Warner Bros. // 1990 // 135 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // March 17th, 2004
Why what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murder'd,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,
And fall a-cursing, like a very drab,
A scullion! -- Hamlet, II.ii.582-587
Way back around the turn of the 17th century, William Shakespeare -- wracked perhaps by the recent death of his only son, Hamnet -- took an oft-told revenge melodrama set in Denmark, changed its lead character from a soldier prince to an introspective scholar, and crafted what would become the most famous play in the history of Western drama. If one is to believe literary luminary and Yale professor Harold Bloom, the Bard's excursions into psychological exploration gave birth to our awareness of our own minds; Shakespeare, in Bloom's words, invented the modern human being.
Bloom's excesses aside -- hyperbole is as good a gimmick as any to sell an 800-page academic tome to the broadest audience possible -- there's little doubt about Hamlet's quality as dramaturgy. The play is one of the most potent amalgams of the Bard's keen psychological observation, tragic fatalism, and bitingly intelligent verbal and conceptual humor. Not only has it remained a staple of the theater for 400 years, but it's seen countless screen adaptations dating back to the silent era. Most notable among cinematic Hamlets are Laurence Olivier's stagey 1948 adaptation, Kenneth Branagh's 1996 unexpurgated epic, and the one we'll be looking at here: director Franco Zeffirelli's (The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet) muscular, fast-paced take, starring Mel Gibson (The Road Warrior, Lethal Weapon, Braveheart) as the world's most famous anguished Dane.
Having returned to Elsinore from his studies in Wittenberg in order to attend his father's funeral, Hamlet, prince of Denmark, discovers his uncle Claudius (Alan Bates, Quartet, Gosford Park) has married his mother, Gertrude (Glenn Close, Fatal Attraction, Dangerous Liaisons), and assumed his father's throne. Matters are complicated when Hamlet is visited by the ghost of the former king (Paul Scofield, Quiz Show), who informs him his death wasn't natural but "murder most foul," and that Claudius is the guilty party. The incorporeal Hamlet Sr. calls upon his son to avenge his death by doing away with Claudius and ascending to the throne himself, but being a scholar and not a warrior, Hamlet soon drifts into despair, doubts his own sanity, and is almost paralyzed by self-analysis.
Franco Zeffirelli's cinematic stab at the Dane is most famous for its star, and for its radical excising of much of Shakespeare's poetry. Trimming Hamlet down to a more manageable length is nothing new, of course. It's highly unlikely, as a matter of fact, that Richard Burbage and the rest of the King's Men ever performed the entire text of the play during its original run at the Globe Theater. The monster by which we forcibly acculturate thousands of high schoolers each year is most likely a composite of various rewrites and alterations made by its playwright in order to keep the story fresh during a long and successful run -- replacing a scene here and there with new material apparently kept groundlings coming back for more. Still, Zeffirelli's 135-minute film is extremely lean considering some critics thought Olivier's 153-minute version a hatchet job. That said, his rearranging of scene order, trimming of soliloquies, and transposing of specific lines of dialogue from one scene to another is what really jumps out as a radically new approach among mainstream Shakespeare adaptations. This is Hamlet for a generation unaccustomed to the slower rhythms of theater, a cut-to-the-chase version for people weaned on television and cinema.
And what's wrong with that? This is, after all, a movie adaptation we're talking about. Zeffirelli's is an experiment in bending the Bard's work to the conventions of cinema, in contrast to previous film adaptations that were mostly content bending cinema to the conventions of the Bard. The results are surprisingly satisfying provided one doesn't view the film as an attempt at being definitive. There can't be a definitive screen Hamlet any more than there can be a definitive stage version. The play is too huge to be considered in such a narrow light; it's been handled and interpreted by too many generations of thespians. The trick is to approach the material in a unique way.
Aside from his trimming and rearranging, Zeffirelli uses one of his old tricks to shed new light on the material: casting. In 1967, he made The Taming of the Shrew with real-life fiery lovers Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton; and the following year he cast nearly age-appropriate leads in Romeo and Juliet, relying (with mixed success) on the actors' youthful vitality to make up for their inevitable stumbles handling roles that typically prove difficult for anyone under 30. His philosophy seems to be that chemistry and charisma account for more on the big screen than they do on stage. And so he brings us Mel Gibson as Hamlet. The results are far more successful than his experiment with Romeo and Juliet. Gibson's Hamlet is deeply emotional, but also more actively passionate, and slightly more psychologically straightforward than other interpretations. As a film Hamlet, the character works (he wouldn't play nearly as well on stage). Gibson uses his eyes and face to great effect, and he gets by with the soliloquies in solid fashion even if he isn't a classically trained Shakespearean actor like Olivier or Branagh.
I remember when the film was in theaters arguing with one of my college professors who insisted Zeffirelli's choppy editing during the lengthier speeches was a cover for his star, a sure sign the Road Warrior was out of his league trying to take on Hamlet. I maintained the cuts were there because Zeffirelli was trying to do something fundamentally cinematic. He was trying to make us forget the material was originally a play and let the audience -- a young audience, not savvy to Shakespeare -- experience the movie purely as a movie. I still think I was right and the professor was wrong. If Gibson's ineptitude was at the center of things, why did Zeffirelli similarly slice and dice the oratory of proven Shakespearean actors Bates, Scofield, and Ian Holm (Alien, Brazil)? In the Mel Gibson: To Be or Not to Be documentary included on the disc, the actor notes that one of the truly negative side-effects of the director's decision to give the story a more kinetic feel was that some lengthy pieces of poetry might be spoken on screen as the character moves from the Scottish castle at which they shot exteriors to the sets they used for interiors, meaning the entire speech might be shot in sections, out of order, a week or more apart. These sorts of logistical acting nightmares certainly produced unique challenges, even if the actors didn't have to worry about handling the difficult language in one take. (To his credit, though, Gibson humbly observes in the Hamlet: An Actor's Journey featurette that he's never actually played Hamlet since he hasn't played it on stage; it only appears that he played the role because there happens to be a movie of him doing pieces of it.)
At times, though, Zeffirelli takes his fast-and-furious conceit too far, having actors spew lines as they dash around Elsinore. It's as though he's desperate to fool us into thinking we're watching a Hollywood action flick minus machine gun fire, explosions, and fast cars. Perhaps he believed Mel Gibson fans wouldn't be able to handle their star at rest, but all that goofy running around undermines the actor's surprisingly sensitive performance. There's vitality in Gibson's screen presence (presumably the reason the director hired him in the first place) that doesn't need to be bolstered by meaningless physical action. Zeffirelli should have trusted his own casting instincts as well as his theories regarding the primacy in cinema of that nebulous thing called charisma. Gibson's Hamlet would've had more energy than other actors' even if the director had had him sprawled out in a La-Z-Boy across the entire 135 minutes; having him jog around the castle while waxing philosophical about the undiscovered country didn't add an iota of vigor.
The only other major misstep is the fumbled handling of Freudian overtones in the relationship between Hamlet and Gertrude. The confrontation scene in Gertrude's boudoir plays like a campy homage to Ernest Jones' hysterically reductive Freudian analysis of the play, "Hamlet and Oedipus," what with Gibson swinging his sword around like an outsized and deadly phallus before tossing his mother onto the bed and climbing atop her. Though well acted by Gibson and Close, it's the one scene in the film in which Zeffirelli seems to lose all confidence in our intelligence as an audience, hammering home the obvious with a complete lack of artistic grace. The only reason to cast Close as Gertrude (she's only eight years Gibson's senior) is to play up the perceived sexual subtext in the mother-son relationship, but the director goes completely overboard, allowing subtext to become text. It's like something out of a really bad college or dinner theater production. Still, it's only a stumble in an otherwise entertaining piece.
As far as the DVD goes, the image appears unrestored but sourced from clean and well-preserved elements. Cinematographer David Watkin (Chariots of Fire, Out of Africa) crafted a gritty image with cool, muted colors and careful use of deep shadows, and the disc reproduces his work in fine fashion. The image is mostly sharp and detailed (particularly in close-ups), and sports a layer of fine grain that gives it character and beauty. Source flaws are exceedingly minor, but they are present at times. The most important thing is that Warner has shown restraint in the realm of digital tweakage, and the result is a transfer that retains much of the aesthetic quality of film.
The stereo surround audio is a fine presentation of a relatively unimpressive source track. It's a dialogue-heavy film, of course, and most if not all of it was recorded on set and location, so the track is weakened by the slight shifts in volume and ambiance inevitable when recording outside of a studio. That said, all the dialogue is clear and discernible. Optional English subtitles (that occasionally mangle Shakespeare's words) are provided.
Although this is a single-disc release, Warner has managed to squeeze a theatrical trailer as well as a couple decent extras onto the dual-layered disc. Hamlet: An Actor's Journey is an 11-minute retrospective interview with Gibson, shot in the very recent past. It's a full screen video presentation with stereo audio in which the actor ruminates on playing Hamlet on film, provides a short synopsis of the story (for those unfamiliar, I guess), and gives anecdotal detail about Zeffirelli's choppy shooting and editing style. He's candid and self-deprecating throughout. Mel Gibson: To Be or Not to Be runs 51 minutes and is billed as Gibson's video journal of the film's production, but it quickly becomes obvious that it's a scripted, studio-commissioned promotional piece. It's actually a pretty good promo piece, though. We're given a background peek at Gibson's rigor in studying the lines, and his use of a diction coach; and he's extremely candid about being intimidated by the role and how the material defeats him some days. The other actors are quite open also. Ian Holm, in particular, has no qualms discussing his initial skepticism regarding an Australian action hero playing the Dane, and he doesn't hesitate to offer his opinions about where Gibson's performance is working and where it's not (these interviews were taking place during the shoot, remember). One wonders for what audience the piece was made. Hamlet would prove a turning-point in Gibson's career, the moderately successful vehicle through which he broke out of the narrow Lethal Weapon action hero mold for which his he was then famous (although anyone who'd seen Gallipoli would've known he was capable of playing more than a macho ass-kicker), but this documentary is anything but the act of a studio engaged in patronizing flattery of its cash-cow star. It's refreshingly honest.
Before we wrap things up, let me pick one final nit. Zeffirelli's film, like nearly every adaptation of Hamlet on stage or screen, entirely omits the character of Fortinbras. It's an understandable trim to make from a practical standpoint, as he's mentioned in the play's beginning and only appears in the flesh briefly in the middle and at the very end, but it undermines the Elizabethan cosmology central to Shakespeare's work, and that bugs the literature wonk in me. The Bard's plays, you see, exist in a self-correcting universe. Whether they are comedy or tragedy depends entirely on whether the lead characters are exalted or crushed in the process of the universe realigning itself. Minus Fortinbras -- whose father was king of Norway prior to Hamlet Sr. defeating him -- Hamlet ends in utter chaos, a not particularly Elizabethan way to wrap up a drama, even a tragedy. With Fortinbras, the play ends with the character who should have been king in the first place, and is far more temperamentally suited to the job than Hamlet, assuming the throne. Sure, the character's a bit of a deus ex machina, but he gives form and reason to the play's fatalism. Despite the pervasive tragedy, we walk away feeling that things'll somehow be all right now that Fortinbras is running the show, and that if Hamlet's old man hadn't betrayed his alliance with Fortinbras Sr. in the first place, all this nastiness would have been entirely avoidable. Nihilism, in other words, isn't particularly Shakespearean, and Hamlet without Fortinbras is deeply nihilistic.
Well, if brevity is the soul of wit, I must be a dullard. Let's wrap this thing up already.
Franco Zeffirelli's Hamlet is brisk, entertaining, beautifully shot, and fascinating for its dynamic use of casting, even if it isn't an entirely successful production. But, hey, I can't think of a film production of Hamlet that's entirely successful (I've never seen a perfect stage production, for that matter -- I doubt such a thing is possible). There may be no such thing as a definitive screen Hamlet, but there are a number of adaptations I'd classify as essential. This is one of them.
Good night, sweet prince.
Review content copyright © 2004 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 135 Minutes
Release Year: 1990
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Hamlet: An Actor's Journey Featurette
* Mel Gibson: To Be or Not to Be Documentary
* Theatrical Trailer