The common impression seems to be that Shakespeare is boring – and that his tragedies consist of oddly-dressed people standing around declaiming famous quotes without any action (other than killing people) whatsoever. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet debunks both these notions. With superb cast, stellar acting, and staying word-for-word true to the original play, it suggests that the reason some consider Shakespeare dull and old-fashioned is not Shakespeare’s fault – it’s the fault of the actors!
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet is a reprising of the actors’ roles on stage, filmed on set, instead of in a theatre. And the acting is great. Those common misimpressions of Shakespeare and his tragedies were rather what I thought myself before I watched this movie.
First of all on the plot itself: (assuming you don’t know it, although you probably do) Hamlet is the story of young Prince Hamlet, suddenly faced with the fact that his uncle, now king, murdered the previous king, Hamlet’s father, and seduced his mother. The ghost of his father calls out for revenge – but in following it Hamlet could lose his friendship, his love, his sanity, even his life.
Doctor Who fans (and just for the record, I’m not one of them. I’ve never watched an episode in my life, so I come to this movie totally unbiased) will recognize David Tennant, who plays Hamlet.
And he did an amazing job.
It takes a lot to be shot onto Maria’s Favorite Actors List after being seen in only one role – and that a Shakespearean tragedy. But it happened. Tennant doesn’t just act Hamlet, he doesn’t just stand around declaiming famous soliloquies, he is Hamlet. From the moody youth grieving for his father, to the joking and supposedly mad prince, to the rapidly maddening young man with his life in shambles around him, he plays it understandably and with a real grasp of the character.
Ophelia, the simple, likeable girl Hamlet was in love with, is essentially a tragic character. First listening to Hamlet pour out his love for her, warned by everyone to refuse him at all costs, having him act unaccountably violent towards her and later knowing (SPOILERS, SPOILERS) he killed her father. It’s no wonder the girl doesn’t know what’s happened to her life. I came to Hamlet with the idea that Ophelia was the lovely damsel in some of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings, so at first I wasn’t pleased with Mariah Gale playing her. But in the end I had great respect for her portrayal. Ophelia is shown as a normal girl, not ugly but hardly gorgeous either, just naïve, used as a pawn, terrified at what’s happening around her.
Patrick Stewart (familiar to Star Trek fans - and I'm not one of them either) as Claudius could be considered the villain (perhaps ‘a’ villain) of the piece. He partly comes across as a nice old grandfather, which might be one of the reasons no one suspects him of foul play. But he is also a murdered and usurper who, although briefly toys with repentance, cannot forego the advantages he gets from his crime. His queen, Gertrude is a woman with feelings, actually caring for her alienated son, sometimes horrified at the consequences of her and Claudius’ schemes. One of the mysteries of the play is whether Gertrude aided and abetted Claudius’ schemes, or whether didn’t know and was almost as terrified and naïve as Ophelia. Either way, she is hardly a woman of strong moral character.
I was surprised at how funny the first part of this movie is. I didn't get the impression of jokes when I read the play, but they're there, in abundance. Polonius, Ophelia's father, is actually one of the funnier characters and some of Hamlet's 'mad' antics give it a tone of lightheartedness.
But halfway through, the play sobers up. This is a movie that I wouldn't recommend for children. Aside from a high level of emotional intensity, (the acting is very well done, in the scene with Hamlet and his mother you'd be scared of him, if you didn't like him so much) this is a tragedy. Which means that most of the characters will be lying dead on the floor by the last scene. It's not gory but the amount of deaths within a short proximity of each other is really almost ridiculous.
Something to take caution in: in part of Ophelia's mad scene (one of the most heartwrenching scenes in the whole piece) she is shown in only her underclothes. So you might want to be careful about that.
Another thing to note is that although vengeance is a main theme of the play and movie, it is not as though they support it. How can it condemn vengeance more than by having everyone who pursued it dead on the floor at the last scene? And I would suggest it's the same with the ghost - not saying that ghosts exist, but a plot device and a reminder that a murder doesn't stay quietly forgotten. For an excellent Christian analysis of Hamlet I would highly recommend Brightest Heaven of Invention by Peter J. Leithart.
Okay, this is a rambling review.
Anyways, one thing I wanted to comment on is the fact that they wear modern clothes. Yes, they say nothing but what Shakespeare wrote, but they dress in suits and ties. Being the historical fashion nut I am, I expected not to like this, but I actually did. The clothes of Shakespeare or Hamlet's (whichever they chose) would have made the guys look especially wimpy. Suits and ties, with the occaisonal T-shirt, worked quite well and you could think of the characters more like real people than if we
So did I love this movie! Absolutely! Would I recommend it? Not to children, but to high-school students studying Hamlet, to anyone who loves Shakespeare and anyone who thinks it's boring, I would.