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Movie Reviews

Hamlet (1990)  

Hamlet is Shakespeare`s most enduring and discussed play, and numerous film versions have attempted to translate the dialogue and the ideas onto screen. Numerous film versions of this exist, and the most famous and popular versions are Lawrence Oliver`s 1948 Best Picture Oscar winner, Kenneth Branaugh`s 1996 uncut version, and Franco Zeffirelli`s 1990 version, starring Mel Gibson.

No doubt most people reading this review will have some knowledge of the play and its actions. Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, is rather gloomy after the death of his father, and his mother`s hasty marriage to the former king`s brother. During one fateful night, Hamlet witnesses an amazing sight - the ghost of Hamlet`s father, who tells him that the new king, Claudius, has in fact murdered Hamlet Senior. The ghost convinces his son to avenge the death, and so he does, which sets off a chain of events, which, as must happen in any Shakespearian tragedy, results in the deaths of our hero and that of the perpetrators of the crime.

This version, the Zefferelli, is certainly not the best version. Branaugh`s version is definitely the best cinematic interpretation of the play, without question. The film by itself is worthy of inclusion in any list of large, grand-scale blockbusters, with its sweeping scope and, as they used to say in the old days, more stars than are in the heavens. In short, it`s a blockbuster. As well, the script uses the First Folio in full. Nothing is omitted, which makes for a very long (four hours), but complete film. Other versions lack portions of the text, which could cause problems. The biggest problem with adapting a Shakespeare play, or, indeed, any other play or novel, is the fact that events and other ideas usually need to be shortened or omitted altogether in order to create a movie which people will sit through (Branaugh`s version, then, certainly was a courageous act). In the Zeffirelli version, the character of Fortinbras is omitted entirely, even though, in the play, he is a strong political threat to Denmark, and, at the very end, when Hamlet, as well as the king and queen, have suffered their fates, it is Fortinbras who arrives to take over the throne. While Branaugh`s version plays up the potential threat of this minor character, Zeffirelli doesn`t even bother with it, instead, as others have suggested, focussing solely on the domestic tragedy: this is not really a play about royalty, but a family tragedy; something which other, less privileged families could have suffered. This version is a quiet tragedy, not classic Hollywood pomp.

As well, this film is interesting due to the central performance. Mel Gibson, despite the seeming oddity of this sort of actor in a Shakespearean role, is not a terrible Hamlet. While Branagh`s Hamlet is a fine speaker, and classically trained, Gibson`s Hamlet works on pure emotion. When Hamlet listens to the truth of his father`s death, Gibson gets in touch with the despair and the confusion which a person hearing such a shocking story would feel. Hamlet is a man who, in his youth, was a happy-go-lucky, jovial sort of man, and, now that he must mete out the revenge towards the new king, this man no longer exists, and when Gibson says this, I believed him. A decent actor of Shakespeare does not have to impress with mere technique, or with stagy affectations in order to prove that he is above those popular entertainments; he just has to make us believe what he says, and Gibson can do that. We are able to connect with Hamlet as a guy who has suffered.

The presentation of the story is also interesting. I really liked the scene of the ghost`s meeting with Hamlet. It takes place at the roof of the castle, and the ghost, as played by Paul Scofield, tells Hamlet, and us, of horrible secrets and confessions which are stark contrast to the seeming merriment and mirth of the king and his party guests below. There is no fancy effects or extravagance, only words of truth and horror, and this mood exists throughout the play. (Compare this with how Branaugh presents the ghost scene, which resembles something closer to a special-effects laden horror film) While Zefferelli makes many cuts (only 37% of the play remains!!), there are a few interesting choices, including the shuffling of dialogue which allows the two lone female characters of Gertrude and Ophelia more dialogue and more impact in the play. On the subject of Ophelia, Hamlet`s romantic interest, I actually think Helena Bonham-Carter plays her in a more interesting way, portraying her as tough and independent, as compared to the weaker soul of Kate Winslet`s interpretation.

Overall, people who are interested in Hamlet will find much to enjoy and think about by viewing both the Branaugh and Zefferelli`s versions. They will provide great study into different styles of film making, and of the numerous possible interpretations and visions which exist in one source of writing

David Macdonald

David Macdonald's Movie Reviews

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