Film Review: Hamlet (1990)


Hamlet is the most recognisable of all Shakespeare’s works and arguably one of the most popular plays in the history of world literature. As such, it served as basis for countless film adaptations. Some of the most interesting among them were made at the end of 20th Century – Gabriel Axel’s Prince of Jutland which explored Shakespeare’s sources and set the plot in half-mythical past of Dark Ages Denmark; Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 version which, despite being the slavishly faithful to Shakespeare’s text, turned into old school larger-than-life Hollywood epic; and Michael Almereyda’s 2000 version which with great ingenuity set the plot in modern day corporate Manhattan. Inevitable comparisons with those three films make Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 version look bland and underwhelming.

The plot, like most traditional versions, is set in medieval Denmark. It begins when King (played by Paul Scofield) dies after which his widow Gertrude (played by Glenn Close) waits only two months before marrying King’s brother and new monarch Claudius (played by Alan Bates). All that troubles her son, Prince Hamlet (played by Mel Gibson) and even more so when he meets father’s ghost that tells him that he was murdered by his own brother. At first sceptical, Hamlet sets the clever trap for Claudius and discover that the ghost actually told the truth and then begins to feign madness while plotting his own revenge. In the meantime, Claudius begins to suspect that Hamlet has discovered the truth and begins plotting his own scheme to get rid of increasingly dangerous nephew.

Franco Zeffirelli was very good choice to direct this film, because some of his best known and successful works were adaptations of Shakespeare, most notably 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet, which has appealed to the young audience by interpreting the play as a tale of teenage rebellion. Zeffirelli, to a certain degree, tried to do the same thing with Hamlet. Although he chose Mel Gibson for lead role after being immensely impressed by his intense performance as Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon, Gibson’s being at the zenith of his popularity as major Hollywood star also played part in it and the general idea was that his face on the poster would attract armies of his fans. Gibson was enthusiastic about project trying to prove himself as a serious actor and not just good-looking star of action films. When most Hollywood studios refused to back the project, Gibson has founded his own production company for that very purpose.

The result of Zeffirelli’s and Gibson’s efforts was, however, disappointing. Gibson, to his credit, handles the role very well, obviously unimpressed with the rest of the cast that included legendary Shakespearean actors that could have played such roles in their sleep, like Alan Bates or Paul Scofield. He plays Hamlet with great intensity and lot of physicality, especially during the sword fight at the end which is staged like the scenes in his action films. The rest of cast doesn’t fare that well – Glenn Close is a little bit restrained in her role of Gertrude and her role comes to life only in a brief moment that makes the audience question true nature of her character’s relationship with Hamlet. Helena Bonham-Carter is good in her role, but she is underused. Zeffirelli and his co-writer Christopher De Vore have tried to make the film accessible to modern audience by removing almost half of Shakespeare’s text. The idea was streamline and simplify the plot. Unfortunately, they haven’t done anything with Shakespeare’s dialogues that sound archaic and too theatrical and shatter audience’s suspension of disbelief. Production design of Dante Ferretti and rather forgettable score by Ennio Morricone doesn’t shatter impression that Zeffirelli’s Hamlet is just another mainstream and rather unimaginative adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. Fans of Mel Gibson might like it, but those that appreciate Shakespeare would likely prefer to watch something different.

RATING: 5/10 (++)

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