Murder, some violence, sexual innuendoes, and Elizabethan oaths
Horatio’s parting words to the Prince of Denmark, “Good night, sweet Prince, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest,” bring to a close yet another version of HAMLET. In this case, Franco Zeffirelli directs Mel Gibson as the melancholy Dane, Alan Bates as the scheming Claudius, Glenn Close as his gullible, deceived mother, and thus gives us a masterpiece!
Zeffirelli’s HAMLET touches the story’s heart in its opening scene of the old king’s funeral. Thus, the new king’s line, “Think of us as a father,” is pregnant with meaning. Also established in this scene is Hamlet’s agonizing relationship with his mother who has become “my father’s brother’s wife” when Hamlet’s father has been dead only two months.
One of Shakespeare’s most outstanding tragedies, HAMLET is overflowing with marvelous, memorable lines–each pregnant with meanings that capture the heart, mind and soul of the viewer. In Hamlet’s discourse with Guilderstern and Rosencrantz, for example, Hamlet echoes Psalm eight: “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving, how express and admirable in action, how like an angel in apprehension, how like a god! The beauty of the world; the paragon of animals.”
Zeffirelli’s HAMLET admirably captures Hamlet’s struggles to avenge his father’s murder. Hamlet’s indecisiveness and ambivalence following the disclosure by his father’s ghost are reflected in his much-quoted soliloquy: “To be, or not to be, that is the question.” Of significance, modern audiences can relate to Hamlet’s agonizing problems. Today, our struggles come under the heading of stress, and we are often as indecisive as Hamlet in resolving our problems.
The film is also full of treachery, intrigue and violence as Hamlet seeks revenge. He resolutely feigns madness, gives up his love for Ophelia and kills the obnoxious Polonius. He also deals adroitly with the spies, Rosencrantz and Guilderstern, cleverly plans “a play within a play” with the travelling actors to “catch the conscience of the king,” and, finally, out-fences the treacherous Laertes, only to die by a poisoned sword.
Shakespeare’s Elizabethan English in HAMLET poses no real stumbling block for a modern viewer. The language, after all, is still English, but used more expansively and memorably. Also, the actors in this film give their lines convincingly with clarity and skill thereby overcoming most language barriers. The viewer does need to listen carefully in order to enjoy the music and depth of Shakespeare’s lines, however.
HAMLET is an extremely well-produced movie. The court setting has been imaginatively constructed so that the actors’ exits and entrances appear natural, not contrived. The costumes, while authentically reflecting medieval court dress, are simple and even plain.
The photography, overall, is splendid, too. Zeffirelli, for instance, frequently captures the sea in the background to frame his scenes. The realistic photography in the grave-digging scene where Hamlet addresses the skull of Yorick, the Court Jester, also proves memorable.
Best of all, Mel Gibson is believable and superb as Hamlet. The depth of his acting came as quite a pleasant surprise. Also, Alan Bates is perfect as Claudius. Unfortunately, Glenn Close and Helena Bonham-Carter are not as good as they could be. Ms. Close drifts into her fatal attraction character at times, while Helena does a superb mad scene, but fails to seem real or attractive in her early scenes with Hamlet. Thus, the audience wonders, “What does Hamlet see in this young woman?” Helena can do better and did so in LADY JANE (a great movie). Of course, the fault lies not with these two fine actresses, but probably with director Zeffirelli, whose own sexual ambiguity no doubt contributes to his fine direction of men and his spotty direction of women. However, Mr. Zeffirelli has done a superb job of trimming the four-hour epic into a fast-paced, entertaining film which captures the essence of the play and the total attention of the viewer.
Even with Shakespeare, however, there are some cautions for Christians. Ophelia’s “mad scene” contains fairly graphic sexual innuendo, to mention one place, and Elizabethan oaths can be close to modern day cursing with utterances such as “G d’s Blood.”
As commentators have noted, William Shakespeare, along with others of his day, shared a strong, biblical, Christian value system (In fact, recent commentators suggest that he must have been a Christian after analyzing his writing). Wrongs needed to be righted, and good must triumph over evil. When sin is covered over, the outcome is a tragic one, as we see in HAMLET. How refreshing to understand through a film like HAMLET that “he that covers his sin shall not prosper,” including that of marital infidelity, and to see God’s justice win out. MOVIEGUIDE highly recommends Zeffirelli’s HAMLET. It is a masterpiece and a must for every student of drama and every person who wants to be really entertained.
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