Shakespeare 450: Hamlet (1990) - DVD Review

2014 marks what would have been William Shakespeare's 450th birthday. In celebration of this (and being something of a Shakespeare nut) Ben intends to spend the year taking in as many Shakespeare films as he can - from old favourites to new interpretations and everything in between.

'It seems Gibson has no idea of the meaning, let alone the poetry, in Shakespeare's words'.

Often overshadowed by Kenneth Branagh’s four-hour epic released later on in the 1990s, Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet is in many ways a worthy alternative for those who prefer their rotten state of Denmark delivered in a more efficient manner. But if you’ve ever doubted that one dodgy piece of casting can bring down an entire film, then Mel Gibson as Shakespeare’s titular prince will change your mind.

Allegedly selected by Zeffirelli for the role based on his performance as mentally unstable LA cop Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon (obviously before the character became a wisecracking family man later on in the franchise), Gibson as Hamlet is at best odd, at worst laughably dire. The casting must have been even more distracting at the time of the film’s release, with Gibson purely a name within the action genre in the early ‘90s. Zeffirelli’s reasoning pays off a few times, with some of Hamlet’s loopier moments handled relatively successfully by Gibson, but the film’s many subtler moments are simply beyond the actor’s style and ability. There are regularly moments where it seems Gibson has no idea of the meaning, let alone the poetry, in Shakespeare's words - the “to be or not to be” speech has never been so cringeworthy. Simply put, Gibson’s casting is a choice which undeniably and irreparably damages Zeffirelli’s film.

What makes this even more frustrating is that, if you are able to look past Gibson in the lead role, much of Zeffirelli’s version of Hamlet is really rather good. The rest of the cast is comprehensively excellent, with the placement of cinematic heavyweights including Glenn Close and Alan Bates in key roles working brilliantly alongside Shakespearean veterans such as Ian Holm and Paul Schofield in support. Despite having some of her key scenes with Hamlet clipped or merged together, a young Helena Bonham Carter crafts Ophelia superbly with her final scenes depicting the character’s descent into insanity some of the strongest in the whole film.

Zeffirelli’s craftsmanship is also clear throughout Hamlet, the director by this point an old hand at transforming Shakespeare’s plays into truly cinematic experiences. Zeffirelli’s Denmark is a richly realised and tangibly fraught setting which feels faithful to Shakespeare’s original mise-en-scène.

As Shakespeare’s longest play, the question of script editing when filming Hamlet is a vital one, and unfortunately one that Zeffirelli and his co-screenwriter Christopher De Vore don’t always get right. The introduction of King Hamlet’s ghost (Schofield) at the start of the play feels rushed, rendering the opening act somewhat unsteady. The choice to overlap Hamlet and Ophelia’s “get thee to a nunnery” dialogue onto the play-within-a-play scene also feels misjudged. That said, managing to squeeze the whole story into not much more than two hours whilst retaining many of the plot’s intricacies is impressive in itself, and Zeffirelli’s abridgement of the play overall is more success than failure.

Without Gibson at its centre, Zeffirelli’s Hamlet would have emerged as a solid and entertaining straight cinematic adaptation of the play. Gibson’s miscasting costs the film dearly however, and will likely overshadow the many positive elements of Zeffirelli’s film forevermore.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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