Saturday, May 8, 2010

Rating the Hamlets - Addendum

About two years ago, I wrote my thoughts on Hamlet in film. Specifically, I discussed my thoughts on four adaptations, which you can read at this link. To quickly summarize it though, I wrote about how I love the Kenneth Branagh version, really like the Mel Gibson one, only somewhat like the Lawrence Olivier film, and somewhat detest the Ethan Hawke movie.

Last night, I finished watching a more recent one, starring David Tennant as the title character, so I wanted to get down my thoughts about that one. Technically, it's not a film like the other four, as it was not released for the theaters. In fact, it was originally a stage production from the Royal Shakespeare Company. The BBC then went and created a made-for-TV movie using all of the actors from the stage production.

I have to admit that when I first heard of this, I wasn't really interested. I've seen the BBC's stage adaptations before, and while I really hate to use this word (as it makes me sound like a teenager with limited vocabulary) they tend to be pretty damned boring. The main problem is that they simply have the actors perform it on a stage, and then you wind up with a very static view of the whole thing. In other words, they're not filmed like movies, and so it doesn't just lack the immediacy of a live performance, but it lacks the dynamic qualities that film can provide.

I changed my mind when I saw a clip on YouTube though. While it certainly doesn't have the production values of a Hollywood film, it seems to me that the producers wanted to avoid the aforementioned problems. You get more camera angles and a lot more movement from the camera than you normally do with these things. Also, in a decision that could have proven to be somewhat cheesy, the camera often gets close up on the actors when they give their soliloquies and asides, and that's the closest you'll ever get to the personal feeling of live theater when you're watching something on your television.

The clip was enough to convince me to pre-order the Blu-Ray. Part of me wondered if I should just settle for the standard DVD, as it wasn't like they were showcasing all kinds of dynamic cinematography like you have with Kenneth Branagh's version. Then again, the Blu-Ray was only a couple bucks more, so I figured why not? I can tell you that I'm glad that I went for it. The picture is crystal clear, and when Hamlet looks into the camera and bemoans his mother's hasty marriage to his uncle, you feel like he's in the room with you. There is also an effective use of black and white contrasts that really come through with high definition.

What about the film itself? I have to say that I was really impressed. Sure, they went and cut some stuff - some of it I can do without like when Claudius talks to Laertes about some Norman who was impressed with Laertes' swordfighting skills. Other stuff I miss, like Fortinbras coming in and becoming the new king while bodies are strewn about the throne room. For me, that bit is crucial as it restores order and lets the audience know that tomorrow will be a better day even though our protagonist has shuffled off this mortal coil.

Still, the acting was top-notch. I might even dare say that I like Tennant better than Branagh in the title role. Branagh can sometimes be a little too whiny and teary-eyed. I like how Tennant plays the scene in the above clip, where he seems more annoyed and angry than anything else. Still, just like any good Hamlet, Tennant manages to convey a wide range of emotions and moods - something that the Olivier version doesn't do enough and that the Hawke version completely lacks.

The other actors did a great job as well, and I found myself laughing out loud when Oliver Ford Davies delivered many of Polonius' lines. He did a great job of making the King's advisor look absent-minded and foolish without making you wonder why Claudius would even want this guy as an advisor. Oh, and speaking of Claudius, I have to say that Captain Picard/Professor X does a great job in the role. Not only that, but he also plays the ghost of Hamlet's dad. I don't know if that's ever been done before, but I think that it creates all sorts of interesting psychological possibilities if the two brothers were also identical twins.

Much like the Ethan Hawke version, this one is given a more modern setting. Hamlet wears jeans and kills Polonius with a gun. Also, the whole motif of spying is showcased using surveillance technology just like in Hawke's Hamlet. This one, however, puts it all to better use. Oftentimes the camera angle changes, and we are made aware that all of Elsinore is littered with cameras. Hamlet even tears one off the wall, making even more sense of why he would start off his second soliloquy with "Now I am alone".

The running time is three hours, so while they do cut some stuff out, they don't cut out much. As for moving things around, there's only one major instance of that. I found it jarring at first, but then I found myself really liking it and even wishing that Shakespeare had done it that way in the first place. Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy and his subsequent falling-out with Ophelia is placed earlier in the play and is immediately followed by when Polonius attempts to question him only to get a series of "pregnant" replies. Considering that during the scene with Ophelia, Hamlet discovers that Polonius is spying on them, (that's the implication from the text, and I always see it interpreted that way) it makes far more sense that Hamlet would be so passive-aggressive toward the old man.

I'm often reluctant to give any sort of absolute statement on my feelings regarding a movie so soon after I've viewed it. However, I think it's safe to say that this very well might be my second-favorite Hamlet. If they were able to have the same production values (and kept Fortinbras in the ending) as Branagh's, it might very well have been my favorite.

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