Hamlet review by Matt Fuerst


I'm no Shakespeare dweeb but I know that Hamlet is one of his most famous plays. A quick search for Hamlet on IMDB shows 42 mainstream films titled Hamlet, and lord knows how many films, plays and books have liberally borrowed the story structure. On our plate today is the 1990 theatrical release from director Franco Zeffirelli, an Italian chap that had previously successfully tackled quite a bit of Shakespeare's work in his homeland. If you're a film geek this film is probably somewhat in the recesses of your mind since Zeffy the Deffy had quite a hand in his casting, with Mel Gibson in the title role, and lots of other big names such as Glenn Close, Helena Bonham Carter and pre-Hobbit Ian Holm.

How does one summarize a Shakespeare play and not sound silly. Well, the approach I decided upon by the end of this past sentence was to pretend to be silly, that way when it comes off sounding silly, it's like I'm really just a comedic genius instead of an incompetent jester. Hammy's pa, the former King of Denmark, is dead, and he's pretty bummed about the whole situation. Even at the funeral service Hammy's ma, the lovely Gertrude is making eyes at Claudius, whom, to add to the icky factor just so happens to be Hamlet's uncle. The writings on the wall and before you know it, Gertrude and Claudius are hittin' the skins. Disgusted, Hamlet simply looks forward to returning to his studies far, far away. Gertrude can sense Hamlet's disgust and turmoil still within him from the death of his father, and begs Hamlet to stay with her, hoping to keep an eye on him.

Hamlet's pretty distressed about the whole situation, and it only gets worse when a group of castle lackies mention to Hamlet that they saw his fathers ghost hanging around on top of the castle, begging for a kegger of PBR (alright, that part was a fallacy, or maybe the whole thing is a fallacy, hmmmmm?). Hamlet demands to see for himself, and later that evening chases down his fathers ghost and has an even more disturbing discussion with him... he was murdered by his own brother, who had his small brain focused on the crown of Denmark and his big brain focused on Gertrude. Ewwwwwww....

Hamlet sets out to expose Claudius for the murdering liar he is, as he quickly spirals into a crazed state. Since this is a Shakespeare tragedy, I think you can probably figure out the final destination this rail car is pulling into.

The thing that will make this Hamlet presentation stand out from the rest is going to be the great set work. Filmed mostly in England and Scotland, Hamlet presents a rough, rustic look to Hamlet's life. Sure, the castles are spectacular, amazing pieces of architecture, but it presents the life as still a bit rougher around the edges than a king might experience today. Large grassy spaces outside allow for Hamlet to roam freely and contemplate his circumstances, and once returning into the castle, he is surrounded by the dark, tall walls that seem to cave around him. Nothing is brilliant, bright or sunny in this existence, even when he has a moment of relief in his life, the surroundings just won't let up to relieve him of his burdens. I haven't seen Branaugh's presentation of Hamlet (1996) but I have seen the glorious trailer, and it presents the surroundings in an equally amazing manner, but with much more brilliance and cleanliness around Hamlet. I'm not saying one way is better than the other, just it's a way to contrast the films.

Now what will likely make people remember the film isn't the setting of the film, but instead the big name stars attached to it (possibly the biggest set of names ever attached to a direct Shakespeare flick?). Mel Gibson as our lead does a serviceable job, and it's very easy to see personalities of his future characterizations inside his Hamlet role. For example, you will see a lot of his William Wallace traits in Hamlet, especially when Hamlet is most out of control. Throughout the film you will pick up tons of little Mel Gibson specific ticks that you've seen elsewhere that probably don't really belong in a Hamlet character, but Gibson brings to the table non-the-less. Glenn Close delivers a good job being creepily motherly to Gibson (whom she is only 9 years older than herself, of which there was no attempt to compensate, just making things all that much more disturbing). Ms. Close has a particularly stunning moment at the end of the film, as the characters receive their final judgement. It's been a week since I took in Hamlet and her final moments are still with me.

So with all the good, what is bad? Well, the directing and editing pace the movie out a big slow. I guess I shouldn't complain since looking at Branaugh's version running a full 242 minutes, the 130 minute Zeffirelli film is lightning paced, but the characters seem to slow down the time. Also Zeffirelli doesn't use his set pieces to their maximum. They exist around the characters, but they don't add enough to the atmosphere as they could. Zeffirelli is a pretty big fan of the medium and closer shot in photographic terms, and I really felt some of the exchanges amongst characters really could have been held from a longer, wider lens bringing the elements into the shot with much success. I would seem the textured walls or fields on the sides of a characters head or shoulders, and wanted to just yell at the screen "Pull back man! Pull back!". All in all, a reasonable take on the Bards infamous tale, one that you'd probably want to own if you're a fan of Gibson or Shakespeare on film, but otherwise, you're not missing much if you even never rent.

5 out of 10 Jackasses
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