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.
Photos © Copyright Warner Bros. Pictures (1990)