I saw a used VHS copy of Mel Gibson's Hamlet on sale for 2 dollars at the local library. Like a beacon in the "used videos" shelf it stuck out above anything else there. I did not even look at the rest of the stuff on the shelf. I had to do it. This version has always been one of my favorites.
It is certainly not without its critics. In fact it has a great deal of criticism attached to it. Scenes are juggled around in different orders. Dialogue is shifted to other characters when convenient. The plot definitely unfolds along a somewhat different linear plane than does the actual play. This version is not one for the purists among us.
This does not offend me. If I want more pure Shakespeare, I will take a trip down to D.C. and see some at the Folger. Yet even on stage the possibilities are often endless with a work of Shakespeare, particularly Hamlet. It is even more true on film.
The medium demands such open mindedness, I think. While some Shakespeare films are more purist than this one, it is in its own right, excellent. Director Franco Zefferilli (it is never referred to as his version) creates a gritty, spartan, yet civilized Elsinore. It is this sort of closed off, barebones approach to the setting that gives it a very Shakespearean feel, despite the editorial choices made. (Contrasting greatly to the distracting opulence of the Kenneth Branagh version of Elsinore on film.)
Despite the ideal setting, this version succeeds by it's focus on the performances.
Shakespearean stories are, above all, stories about characters; about people. Indeed they are not just about people, but humanity itself. Humanity must therefore be present in each individual. Not sympathy necessarily, but humanity. Often times when doing Shakespeare actors get lost in the iconic status of the people they are portraying. There is either no attempt, or no ability to make them alive. Such is not the problem here. Despite some of the controversial choices made by the director in regards to the plot, individual moments and scenes are dead on in regards to motivations and interactions between individuals.
Gibson himself, thus far, has come closest to the Hamlet I conjure in my mind when I read the play. This may be why it is one of my favorite versions, despite overall differences from the source material. The man's the thing.
People and on stage have tended to portray Hamlet in one of two ways; majestic to the point of Christ like, or indecisive to the point of parody. Both of these extremes haunt those who play Hamlet in worse ways than the ghost haunts Hamlet himself. Yet Gibson truly does pull off a near perfect balance. He is the kind of prince I could personally relate to, if I were among the "distracted multitude" of a kingdom.
The supporting cast also rarely misses. Alan Bates, Glenn Close, Sir Ian Holm. All of them present Shakespearean characters in such a way that you are convinced you have met people like them in your daily life. Every performance rings true.
Two supporting roles that particularly stand out for me are Stephen Dillane's Horatio and the great Paul Scofield's Ghost.
Horatio is often an under used presence in Hamlet. Yet like the Prince, when I first read the play I had a very specific notion as to what Horatio was; the friend who is both concerned with the state of affairs in Denmark, but who clearly loves his Prince and friend. Dillane does well in projecting this, despite the fact that many of the best Horatio moments are cut from this script. It is not perfect, but he certainly is not the Horatio-5000 cyborg I often see in renditions of the play, and that alone is worthy of praise.
As for Scofield's ghost; again talk about humanity! This ghost has it in abundance. The lines of the ghost were also greatly edited. However, if the entire appearance of the ghost consisted only of Scofield's face (especially his eyes) and his rendering of the line "Remember me", the performance would be memorable.
If you are a Shakespeare purist than indeed this movie would probably give you ulcers. Yet I am willing to say that even half the purists out there who see it would be able to say "It's not pure, but I don't care...its just plain good."
There you have it. A movie review 16 yeas after the film's release.