directed by Franco Zeffirelli
(Icon, 1990)

Franco Zeffirelli, the iconic Italian director, is well-known for his adaptations of the works of Shakespeare and for his lavish productions of operatic classics. Under his passionate direction, Hamlet breathes and takes on life. The script, artfully edited and condensed by Zeffirelli and Christopher De Vore, cuts to the heart of the matter without sacrificing the familiar lines or the story's content. Locations in Scotland, England and France stand in for Denmark; the cold landscapes and even colder castles reflect the bleakness in Hamlet's soul and, indeed, in all of Denmark. Costumes are true to the period and the region. The set decoration seems, for the most part, accurate to the era.

Shakespeare's oft-filmed story of loyalty and betrayal is peopled by an impressive ensemble cast delivering solid performances. Many cast members are alumni of numerous Shakespearean productions, most notably with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Alan Bates as Claudius is equal parts political mastermind, evil stepfather and smarmy lady's man. The object of his desire is a sexually-aware Gertrude, played buoyantly by Glenn Close. The great Paul Scofield portrays the ghost to perfection, while Ian Holm is delightful as Polonius, dispensing advice to all who will listen. Nathaniel Parker plays his son Laertes, while Pete Postlethwaite has a small role as the Player King.

Perhaps the most chilling performance of the film is delivered by Helena Bonham Carter as Ophelia. We are able to witness Ophelia's decent into madness after she is rejected by her lover, Hamlet. Carter has never been more beautiful or more vulnerable.

Yet despite my obvious affection for the film, this version of Hamlet always leaves me conflicted. The main source of that conflict? Mel Gibson. Gibson is, in many ways, a perfectly wonderful Hamlet. His delivery and interpretations are intriguing and interesting. The famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy is beyond reproach. His encounter with Ophelia in which he tells her to "Get thee to a nunnery" is poignant, and his "matter" discussion with Polonius is humorous with just the right touch of irony.

If so much is right, what could possibly be wrong?

In a word, age. Gibson, who was 38 when this movie was released, was far too old to play the role of the young prince, who is no more than 20. So why would the producers of the film choose to cast a man twice the age of the character?

In a word, money. Making a film comes with a pretty hefty price tag. Backers often want a "name" in the leading role. And while Gibson was too old for the role, he had enough cache at the time to parley his name into box-office returns. Gibson also brought cash, in the form of his new production company, Icon Entertainment.

But none of that alters the fact that Gibson is not suitable for the role. Hamlet is a man too young to be ruled by reason, a man in whom passion and an impetuous nature combine with lethal results. While Gibson does an admirable job in acting the emotions of the character, his age cannot be hidden. His physical appearance becomes a detriment, particularly in the scenes opposite Glenn Close. Every attempt was made to make Close look older and Gibson look younger, but with only a nine-year age difference between the two, scenes between mother and son seem awkward at best.

Zeffirelli's directorial choices sometimes magnify this awkward feeling. In perhaps the most disturbing scene of the film, Gibson mimes a rape during an encounter with Close. While it is clear that nothing untoward happens, the hint of an incestuous relationship is planted. The "fourth wall" is breached. I am always taken out of the film at this point and it takes several minutes for me to become entranced once more.

Zeffirelli's Hamlet is "Hamlet-Lite" and, much like a light beer, it has the flavor, but is ultimately less complex and less satisfying than it might have been.

review by
Belinda Christ

14 November 2009

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