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Hamlet play

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Henry IV,
Part 1
play

Julius Caesar play

King Lear play

Macbeth play

The Merchant of Venice play

Othello play

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Sonnets poetry

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Hamlet
(1948, DVD)
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Hamlet
(1948, DVD)
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Hamlet
(1969, VHS)

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Hamlet
(1990, DVD)

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Hamlet
(1990. DVD)

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Hamlet
(1996, VHS)

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Hamlet
(2000, DVD)

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  1948 Hamlet
dir. Laurence Olivier; featuring Olivier, Eileen Herlie, Jean Simmons
  1969 Hamlet (aka Shakespeare's Hamlet)
dir. Tony Richardson; featuring Nicol Williamson, Judy Parfitt, Anthony Hopkins, Marianne Faithfull
  1980 Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
dir. Rodney Bennett; featuring Derek Jacobi, Claire Bloom, Patrick Stewart, Lalla Ward
  1990 Hamlet
dir. Franco Zeffirelli; featuring Mel Gibson, Glenn Close, Alan Bates, Helena Bonham-Carter
  1990 Hamlet
dir. Kevin Kline; featuring Kline, Dana Ivey, Brian Murray
  1996 Hamlet (aka William Shakespeare's Hamlet)
dir. Kenneth Branagh; featuring Branagh, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Derek Jacobi, Gérard Depardieu
 

2000

Hamlet
dir. Michael Almereyda; featuring Ethan Hawke, Kyle McLachlan, Diane Venora, Julia Stiles, Bill Murray
     

Hamlet

There have been literally dozens of Hamlets on film, television and other video. As on stage, it seems in the movies to be the one role that every male star dreams of portraying, perhaps to show he is more than just a film star, that he has serious acting chops.

Hamlet the Dark
The most famous of the video Hamlets may be the 1948 British film directed by and starring Laurence Olivier. It's black and white, but for my money is still one of the most dramatic and interesting Hamlets. For a classical actor, Olivier is surprisingly unawed by the master's words—he cut and revised the text so much that he got a co-writing credit on the film alongside Shakespeare. He has also cleverly compressed and melded scenes. Still, even with only two-thirds of the dialogue, the movie is over two and a half hours long.

It's a dark version of Hamlet. Comedy has been played down, with the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern subplot dropped entirely—much to the dismay of Shakespearean buffs. Only the minor contribution of the poncie Osric, played by a very young Peter Cushing, remains of comic relief.

Olivier himself at 41 is really too old for the role, though with his lithe body and short-cropped fair hair he's sexy enough, reminding me of Sting. He's thirteen years older than the actress (Eileen Herlie) who plays his mother, the queen. No wonder he also downplays the oedipal sexual tension between the two, which other popular versions of Hamlet have exploited.

But Olivier is nonetheless magnetic. He has an ability to deliver complex lines seemingly effortlessly. He is also very still at times. In the first scene in which we see him, he sits quietly in a chair in the foreground while the court bustles about him and other characters carouse. They eventually all depart, leaving us focused on the lone man ruminating in the chair. When he gets up to deliver his first soliloquy, wandering about the vacant court, we are all attention. The speech itself is presented as a well-timed combination of spoken words and thoughts in a voice-over. Throughout the play, Olivier the director offers dialogue with whatever cinematic technique works most effectively.

With one exception, this Hamlet concentrates exclusively on the title character. Others get their time in the limelight only if exposition is needed to take us to the next scene with the prince. The exception is for Ophelia. Often watching various Hamlets I find Ophelia a bore—I don't care what happens to this mooning, ineffectual, wispy young woman, whose role as love interest is wasted, who is needed only to die and thereby set up the final duel between her brother and Hamlet.

But Jean Simmons is a radiant, dynamic Ophelia, so her madness at the hands of Hamlet is affecting. She's given an dreamily compelling death scene, floating down the river, sinking with the flowers.

Other great British actors in supporting roles include Anthony Quayle as Marcellus and Stanley Holloway as the gravedigger. Cushing's later horror-film co-star, Christopher Lee, is supposedly a spear carrier, though I couldn't spot him.

Olivier starts the film with an introduction quoting some later dialogue about the single flaw in a man's character that can lead to his downfall and then intones, "This is a tragedy about a man who could not make up his mind." Not an interpretation I agree with, but this and other occasionally unusual twists he creates for scenes we thought we already knew makes this a fascinating Hamlet. The "To be or not to be" monologue, for example, is an open consideration of suicide, rejected finally when he drops the dagger over a cliff. In the final scene it is hinted by glances that the queen drinks the poison intended for Hamlet not entirely by accident but to save him from it.

This is the only film of Hamlet to ever win any Academy Awards, gathering four, including for best picture and best actor (Olivier). Supporting actress Simmons was also nominated, as was Olivier's direction.

Hamlet the Demonic
The 1969 Hamlet, also called Shakespeare's Hamlet, directed by Tony Richardson and starring Nicol Williamson, finds a unique solution to the length of Hamlet and the modern audience's impatience. It includes more of Shakespeare's original text than Olivier's Hamlet but runs through it twice as fast, getting the time down under two hours.

This approach is only moderately successful. Williamson is an eccentric actor, always making interesting choices. His Hamlet is not a man who can't make up his mind, but one who is obviously haunted, turned inside out by demons. A energetic, frenetic and unbalanced personality. Angry, self-righteous and ironic by turn. He often speaks so quickly—to himself more than to any listener, even whispering at times—that we lose much of what he says. Famous lines are tossed away. Nonetheless Williamson's soliloquies directly into the camera or into the distance are riveting. We want to know what happens in Elsinore with this train wreck of a man running around.

Again age is a difficulty, though not in the usual way. The eternal problem is that the role of Hamlet is a plum for only the most accomplished actors but, by the time they reach that level, actors are much older than the prince who is about twenty-nine or thirty. Here, however, Williamson is about the right age for the part (though he looks older), but now the problem is that the actors portraying his mother (Judy Parfitt) and his uncle (Anthony Hopkins) are also about his age, which doesn't make sense. Horatio is even more of a puzzle: veteran actor Gordon Jackson (Upstairs, Downstairs) is in his mid-forties at this time but as Hamlet's buddy he appears to be older—balding and bespectacled. The only player besides Williamson who is the right age is Marianne Faithfull as Ophelia, and the singer-actress, known best at the time as Mick Jagger's girlfriend, is about as insubstantial a presence as you might expect.

In short (and I do mean short), this is a quirky, diverting Hamlet to pick up if you want to get through the play quickly.

Hamlet the Whining
If you want the whole unexpurgated play at its whole unexpurgated length, you could do a lot worse than Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, a 1980 BBC production running a full three and a half hours and starring Derek Jacobi. This version is hard to find for purchase but you can probably locate it in a local library for borrowing.

Jacobi's Hamlet has been highly praised—a few have even called it the very best Hamlet—but he's not my Hamlet. This is a weak, whimpering prince. An unrealistic dreamer. Like Williamson's, Jacobi's Hamlet probably really is mad. But his rages are less fearsome, more like tantrums.

And talk about age. In his forties, Jacobi is heavily made up to hide the wrinkles, giving him a ghoulish appearance tending towards effeminacy. Jacobi is obviously a wonderful actor and you can see wonderful acting in every line, in his voice, in his face, in his eyes, in his whole body, throughout Hamlet. His monologues are delivered directly to the camera, as though he's addressing you the viewer, which is very effective. Yet he never convinces me until the very end of the play that he actually is that bold, impulsive prince bent on revenge.

His uncle King Claudius is actually performed by a younger man, Patrick Stewart, just a few years before his television stint as the Enterprise's Captain Picard. With his commanding voice, Stewart is strong and charismatic—which is a problem because he almost makes us sympathize with him against the annoyingly wimpy Hamlet. Claire Bloom, as Queen Gertrude, is ravishing as ever in her middle age, seeming a better match for Jacobi's Hamlet than Ophelia, played by the slight Lalla Ward of Dr. Who fame.

This is a stage-based production of Hamlet. It doesn't try to be otherwise with its overhead lighting, scene-long shots and unadorned soundtrack. One for live-theatre fans and English students.

Hamlet the sexy
In the 1990s began a trend of having major movie stars taking on Hamlet. Keanu Reeves played the part on a Canadian stage and Jude Law is at the time of writing doing it in London. And on film we've had Mel Gibson, Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh and Ethan Hawke as Hamlets. (Though in fairness, Branagh hailed originally from the classical stage.)

The first was the Franco Zeffirelli-directed Hamlet of 1990 with Gibson, Glen Close as the queen, the always delightful Alan Bates as the king, and Helena Bonham Carter (yet another pale wisp of woman for the role) as Ophelia. Critical reaction was mixed but I've always appreciated Zeffirelli's attempts to bring high culture to a wider audience, as previously seen in such films as Romeo and Juliet (1968), which featured actual young people as the young lovers, and the luscious La Traviata (1982), which even non-opera lovers could enjoy. His Hamlet is similarly accessible. Gibson is obviously not a classical actor, he's a bit out of his depth here, but he throws himself into it with gusto, as do all the other actors.

It's a sexier film than most versions—with the prince practically humping his mother in their bedroom scene. And more violent than most—with blood all over the court in that final scene. But why not? Everyone is indeed killed off in the last scene of Shakespeare's play. And killed people bleed.

I'd bet that Shakespeare would approve. This movie drew many people to the theatre who had never seen the bard's work before, and to their surprise they were vastly entertained. That's got to be good.

Hamlet the Thoughtful
The same year saw a competing and very different take on Hamlet. The film directed by and starring Kline was actually intended as a television presentation of the play from the 1990 New York Shakespeare Festival.

It doesn't deliver what people expect of Hamlet since it places the action in a modern setting. The student Hamlet returns from university for his father's funeral to find his widowed mother already remarried to his uncle. The dialogue is still Shakespeare's—at three hours long, it's relatively faithful—but the interpretations are unusual.

A thought-provoking version that people either hate or love.

Hamlet the Modern
In 1996 was released the version that many have acclaimed the best yet, a match for Olivier's, although it performed modestly at the box office, perhaps due to its length. Kenneth Branagh acted and directed the four-hour film. He also produced a two-and-a-half-hour version, which also seemed like too much Shakespeare for many viewers.

Too bad for them as this Hamlet is fresh and exciting. This production is also called William Shakespeare's Hamlet Branagh brings the time period up to

The supporting players are a mix of classical veterans (John Gieldgud who had been a famous stage Hamlet himself, Derek Jacobi at last playing his age as Claudius, and Judi Dench), young movie stars (Kate Winslet as Ophelia, Bill Crystal as a gravedigger, and Robin Williams as Osric), and aging movie stars (Gérard Depardieu, Julie Christie as Gertrude, Charlton Heston as an actor, and Jack Lemmon).

Hamlet the Postmodern
For a fresh take on Hamlet though, check out the 2000 version starring Ethan Hawke and a number of other movie stars in modern dress.

This is a cold, stylish, high-tech Hamlet that is nonetheless moving at times in a postmodern way. Hawke watches himself and Ophelia on video screens. He replays his opening lines to "To be or not to be" over and over before finally committing himself to the soliloquy. His father's ghost (Sam Shepard) appears on his balcony and enters the condominium to hug him. Hamlet and Claudius (Kyle McLaughlan), who's taken over his later father's Denmark Corporation, play a cloak-and-dagger game with limousines, pistols and videos. Dialogue is chopped up and reconstructed at will. (Hamlet says, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy", a change I can agree with in this context.)

Oddly it seems natural to have these Y2K characters spouting Elizabethan blank verse, which says something about the universality of Shakespeare's writing. Not al the actors handle it as well though. Hawke is a credible slacker-era Hamlet, especially in his intimate moments, but when he has to deliver speeches to other characters he sounds like he's reciting, as do Julia Stiles as Ophelia and Bill Murray as the decent but not too bright Polonius. Murray has been praised for his low-key, conversational delivery, but for me the lines just don't work this way. His famous advice for a son sounds like a man trying to remember a shopping list.

Stand-outs are the underrated McLachlan, who speaks his weasely lines with charming conviction and expresses much more with the subtlest of facial gestures, the always inestimable Liev Schreiber as Laertes, and the formidable Shepard. No strain as the most convoluted thoughts are delivered with the naturalness of twenty-first century dialogue. You can believe they are saying it just as they thought it. You forget it's Shakespeare you're listening to.

In the end this ultramodern Hamlet reverts to old-style dramatics with a fencing match not too different from the stab-and-poison massacre of the original. I expected something more revelatory of our own times. But maybe that's the too-easy point being scored by this Hamlet, that despite the change in trappings, people never change.

In the meantime I'll continue my impossible quest for the perfect Hamlet. There's this Christopher Plummer performance that's supposed to the best ever put on film but is hard to track down.... And Ian McKellen's great TV production of 1970.... And Richard Burton's 1964 triumph....

— Eric

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© Copyright 2004–2009 Eric McMillan. All rights reserved.

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