Saturday, August 30, 2008

Hamlet (1990)

"Hamlet" (Franco Zeffirelli, 1990) So, the big question was: "Mel? Mel Gibson? Hamlet?" Zeffirelli was no slouch when directing Shakespeare with "The Taming of the Shrew" and "Romeo and Juliet" already in his film-list. But Mel Gibson? "Lethal Weapon"/"Mad Max" Mel Gibson? How can this come to any good?

Turns out it can.

Seeing
Zeffirelli's "Hamlet" for the first time is a film-long surprise at how good Gibson is in the role--his performance of the Elizabethan verse often inspired. He's backed by a stellar cast: Glenn Close (nine years older than Gibson) as Gertrude, Alan Bates as an on-guard Claudius, Ian Holm as a much more competent, even wily, Polonius, Paul Scofield, a brilliant ghost, Stephen Dillane as Horatio, and best of all, Helena Bonham Carter's Ophelia.

A second look at the film years later shows the seams.
Gibson's Hamlet is all open-mouthed "busy" acting, a bit too manic and protesting too much. But it does make the case that his Hamlet is Glenn Close's son for she does exactly the same thing, gaping for the loges in Zeffirelli's rough-hewn settings. Dillane's "trying-to-take-it-all-in" Horatio and Bates' slimy, wary Claudius come off the best. But they're blow off the screen by the radical turn of Bonham Carter:


Ophelia--From the get-go, Helena Bonham-Carter plays the daughter of Polonius (and object of Hamlet's affections/mental torture), not as a frail flower, but a practical girl, down-to-Earth and obedient to her father, and loving to her brother. Bonham-Carter's line readings of the verse are flat and conversational, not lilting. Her reaction to Hamlet's bi-polarism are confusion, and incomprehension, not histrionics, and when her psyche snaps, there's no poetry in it. You could find her Ophelia on a city street-corner--agitated, rattling, eyes darting and fingers flailing; it's a powerful performance--a radical interpretation, scary and threatening. When she hands out flowers to the royal couple and her brother, she hands them weeds...and bones.

No wonder Tim Burton fell in love with her. Bonham Carter has never steered clear of the dark waters of her characters, and, in fact, will jump into the deep-end and maybe--maybe--swim up to the light. There's never been an Ophelia like this one, and disappointingly, I haven't seen one since. This is a feminist interpretation of Ophelia, one of real power while not sacrificing Shakespeare's text or the role's tragedy. I don't know if the Bard would recognize his creation in this performance, but the actor in him would be amazed.

Here are this film's other "Hamlet" touchstones:

The Ghost--Portrayed by Paul Scofield deep in the shadows, it is a heart-breaking performance, as the grasping King begs for satisfaction from his son, damned as he is for his sins. His Old King Hamlet has all the fear of Hell in his eyes, and a quavering in his voice, a King broken by the tortures of perdition. He's not a formal apparition of the supernatural, but a ghost who is, himself, haunted, and seeks out his son for a last chance at salvation. That's quite a guilt-trip he lays of Hamlet--even more so than a revenge mission. No wonder Gibson's Hamlet looks panicky through the whole movie.

Polonius--verbose he may be, but he's no fool. In fact, as played by Ian Holm, he's a bit of a snake-in-the-grass, currying favor with a calculated duplicitousness. And quite capable of sacrificing his daughter in order to further the fortunes of his son Laertes. And he lets her know in no uncertain terms that she must perform her duties as bait for the good of her family, though not necessarily for her own. His fate seems particularly deserved, rather than an unfortunate ironic happenstance in Elsinore's machinations.

The "To Be Or Not To Be" speech--Gibson walks down stone stairs into the dark to contemplate action/inaction and life/death and does well with "the" speech. His Hamlet is usually at wit's end (heh), but here he is hushed and still, as if not to wake the dead. Apt, as the location he's chosen to do his ruminating is the burial site for old King Hamlet. That's the King's sarcophagous in the back-ground of the screen-cap. Hamlet might be in his own version of Hell during the speech.

Gritty, grimy, with the drama accentuated rather than the artifice of the verse, this "Hamlet" is a fine interpretation. Gibson might have been the star (and the chief draw), but the humanization of the ghost and the bodice-ripping interpretation of Ophelia make it one to remember in the further explorations of The Great Play.

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