Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Movie Review: Hamlet (2009)

Hamlet (2009) directed by Gregory Doran

Arguably the most famous play in English, Hamlet has been adapted for the movies and television innumerable times. I had a professor who said "Eternal problems are always contemporary." Similarly, great plays always have something to say to each new generation. The Royal Shakespeare Company of London has made a television version of its smash hit production of Hamlet starring David Tennant and Patrick Stewart.

The good thing about a movie/tv production of a play is that the actors don't have to play to the very last row of the house and people in the last row (or in obstructed seating) can see all the detail and the action going on. The camera makes greater intimacy possible between the performers and the audience, while separating both in space and time.

Speaking of space and time, you'd think I'd comment about Captain Picard and Doctor Who crossing over in medieval Denmark. Thankfully, this isn't that sort of adaptation. The setting is not medieval; Elsinore Castle is more modern with security cameras and large mirrors everywhere. Many characters have hand guns in addition to their swords (can't have Hamlet without swords, can you?). It's an odd blend of contemporary and historical set dressing and costuming meant to evoke a timeless quality.

Tennant give a frenetic performance as Hamlet. At some points, he does look totally bonkers. This is no dour, Olivier performance. Tennant is convincing and doesn't go over the top, in the same way as Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs and Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight keep from going too far. Such performances are easy to parody because they come so close to overdoing it. Tennant balances the madness and the cunning of Hamlet quite well.

Stewart as Claudius give a more subdued performance. This viewing is the first time I thought Claudius was a bit of an idiot at the beginning. Stewart has him bumbling a little bit. After the mock play in which he sees for the first time in an objective way how he killed his brother, he realizes the evil he's done but can't quite repent of it. He makes a believable turn into a more crafty schemer. He is more in control of the situation than he lets on, sending Hamlet to England or poisoning the cup. Stewart balances the evil and the cunning of Claudius quite well.

Stewart also plays the Ghost of Hamlet's father. It's an interesting choice, suggesting Hamlet's disparaging comparisons between his father and his uncle might be more exaggerated than accurate. The choice provides a lot of food for thought about the characters.

Unfortunately, Tennant and Stewart shine so much that the other actors are underwhelming by comparison. Gertrude and Ophelia are both competent but not exceptional. Ophelia's mad rant, singing and giving out flowers, seems flat and forced compared to Tennant easygoing frenzy. Polonius and Horatio are okay but unremarkable. Surprisingly, Mark Hadfield as the gravedigger comes off as an equal of Tennant. That actor should have been bumped up to Polonius's role.

Many elements of the setting are used to emphasize various themes. The use of surveillance cameras (or "CCTV" as they are often referred to here in the UK) is a little odd. Snippets of scenes are shown as surveillance footage. At one point, Hamlet tears out one of the cameras and says, "Now I am alone." Spying and deception (and the damage they cause) are more critical elements to the story than I had considered before.

Another element is the use of mirrors. Claudius and Polonius spy on Hamlet and Ophelia's conversation through a one-way mirror. When Hamlet kills Polonius, he shoots him through a mirrored door. From that point, almost everyone sees themselves in shattered reflections, showing the damage that so much deceit as done to them. It's an interesting device that isn't overplayed.

Taken as a whole, this film version is definitely worth viewing. Many thought provoking ideas are brought out of the play that I hadn't seen or delved deeply before. Tennant's performance will surely be considered a classic portrayal of the mad Dane.

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