BBC Video // 2009 // 182 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // May 10th, 2010
"I have of late, but wherefore I know not lost all my mirth." -- Hamlet
Sir John Gielgud. Sir Laurence Olivier. Sir Derek Jacobi. David Tennant. It's an odd list when you think about it, not least because David Tennant hasn't been knighted yet. Despite that, the Royal Shakespeare Company chose the Welsh actor to play Hamlet in their 2008 staging of the play, taking on a role that all those famous British actors had surveyed before him. Those are some mighty big shoes to fill, and to fill them opposite Patrick Stewart (who hasn't been knighted for reasons surpassing understanding) as Claudius must have been a daunting task indeed. By all accounts, though, Tennant performed marvelously in the role to great acclaim. So great that the RSC decided to create a special filmed version of their stage play for British television that's now appearing across the pond on Blu-ray. It's a fine interpretation of a famous play, but it never quite rises to the greatness its cast promises.
It seems a bit redundant to summarize Hamlet, but here goes. Claudius (Patrick Stewart, X-Men) has been recently crowned king after killing his brother (Old Hamlet, also played by Stewart) and marrying his brother's widow Gertrude (Penny Downie, Invictus). The play opens on a scene where guards have been witnessing a ghost, that of Old Hamlet. When the former king's son, Hamlet (David Tennant, Doctor Who) goes to meet his father the ghost, Hamlet's told that Claudius murdered his Old Hamlet and revenge must be sought. Young Hamlet spends the rest of the play conspiring to prove Claudius' guilt and get revenge.
Many people think the main purpose of adapting Shakespeare is to add excitement to 400-year-old plays, while others think that adaptation exists to make these otherwise opaque and irrelevant dramas understandable to contemporary viewers. They're wrong. There's more excitement and action in Shakespeare's tragedies than the average summer blockbuster, and the vast majority of Shakespeare's language is easily understandable to the modern viewer. No, the best Shakespeare adaptations have a much loftier goal: the make Shakespeare fresh for the audience. Shakespeare's plays in general, and Hamlet in particular, have become so commonplace that we no longer marvel at the inventiveness of Shakespeare's language. Think for a moment: "To be, or not to be"; "To thine own self be true"; "by indirections find directions out"; and a dozen other common phrases come straight out of Shakespeare's play. Their gradual absorption into our everyday language shows how important they are, but the best Shakespeare adaptations seek to breath the life back into the words that constant repetition has slowly crushed out of them. It's by this standard that adaptations can be judged.
By that rubric, this version of Hamlet is good, but not great. I'm not a Hamlet expert, but it seems like the production worked from a fairly conservative version of the text, with no major additions or excisions. The setting is vaguely modern, with no attempt to create a serious alternate setting (unlike, say, Branaugh) or stage the play in Renaissance costume. Some of the interpretive choices are interesting, like the use of security cameras to stage some action and having Stewart play both Claudius and Old Hamlet. Still, I never felt like the production was helping me come to a new understanding of the play. That's not a horrible thing. This is still an excellent run-through of the play, but it feels like a missed opportunity because of that.
I'm guessing that most viewers are going to be tempted to watch this version of Hamlet because of either David Tennant or Patrick Stewart, and those viewers won't be disappointed. Stewart especially, perhaps because he's played this role several times before, is brilliant as Claudius. He has a comfort with the language that is impressive, and his charming interpretation of the fratricidal king. Tennant has a little bit more to do as Hamlet. For the most part he succeeds in creating a character wracked with indecision. Tennant's performance also illuminates the production's inability to bring something new to the Hamlet table. When Tennant and his co-stars are engaged in dialogue, the whole play moves forward with verve and energy. Then it comes time for one of Hamlet's famous monologues, and the whole production stops while Tennant tries to do something with these long speeches. He gives them fair, solid reads, but they feel more like an acting exercise than an integrated part of the play's whole. I want to stress that it's a good performance, but it doesn't quite rise to the level of greatness for whatever reason. The rest of the cast matches Tennant and Stewart, offering dependable depictions of famous characters like Ophelia and Laertes.
Hamlet gets a solid release in hi-def. The performance was specially shot for this video, so it's not a stage-bound production. Originally shot in hi-def, the transfer is solid. The whole film has a slightly gray look to it, but despite that flesh tones are accurate, blacks are fairly deep, and detail is strong. The stereo track does a fine job keeping Shakespeare's famous dialogue audible (although this was never going to be a room-shaking soundtrack), and the English SDH subtitles are a nice addition. Extras include a commentary with the director, cinematographer, and producer. Together they discuss numerous aspects of the play, and this production and its filming in particular. Although they have a lot to say, they don't quite fill up the film's three-hour running time. There's also a 30-minute making of that covers the production in more specific detail, including interviews with the actors and the crew and a 3-minute promo for the RSC.
Hamlet is a long play, and one that is rarely staged in its entirety. Many directors choose to focus on the title character, slimming down those scenes that he's not in, while others try to make small cuts to all the scenes to speed up the pace of the play. This version of Hamlet seems to be a mix of those strategies, but it doesn't make a whole lot of concessions to the viewer looking for action and excitement. The play takes its sweet time getting to the revenge aspects, and the overall production has a rather stately pace. Those used to more heavily edited Hamlets might find this one a bit tedious.
Fans of the Doctor are going to seek this out in droves, I suspect, and they shouldn't be the only ones. Hamlet is a solid production of one of Shakespeare's most famous plays. Even if it doesn't reach the dizzying heights of classic status, there are worse ways to spend three hours of your life. The Blu-ray disc looks and sounds good, and the supplements are light but engaging.
Claudius is in trouble, but Hamlet is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080i)
* PCM 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 182 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated