A broadsword for Hamlet

March 12, 1991


Directed by Franco Zeffirelli

With Mel Gibson as Hamlet, Glenn Close as Gertrude

Reviewed by Chris Canute

As Shakespeare's longest and best known play, Hamlet is a daunting proposition for directors, actors and audience alike. Zeffirelli's film version tackles the difficulties boldly, freely adapting the work to suit a new medium.

His cuts to the text are made not with a fine rapier but a broadsword, bringing the film to just over two hours. Nevertheless, what is left is gripping, eventful and surprising, for the main focus of the story falls upon Hamlet and Gertrude.

Mel Gibson is captivating as the young Dane. His Hamlet is emotionally volatile and intelligent, a character driven by revenge and betrayal but aware of the ironies of becoming "passion's slave". His "madness" is explosive and extroverted and is largely responsible for creating the emotional momentum which drives the film.

Hamlet is allowed in this production to take a leaf out of Polonius' book and resort to a bit of useful eavesdropping. Through this simple device, Hamlet discovers the motives behind Ophelia's apparent coolness and the timely reappearance of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The prince's harsh treatment of these characters is thus in part justified, and Zeffirelli assures that our sympathies never waver from the main character. Even when Polonius is mistakenly killed, it is as if the hapless Dane cannot be accused of anything except bad luck.

Glenn Close's Gertrude is startlingly complex, given that the character has few lines and no opportunity to defend her problematic position. She appears in awe of both her new husband and her son and believably has no inkling of her new husband's true nature until it's too late.

Claudius (Alan Bates) isn't simply a murdering tyrant. The film suggests that his affection for Gertrude is genuine and that this truly explains his need to remove Hamlet secretly.

Ophelia is also in an awkward situation, torn between her love for Hamlet and her loyalty to her father. Ultimately she loses both, and her madness is believable and painful.

The characters clearly have their own inner struggles which give the film a dynamic quality and save it from being merely Hamlet's story. Even Paul Scofield, as the ghost, demonstrates a roundness of character. His desire for revenge isn't about redressing the balance or restoring order but is a moving plea from a victim of betrayal.

The film strongly emphasises the psychological relationships between the characters but, I feel, at the cost of the wider political and social questions which give the play its resonance. We are never led to examine Hamlet's responsibility to remove the bad king for Denmark's sake or indeed any qualms he may have about committing regicide.

Events are seemingly played out within a political vacuum. When inore threatening vengeance, the guards are indifferent about protecting their ruler — as if the whole affair is a domestic problem, one not to get involved in. This is a pity because we lose the social reverberations, the general feeling of suspicion and discord that characterises Claudius' reign and which should make Hamlet's revenge all the more pressing.

Despite this, the film is exciting, original and highly entertaining. Zeffirelli has again managed to take a Shakespeare play and make it new and accessible whilst retaining much of its depth and complexity.

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