Wednesday, September 20, 2006

06 Mel Gibson

Hamlet played by Mel Gibson.
Directed by Franco Zeffirelli.

A surprisingly enjoyable rendition of the play, Franco Zeffirelli's film is gloriously free and easy with the text. It opens with the funeral of Hamlet Snr in which the young Dane is shown leaning over his father's coffin dropping in some of Claudius's pronouncement from Act I Scene II, dropping the first scene and appearance of the ghost entirely. Within the context of this version of the story, that works perfectly well, since in this adaptation anything extraneous to the central revenge story has been dropped, Hamlet's story being paramount (so as usual Fortinbras and the political intrigue are omitted too - although mention is made of the weakness of the state since Claudius snatched power and then spends much of his time having parties). Throughout the film, scenes and moments that are reported in the text are played out on screen, although no new words are given to the actors and characters, who without Shakespeare's wit are left to emote silently.

Film writer Kirsten Thompson believes that rather than having three acts, a typical screenplay and so film has four sections or chunks, each becoming apparent at a turning point. Once you're aware of the formulae, it can become maddening because in the average two hour film they become apparent with thudding regularity and you'll often spend some of your time (unless it's a really great film) watching for their appearance. This version of Hamlet adheres to this structure perfectly, proving that the filmmakers wanted to create a motion picture, rather than simply a filmed theatre production.

Essentially the first turning point occurs after the set up portion of a film when the lead character makes a discovery. This occurs just over half an hour into this Hamlet when the ghost advises his living son of his brother's murderous tendencies - this creates the problem for Hamlet. The next turning point is led by the acknowledgement of whatever the problem is. In this case, during The Mousetrap, Hamlet gets the proof he needed that the Ghost was telling the truth and that Claudius is guilty. The final turning point is the moment which can only inevitably lead to the climax. In this film it is tricky because that section is filled with incident, but I think it's supposed to be when Laertes challenges Hamlet to the duel therefore giving Hamlet the inevitable possibility of bringing the revenge.

Elsinore is a medieval castle, almost a ruin as though the decaying family at the heart of the story has writ large and broken through the walls. It's the image I'm sure most people have when they think of the landscape of the play although sometimes the ramparts don't quite match - this might be because filming took place at four castles (two in England, two in Scotland) as well as Shepperton Studios, but also introduces an element of the any place, of a broken history tumbling in on itself. The only bumpy moment is just after the ghost disappears after the revelation scene. For probably the only time during the film, Gibson is obviously standing on a set, a prop man possibly standing nearby with hose at the ready to keep the polystyrene stones wet.

Considering this was filmed and released at around the time of Air America and Lethal Weapon 3, when he was generally considered to be a 'star' rather than an 'actor' Mel Gibson's performance is beautifully layered and inspiring. On this occasion, Hamlet is faining madness, all the while observing Claudius, Polonius and his mother from doorways and walkways devining their intentions, always a step ahead. 'To Be Or Not To Be' is related within a mausoleum and is one of the few quiet moments when the man is allowed to be himself and contemplate his actions and the plots that are developing around him. These are not given to camera, and the only moment when the forth wall is broken, which is arguably the most effective in the whole film is after the pact that the ghosts existence will be kept secret - Gibson passively stares at the audience, bring them briefly into his world. Particularly good is the chemistry with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and this is one of the few occasions when they seem equals and you can actually believe that they are friends, old school friends, making their betrayal and Hamlet resulting reaction all the more chilling (this is obviously helped by having Michael Maloney playing Rosencrantz - he'll get a promotion in the Branagh version to Laertes).

The utter focus on Hamlet means that the other characters become supporting players to a much greater extent and unfortunately with a few exceptions, none of them really has a chance to make too much of a mark. Alan Bates is particularly blank, much of his menace reported rather than evident. I've never been a fan of Helena Bonham-Carter and although her decent into madness is all perfectly manic, her tender Ophelia simply didn't work for me - although even in the full text the character is somewhat underwritten, the really great young actresses can make it their own with a smile, a wink and some warmth in that scene she shares with Laertes. And although her already fraught appearance so early in the story was possibly a directorial decision, it fundamentally means that you're not convinced that Hamlet could love her, especially not one as regal as this. On the plus side, Ian Holm makes a predictably good Polonius and Glen Close passes the Gertrude test brilliantly. On this occasion, Hamlet really does convince that he is not mad after the death of Polonius making his and her death all the more tragic at the climax simply because she has not been able to watch her husband closely enough.

The usual oddities abound for cameo spotters. Nathaniel Parker, tv's Inspector Lynley plays Laertes looking surprisingly like Leonard Nimoy. Amongst the players and unheralded is Pete Postlethwaite and if you've ever wondered what Christopher Fairbank who played Moxey in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet would look like in a dress and a red wig, here's your chance. Reynaldo is played by one of the ultimate character faces Vernon Dobtcheff whose been everything from a scientist in Doctor Who (The War Games) to a butler during Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. A veteran too of many a Eurosoup production, I last remember seeing him ironically as the manager of the Shakespeare & Co bookshop in Richard Linklater's Paris based romance Before Sunset.