totally wasted playing villains who aren’t in the slightest bit interesting, thrown into a formulaic plot that has Cletus escaping from prison and springing Shriek from the Magneto-style soundproof prison she’s being kept in. Then they go after their revenge, which involves (yawn) kidnapping Eddie’s girlfriend so that he’ll have to come save her.
*. Without characters worth caring about or a story that qualifies as even remotely original all we’re left with is the usual jarring CGI slugfests, with Venom and Carnage tearing the city apart as they slam around defying the laws of physics and generally raising hell. More yawns. We’ve seen all this before, and to be honest I didn’t think the CGI work was even that good. Carnage’s tentacles looked pretty cheesy coming from a studio that should be state of the art all the way given their budgets and the amount of experience they have doing this sort of thing.
*. The only thing I can think of to say in this movie’s defence is that if it had come out ten years earlier I might have enjoyed it more. As a 2021 release it felt dead on arrival. Marvel deserves some grudging credit for keeping as much air in its various franchise balloons as it has for this long, what with the multiverses and shifty reboots, but at the end of the day they just don’t have anything new to bring to the table aside from what we’ve been gorging on for the last twenty years. Alas, with a global box office of over half a billion a third Venom film was promptly announced. Why are so many people paying money for this?

The Green Knight (2021)

*. It’s a great story, which is part of the reason why it’s stuck around for seven hundred years, with roots that go back even further. Even reading the original poem there are lots of moments that have a contemporary feel to them. For example, the way the Green Knight’s head, when it’s cut off, goes bouncing around the floor of Arthur’s court, so that the assembled knights have to kick it away from them. That’s a funny bit. I don’t know why they cut it out of this movie version.
*. I don’t think it’s because writer-director (and editor and producer) David Lowery wanted to go all po-faced and serious. Not when the title is broken up by an ellipsis that is only closed with the end credits. This isn’t Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Jabberwocky, but it’s a movie that had to be aware of being made in the shadow of those earlier medieval quest fantasies and that wasn’t going to work if it had just gone for laughs.
*. Instead I think Lowery just wanted to weird it up. There are, in turn, two further points I’d make about this.
*. First, it seems to be a hallmark of the current generation of auteur filmmakers to go down this road. What do productions like Alex Garland’s Annihilation, Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse, and this movie have in common? They’re beautiful to look at but delight in not having any clear direction. This is something I’ve gone on about many times before, the bottom line being that the technical skill in things like cinematography and art design have never been greater in movies today but the writing is fatally handicapped by a reach for profundity that more often ends up just being pretentious.
*. The second point has to do with the changes Lowery made to the story. Now I don’t have anything against writers taking a very free hand with literary adaptations, especially when the source material is this old. But it leads to the question of why Lowery was drawn to this story in the first place when he didn’t want much to do with it.
*. The poem is transformed here, but I kept asking myself to what end. I suppose the main thing is that the whole plot is directed by Gawain’s mother who may be Morgan le Fay though that name is never mentioned. Gawain’s mother isn’t a character at all in the poem. That’s a big change. And for what purpose? Lowery: “It became a drama about a mother and a son in a way that I hadn’t intended. . . . All of a sudden, I was writing about my own relationship with my mom, and the fact that I stayed, I lived under her roof for far longer than I should have. I had failure-to-launch syndrome, and she eventually had to force me out.”

*. This is an interesting subject to address, but why use a medieval poem where it isn’t a theme at all as the vehicle? Isn’t that just making a lot of extra work for yourself?
*. Then there’s Alicia Vikander as Gawain’s girlfriend, another character not in the poem. She doubles as the Lady and also appears as a nude giant. Why? Because it looks cool? Because it’s something that makes you go “Hmm” or “What’s up with that?”
*. Or take the scene where the Queen has to go into a trance to read the Green Knight’s challenge. Why? It seems a really awkward way of presenting things, and reduces the Green Knight to a role as little more than a prop, but it looks neat when the Queen’s eyes roll back in her head.
*. Then there are all the interludes. Gawain meets Saint Winifred and retrieves her head. What did this have to do with anything? Or the talking CGI fox (which looks ridiculous) whose role and identity escaped me completely. Or Barry Keoghan (never a welcome presence on screen) as a Scavenger who steals Gawain’s green girdle. Why did Lowery include this character? Because, he tells us, it was meant as an allusion to Barry Lyndon. Again: OK, but why? What does any of this have to do with Barry Lyndon?
*. Finally there’s the resistance (also in Annhilation and The Lighthouse) to turn all coy and leave the audience guessing as to what is actually happening. Did Gawain dream the whole thing in the forest? Is he alive or dead at the end? Shrug.
*. The cast work out well. I love Dev Patel’s performance, and Sarita Choudhury as his mom. Alicia Vikander’s accent had me scratching my head, but she’s Swedish. Sean Harris is a bit disturbed as Arthur, but I guess he has paternity issues.
*. And it all looks great, except for the fox and the Green Knight himself who they decided to make into Groot. Because Groot is popular with kids? I don’t know.
*. I went through phases watching this movie. I was in a good mood going into it, then hated it, and finally ended up splitting the difference. Lowery uses the poem as a springboard to go off and do his own thing, some of which is kind of interesting but most of which left me throwing up my hands. Stephen Weeks actually directed two previous adaptations of Sir Gawain of the Green Knight, in 1973 under the same title and 1983 as Sword of the Valiant. The latter is now widely held to be a joke, but I actually have fond memories of it decades after I caught it on TV. Will The Green Knight last as long for all its better production values and auteurial idiosyncrasies? I wouldn’t be betting on it.

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.