Sunday, March 06, 2011
I wonder if there might be any confirmed number to this but it is almost certain that Hamlet is the most favorite of Shakespearean plays that filmmakers have adapted on film over the years. So when acclaimed director Franco Zeffirelli decided to direct his own version of the play in 1990, he was merely reaffirming his affection for the complex story, just like many of his ilk. What he was also doing is following a tough act. After all, the 1948 adaptation by Laurence Olivier stands very tall amongst all Shakespearean movies. What must've worked in Zeffirelli's favor was the fact that he had previously adapted both The Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet for the screen and thus wasn't unknown to the depth that a Shakespearean adaptation demands. And thus, he experiments with his Hamlet and gets away with it. And getting away is not always an escapist bad thing.
The movie stars Mel Gibson as the prince of Denmark who wants to avenge his father's death. He suspects his own uncle Claudius (Alan Bates) for the King's death. Claudius, on the other hand, quickly assumes the throne and doesn't waste any time in marrying Hamlet's mother Gertrude (Glenn Close). When his father appears as a ghost and lets Hamlet know about how he was killed by Claudius, Hamlet comes up with a nifty ploy that would either negate or confirm his suspicions once and for all. His obsession for revenge meanwhile takes his away from the love of his life Ophelia (Helena Bonham Carter). In a fit of rage, when Hamlet unknowingly ends up killing Ophelia's father Polonius, she becomes insane. When her brother Laertes (Nathaniel Parker) returns to the castle to find his sister dead, he places the responsibility of his sister's and father's death on Hamlet and demands revenge. The climax that culminates in a sword fight between Laertes and Hamlet is a befitting end to a story that has revenge as it's central theme.
Since the original play had too many layers of drama, Zifferelli chooses to focus only on the key plot points from the movie. Thus, Hamlet's rage bordering on insanity makes for most of the movie's focus. Mel Gibson is not the tragic brooding hero that a most faithful adaptation would've let us see. Instead, he is energetic and purposeful, at times even humorous. Gibson's intent comes across convincingly and in spite of his image as a happy-go-lucky action hero in the early 90s, his portrayal as the Prince of Denmark is solid. With the exception of Nathaniel Parker who seems to be uncomfortable in a role as important as Laertes, the rest of cast turns in equally strong performances.
Personally, I never liked Hamlet as much as some of the other works from the master's stable. This 1990 adaptation is the kind of movie you could pick up on a lazy Sunday afternoon. It's mostly faithful, deviant in trickles but robust overall and hence very much worthy of that lazy Sunday afternoon. And if you're a movie lover, this would be a good reference point to see how Olivier's 1948 version and Brannagh's 1996 version are different