Film Review: Hamlet (1990)

“What means your lordship?”

Having just seen a corking production of Hamlet at the RSC, I wasn’t expecting to like Franco Zefferelli’s 1990 adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, not least because Mel Gibson couldn’t possibly be a good Hamlet could he but I have to hold my hands up, I enjoyed it much more than I was expecting. Granted, from low expectations that might not always mean a huge amount but it was good enough for me, Glenn Close’s Gertrude an impressive Shakespearean debut amongst a quality cast combining youth and experience.

It’s full of interesting choices, not all of them 100% successful but intelligently considered nonetheless in creating a cinematic version of this theatrical behemoth that stands out on its own merits. So Ian Holm’s Polonius becomes a dour-minded, almost cruel figure that is very much at odds with how I’ve ever seen the character played, Hamlet and his mother Gertrude are shown to be locked in an Oedipal relationship (I like to think this is a nod to the fact that Close is just 9 years older than Gibson though I doubt it – I don’t think I’ve seen this interpretation onstage recently though), Helena Bonham Carter’s Ophelia a strikingly self-possessed figure from the start. 

Textually, there’s a lot of trimming to get it down to a manageable running time but also some rearrangements too, ‘To be or not be’ is moved (which will undoubtedly rile up some purists) as is ‘Get thee to a nunnery’, most effectively so in this latter case, which ought to keep the film feeling fresh for even the most jaded of Bardophiles. And with his filming choices, Zeffirelli reimagines the world of Elsinore as somewhere lighter and airier than one might expect, location work in the bright light of day standing out for me.

Equally though, this exposed the shifts to soundstages a little awkwardly, especially with the fast moving pace, but cinematographer David Watkins employs a beautiful palette and the heightened sense of spying in the royal palace is amplified by some clever choices, Ennio Morricone’s evocative score helping here too. And from there springs some excellent verse-speaking, Alan Bates’ chilling Claudius, Paul Scofield’s corporeal spirit, Nathaniel Parker’s Laertes, even Stephen Dillane’s Horatio.

Gibson may not make the most skilful Prince of Denmark you’ve ever heard but he far from disgraces himself in his idiosyncratic reading and Close gives us an emotional Gertrude who clearly feels everything close to her skin – we see her mourn her first husband deeply but soon be swept into girlish playfulness and we’re left in no doubt that the depth of her love for her son is fierce indeed, even as it crosses the line. I doubt I’d put this on again in all honesty but it was good while it was on.

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