Alas, poor Mel Gibson! I knew him when he was on top of the world.
In 1990 Mel Gibson was on top of the world. He was the star of the Lethal Weapon and Mad Max series of films along with many others, some, like The Year of Living Dangerously, even critically respected. In 1985 he was People Magazine's original Sexiest Man Alive. As popular as he was at the time though, the idea of his portraying Hamlet was a bold one. It certainly wasn't an obvious choice either by the filmmakers or by Gibson himself. Not only does he deserve credit for taking on the role, he actually does a surprisingly good job in the part.
Isaac Asimov told a story of a woman who read Hamlet for the first time and said, "I don't see why people admire that play so. It is nothing but a bunch of quotations strung together." It's an amusing anecdote, but the play does indeed contain so many famous lines that have been quoted endlessly that you can almost excuse her. It certainly contains the six most famous written words in the English language with "To be, or not to be". Everyone is familiar with that sentence and most would recognize dozens of others even if they've never actually seen the play performed.
Certainly more people saw this version of Hamlet because of Gibson's presence than would normally have seen it and that can only be a good thing. I view this version almost like one of those old classic comics where great works of literature were turned into comic books. Those comics acted as an introduction to those stories and this movie does the same.
Surely everyone is familiar with the story of Hamlet. He is the prince of Denmark whose father, the king, has died. Instead of Hamlet ascending to the throne, his uncle has taken the crown and Hamlet's mother for his own. When the ghost of Hamlet's father visits him, Hamlet learns that his father was murdered by his uncle and Hamlet swears revenge. Pretending to be mad, Hamlet plots and plans, but seems unable to bring himself to actually take action. It may sound like a medieval soap opera and really it is, but it is also full of meaning, deep themes regarding the very nature of life and death while also containing some of the most beautiful writing ever put on paper.
This version was directed by Franco Zeffirelli who had also directed Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in The Taming of the Shrew as well as the definitive film version of Romeo & Juliet. More than just casting Gibson in the lead, Zeffirelli mixes up the play by editing it to a great degree and changing some of the dialogue, even going so far to reassign some of the lines to different characters. He also lays out the story and motivations very plainly, leaving very little to interpretation. This has the effect of speeding up the story and makes it more accessible to mainstream audiences.
One often mentioned aspect of the film is the closeness in age between Hamlet and his mother played by Glenn Close who is just 9 years older than Gibson. The closeness in their ages is accentuated by the youthful portrayal of Close who runs and practically skips with joy at the beginning of the film for all the world like a giddy schoolgirl in love for the first time. The Oedipal angle is certainly played up strongly in this version, particularly in the bedroom scene between Gertrude and Hamlet and their closeness in age makes this side of things even clearer.
Gibson does well in the lead role. He's an energetic Hamlet and his natural comic charm bleeds into the character occasionally, but overall he is surprisingly capable. His isn't the most nuanced of portrayals, but it's effective nonetheless. He certainly proved those critics wrong who assumed he would embarrass himself just trying. I actually think it was quite brave of him to do the role at all and shows that he was not only a huge star, but also a serious actor.
The look of the film is quite beautiful. Three different castles and numerous sets were used to recreate Elsinore castle where most of the story takes place. There are twists and turns amongst the turrets and throne rooms and is exactly what we expect a castle to look like.
Hamlet purists and Shakespeare snobs may turn their nose up or dismiss this version, but it is surprisingly entertaining and well made nonetheless.
Glenn Close and Mel Gibson emote in Hamlet.
Scott's comparison of this movie to those old comic book versions of classic novels is apt. Like those comics, Zeffirelli aimed this Hamlet squarely at the masses. The dialogue has been greatly reduced and simplified, and, as my brother wrote, it is edited more like an action flick than your typical cinematic rendering of Shakespeare. The director has always done the Bard much better than he handles contemporary films such as Endless Love or his completely unnecessary remake of The Champ. Zeffirelli's penchant for melodrama suits the larger than life quality of Shakespeare's stories and these incredbly vividly written characters, but it sometimes seems forced and false in the modern world.
The casting of Gibson in the most famous role in the history of history was an unexpected move not seen in Hollywood since Marlon Brando famously played Mark Antony in the 1953 version of Julius Caesar. Gibson carries it off with a very physical performance. There's nothing subtle about his soul searching or his torment but Gibson has three things needed for the part down pat; anguish, bitterness, and anger. He spits and snarls out lines like a caged animal. He brings nothing new to his readings of some of the most famous spoken sentences in the English language, but, as Scott already mentioned, neither does he embarrass himself.
As unlikely as it seems, Glenn Close had never previously acted in a Shakespearean production, on the stage or on the screen, before playing Hamlet's mother Gertrude in this movie. Despite being just nine years older than Gibson she is nonetheless believable as his mother. Especially when compared to Laurence Olivier's vaunted 1948 version in which he played the titular Prince of Denmark. His mother was portrayed by the 12 years younger Eileen Herlie! Close matches Gibson grimace for grimace and shriek for shriek as they compete for the audience's attention. Close winning by a nose as she gives one of the hammiest death scenes in the history of cinema. But these words were meant to soar and together Gibson and Close race each other up the giddy slope of overacting.
Helena Bonham Carter makes an impression as the tragic Ophelia. Her descent into a misty madness leading to a watery grave is tenderly wrought. Ophelia has always been the saddest of characters. As her brother Laertes laments, ”Oh Heavens, is it possible a young maid's wits can be as mortal as an old man's life?”
The remainder of the pedigreed cast all give solid readings. Alan Bates is perfectly despicable as Claudius, and Paul Scofield is memorable in the small but important role of The Ghost. Bates had previously played Hamlet on stage, as had Scofield, who was considered to be one of the preeminent Shakespearean actors of the Twentieth Century. Ian Holm embodies the gregarious sophistry of Polonius.
The first time I saw a movie adaptation of Shakespeare was in high school. In my junior year British Literature class we watched Zeffirelli's Romeo & Juliet. I can think of no other filmmaker who has been able so successfully to translate Shakespeare onto celluloid. Zefferelli proves the truth about the Bard's work. These plays weren't written to be highbrow. It is only the constantly changing English language that has made them seem so. Zeffirelli cuts to the heart of the story. He simplifies and updates the Bard's language while remaining faithful to the spirit and emotional truth of the original play.
For modern audiences there is no better entrance into the world of William Shakespeare than through the work of Franco Zeffirelli, and there's no better place to begin than Hamlet.
Photos © Copyright Warner Bros. Pictures (1990)