Archive for the ‘Hamlet Movies’ Category

Benedict Cumberbatch HamletFor nearly four acts, Benedict Cumberbatch, starring in the National Theatre Live broadcast around the world yesterday, is the best adjusted – and best – Hamlet I’ve seen. That the production falls flat in Act V is a disappointment, but does not take away from the many accomplishments of this fine staging.

Any performance of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” succeeds or fails primarily on the strengths of its lead actor and Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is very good indeed. He fully and convincingly engages with all of the character’s emotions: Hamlet’s grief, his sorrow, his anger, and especially Hamlet’s humor which is the lightest and most sparkling of all the readings of the Danish prince I’ve seen.

This is the result of the intriguing choice of making Cumberbatch’s Hamlet extremely well adjusted, considering his circumstances. Hamlet is typically played as having been unhinged by grief over his father’s death, his mother’s quick remarriage, Ophelia’s rejection of his love, and the disturbing appearance of his father’s ghost. (It can be argued that the text demands this reading.)

This leads Hamlet to contemplate suicide and to embrace a half-madness which serves both to disguise the threat a sane Hamlet poses to his uncle’s stolen crown and to disguise the insane parts of Hamlet from easy recognition.

In Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, his madness is all tactic to confuse Claudius. This makes Cumberbatch’s “antic disposition” particularly playful and makes his Hamlet particularly likeable because the whinging, self-importance, and condescension frequently seen in the Danish prince are muted. It does mean, however, that Hamlet’s contemplations of suicide come off as passing thoughts, rather quickly forgotten.

Cumberbatch isn’t the only good performer in this National Theatre Live production. Ciaran Hinds is very good as a false, awkward, and cowardly Claudius unequal to the tasks of playing either the public or the private role of king. Sian Brooke’s is moving as an Ophelia whose vulnerability is evidence from the beginning of the play, and whose descent into madness is credible and heart-breaking. Anastasia Hille’s Gertrude manages to yell at top voice and convince us of her passion in her confrontation with Hamlet.

This is more than I can say for the actors playing Laertes and Horatio both of whom rely on volume when emotional connection with their roles seems to desert them. (Are bellowing Horatios the new style? It’s not a good style.) Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern are played for laughs and deliver. The Player King is meant to be a bad actor and succeeds competently.

Like most staging of most Shakespeare, the National Theatre Live production tries new things, some of which work and some of which don’t. The generally accepted version of Shakespeare’s “original” text has been edited more than usual, with many scenes moved around and lines traditionally spoken by one character often spoken by another. This emphasizes the elements of Hamlet the director seems to want to emphasize and works just fine until Act V (more on that in a minute). For many of Hamlet’s soliloquies, Cumberbatch steps out of the action of a scene and is isolated in a spotlight (very effective). There is at least one instance where the characters are running frantically around on stage while music pounds and strobe lights flash (this should be banned from the stage by statute). The duel scene is so rushed and hugger-mugger that it felt like Gertrude and Claudius were alive one moment and dead the next. When Hamlet is exiled to England, the stage is inexplicably filled with black dirt, a gimmick making pretense toward grand visual metaphor though exactly what the metaphor might be, who can tell?

Finally, there is the problem of the Cumberbatch Hamlet in Act V of the National Theatre production. Or rather the lack of problem. The foundation to Hamlet’s universal appeal is his struggle against a life whose pain and demands are more than he can bear, but whose alternative – death – is unappealing. Hamlet’s personal drama comes from his eventual philosophical acceptance of or passive resignation to this condition (take your pick), culminating in Hamlet’s conversation with Horatio that ends with the words, “Let be.”

Since Cumberbatch’s Hamlet bears up reasonably well under his pain and the task of avenging his father’s murder, he never gets to acceptance or resignation. He simply dies from the machinations of Claudius and Laertes, about as happy and unhappy as he ever was.

This does not detract from my forming conviction that Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is the best and most appealing I’ve seen on screen. Not to mention the sexiest. I hope the National Theatre makes this production of “Hamlet” available for streaming eventually. I’d like to see it again.

Check out my other reviews of Hamlet movies starring Laurence Olivier, Mel Gibson, and many more.

 

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Hamlet David TennantBased on its reputation, I was expecting to like the 2009 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Hamlet, directed by Gregory Doran and starring David Tennant, much better than I did.

Every Hamlet rises or falls on the performance of the title-role actor, and Tennant had both strengths and problems. He has the perfect look for the part, and he nailed the Danish prince’s anxiety and snark. But when it came to exploring Hamlet’s anguish and rage, he fell back on acting BIGGER and LOUDER. As I result, I don’t think Tennant connected with full emotion to the part, so I didn’t feel much emotion watching him.

Another problematic performance was Patrick Stewart’s Claudius.  I liked his wise and even-tempered reading; however, Stewart’s usurper was so amiable that he failed to convince me he could kick a dog much less kill his brother, seduce his brother’s wife, and plot the treacherous murder of their son.

On the plus side, the women of the play were pretty good. Mariah Gale’s Ophelia was strong and self-possessed, even in madness where she was more angry than wounded. (Jean Simmons’ guppy out of water reading of Ophelia in Olivier’s movie version was a low point of Hamlet on film.) Penny Downie’s Gertrude was quite good, too, except for the Act IV bedroom scene with Tennant, when she seem to fight his big and loud with her own big and loud.

Also on the plus side, Doran’s Hamlet is funny. He seizes every opportunity the play allows to read lines as comic. This means Polonius really takes it on the chin, although I also enjoyed the utter bafflement Tom Davey’s Guildenstern projected whenever the dialogue didn’t require him to reveal a faint glimmer of understanding. (He gave Osric a run for his money. ) Good fun too were the expressions of impatience, disbelief, credulity, and exasperation the actors wore whenever anyone, not just Polonius, made a long speech. All the joking diminished the tragic punch of the staging, however.

Now, my quibbles. I have no idea in what time period this Hamlet was meant to be set. Tennant was the complete modern hipster. Horatio dressed like a middle-aged academic circa 1982. Claudius and Gertrude had the air of a rich mid-20th century power couple. Polonius resembled an Elizabethan courtier on dress-down day. Different soldiers carried weapons from vastly different centuries. If there was a point to all this variety, I missed it.

Finally, Doran cut roughly seven lines from “To be, or not to be”.  God knows there are vast tracks of Shakespeare – particularly in the history plays – which can be given the boot to everyone’s benefit, but editing Hamlet’s most famous speech accomplishes nothing beyond gratuitous shock value.

On my Hamlet list, I’d put the Tennant version right above Ethan Hawke’s. See my list of best Hamlet movies.

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Which is the best Hamlet movie?  Here are my assessments of the film adaptations of Hamlet I’ve seen ranked in order of personal preference. I have also summarized the rankings of other critics from around the internet to give you more perspectives. “Have at you now!”

1. Richard Burton: Hamlet 1964.

Richard Burton wins the title “best Hamlet” with the range, insight, and power of his acting in this filmed stage production. Burton plays all of Hamlet’s emotions with extraordinary conviction: grief, fear, doubt, anger, indifference, easy acceptance. His transitions from line to line and emotion to emotion feel like the natural consequence of the previous idea and feeling. When he is funny, Burton is funny without the viciousness or condescension you often see in other performances. No Hamlet has ever sounded better. The sheer physical stamina of Burton’s work is impressive. And all this outweighs the serious limitations director John Gielgud faced filming a live performance in a Broadway theater as well as some less than stellar acting in the other roles.

Other rankings of Burton’s Hamlet. 7.6 out of 10 on IMDb.  74% Audience Score on Rotten Tomatoes.

2. Kenneth Branagh: Hamlet 1996.

Branagh’s performance swings wildly between Hamlet’s famous indecision and the Danish prince’s other signature (but often overlooked) characteristic: his recklessness. This choice creates a satisfying Hamlet and turns Branagh’s conspicuous habit of overacting into a virtue. Branagh films the whole text, and so includes the essential framing character of Fortinbras and allows us to fully see how Laertes and Ophelia together serve as a double for Hamlet. Some of Branagh’s directing is very fine (the two-way mirror in “To be, or not to be”) and some of it is not. The ghost scene in 1.5 is unwatchable, and Branagh stages the climactic duel in action-movie land.

Other rankings of Branagh’s Hamlet. 7.7 out of 10 on IMDb.  95% Tomatometer and 89% Audience Score on Rotten Tomatoes.

3. Laurence Olivier: Hamlet 1948.

Olivier is the better actor, and gives a better performance, but his concentration on Hamlet’s indecision makes less sense than Branagh’s choices. (Could an always-hesitating Hamlet improvise the murder of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern or jump into the middle of a battle with pirates?) Olivier edits the text so heavily that the story is unintelligible unless you know it. The way his camera stalks the corridors of dark, Freudian Elsinore castle hasn’t aged particularly well. And Olivier’s ditzy, hysterical Ophelia – played by Jean Simmons – not only offends contemporary tastes, but also begs the question, “What does Hamlet see in her?”

Other rankings of Olivier’s Hamlet. 7.6 out of 10 on IMDb. 95% Tomatometer and 80% Audience Score on Rotten Tomatoes.

4. Derek Jacobi: Hamlet 1980.

Derek Jacobi plays Hamlet as amazed by his weakness, rather than desperate for strength, and is one of the few Danish Princes who feels like he could actually be the son of a warrior king. Jacobi’s voice has an extraordinary range of emotional colors, and his acting is often supple and subtle. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is uneven and in some scenes, dull. This version is filmed like the stodgy stage play it is with the occasional rough close-up, for which none of the actors except Jacobi seem prepared.

Other rankings of Jacobi’s Hamlet. 8.0 out of 10 on IMDb.

5. Benedict Cumberbatch: Hamlet 2015.

Cumberbatch’s superb Hamlet is marred by the choice of making his Danish prince entirely sane and pretty well adjusted. This makes Cumberbatch the most appealing and engaging Hamlet on my list, but it also robs his Hamlet of the philosophical transformation that powers the last third of the play, leaving the end feeling rushed and flat. Some clunker performances among the supporting cast and staging a bit heavy on gimmicky spectacle also knock this version down the list. My longer review of Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is here.

Other rankings of Cumberbatch’s Hamlet. 8.5 out of 10 on IMDb. 100% Audience Score on Rotten Tomatoes.

6. Mel Gibson: Hamlet 1990.

A “Mad Max” Hamlet is a piece of stunt casting, but Gibson climbs into the middle of the list by exceeding expectations. He’s really not bad. Gibson’s Hamlet is angry, wounded, and fearful, and he brings off the role well. There are strong actors throughout the supporting cast who are interesting in their roles. Zeffirelli substitutes his habitual spectacle for any fresh ideas about the play, however.

Other rankings of Gibson’s Hamlet. 6.7 out of 10 on IMDb. 76% Tomatometer and 59% Audience Score on Rotten Tomatoes.

7. Nicol Williamson: Hamlet 1969 and 8. Kevin Kline: Hamlet 1990.

Both of these performances are solid, intelligent, and affecting. But they are also familiar. With so many Hamlets on film, Williamson’s and Kline’s successes are less fun than the interesting failures below.

Other rankings of Williamson’s Hamlet. 7.0 out of 10 on IMDb. 70% Audience Score on Rotten Tomatoes. Other rankings of Kline’s Hamlet. 7.3 out of 10 on IMDb.

9. David Tennant: Hamlet 2009.

This 2009 Royal Shakespeare Production productively mines the play for maximum humor but comes up short on emotional punch. David Tennant nails Hamlet’s jokes, and his fear, but falls back on acting louder when he plays the Danish Prince’s anger and grief. Patrick Stewart’s Claudius is charismatic but doesn’t quite seem the fratricidal type. My longer review of Tennant’s Hamlet is here.

Other rankings of Tennant’s Hamlet. 8.1 out of 10 on IMDb. 100% Tomatometer and 91% Audience Score on Rotten Tomatoes.

10. Ethan Hawke: Hamlet 2000.

Much of the plot of Hamlet ceases to make sense when it is set in modern New York City, as this version is. But Ethan Hawke’s louche, slacker Hamlet is perfect for its time and his “To be, or not to be”” is superb.

Other rankings of Hawke’s Hamlet. 6.0 out of 10 on IMDb. 59% Tomatometer and 46% Audience Score on Rotten Tomatoes.

11. Campbell Scott: Hamlet 2000.

Most actors play Hamlet as unsteady but basically sane. Scott’s Hamlet is actually unhinged, which is what makes this performance from a good actor so intriguing. The problem is that a Hamlet who has actually suffered a mental breakdown would be unable to function in the play after Act 2. A supporting cast that is adequate at best doesn’t help matters.

Other rankings of Scott’s Hamlet. 6.3 out of 10 on IMDb. 70% Tomatometer on Rotten Tomatoes.

TBD. Innokenty Smoktunovsky: Hamlet 1964.

I need to track down a full version of this Russian language Hamlet before I can offer a capsule review. However, the clips available on the internet look promising as does the Shostakovich score. The production designer for Olivier’s film should demand royalty payments from the Russians, however.

Rankings of Smoktunovsky’s Hamlet. 8.3 out of 10 on IMDb. 100% Tomatometer and 92% Audience Score on Rotten Tomatoes.

12. Arnold Schwarzenegger: Hamlet 1993.

Arnold’s hilarious turn as the perfect anti-Hamlet in The Last Action Hero is not to be missed by fans of the Danish prince. Here’s the video from YouTube:

How Many Hamlet Movies Are There?

That depends on how you want to count them. Two recent film versions of HamletDavid Melville in 2010 and Bruce Ramsay in 2011, both cut the play to a running time of under 90 minutes. Iain Glen played Hamlet in scenes of the 1990 film version of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. There are many film adaptations “inspired” by Hamlet, from The Lion King to the just released Haider set in Kashmir. Wikipedia says there are more than 50 film adaptations of Hamlet. My counting criteria is more strict (a reasonably intact version of the original text) which is why Melville and Ramsay fall here. This criteria should exclude Schwarzenegger from the running too, of course, but Arnold was simply too funny to consign to a footnote.

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