Posts Tagged ‘Hamlet Movies’

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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