The recent “box office rebirth” of England’s favorite bard has left Hollywood with much to do about interpreting Shakespeare’s classic dramas. The characters of Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the gravedigger, and of course Hamlet himself take new life, as the greatest actors of our time assume these timeless roles.
Produced in 1990, Mel Gibson’s “Hamlet” is a more straightforward, highly edited version of the original text in comparison to Kenneth Brannagh’s lavish rendition of the same tale. At only 135 minutes, Gibson’s “Hamlet” might be considered “Shakespeare Light,” the cinematic equivalent of Cliff’s Notes. However, although Brannagh should be commended for sticking to the text, be forewarned about this “Hamlet”-by including every line of the original play, this movie clocks in at exactly 242 minutes.
The setting chosen for Brannagh’s and Gibson’s “Elsinore Castle” are as different as day and night, quite literally. And these bright and dark castle settings symbolically reinforce the specific “mood” or themes each director emphasizes.
For instance, the lugubrious Gibson feels perfectly at home in his dark and dank mansion, an ideal place for a grieving soul to maintain its ruefull descent. Conversely, the introspective Brannagh is continuously catching glimpses of himself and others (and into their true souls) in the mirror-lined ballrooms of his glistening castle.
Since Hamlet is, in its essence, truly a ghost story (so apropos for Halloween week!), each director has handled these “special effects” quite differently. Gibson gives a more stage-like handling of the ghost of Hamlet’s father, using only lighting to cast an eerie glow or flickering shadows on its actors. Brannagh, on the other hand, seeks to use every filmmaker’s device possible, including the light blue glowing eyes of Hamlet’s father and the “dry ice forest,” (both of which stretched the limits of viewers’ imagination). One special effect that worked very effectively was the use of “flashbacks” in a character’s memory, specifically in scenes which show Hamlet and Ophelia’s romantic (yet clandestine) relationship developing.
The greatest aspect of watching the Gibson and Brannagh films together is noticing the subtle differences between each actor’s expression of the same character. Both versions address, or evade, some of the most controversial issues in interpreting this play: Hamlet’s possible madness, his seemingly Oedipal relationship with his mother, and Ophelia’s suicidal demise.
Mel Gibson portrays a brooding, sullen-browed young Hamlet–moody, miserable yet clever and cunning, and always lurking in the dark corners of this ever-somber castle. By contrast, Brannagh commands the screen with a Hamlet more brash and emboldened than Gibson’s, a determined young man whose bright and opulent surroundings reflect a very intellectual, socially and politically astute strategist (not to mention pretentious snob!). Both tiptoe the line between sanity and madness, without ever fully crossing over into a psychological abyss.
With Glenn Close playing Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, Gibson intensifies the Oedipal overtones between the queen mother and her son. Beautiful, elegant, and intensely emotional, Gertrude exudes an exuberant yet refined sensuality throughout the early scenes of the film. Does she linger a little too long on the lips of Hamlet, or is this merely a joyous display of affection for her only son? The famous, and perhaps infamous, bedroom scene eventually shows the glamorous duo of Close and Gibson struggling against one another, and the final fencing scene also emphasizes this pair, their constant awareness of the other’s situation.
By casting the ethereal Close alongside the handsome Hamlet, Gibson focuses on the mother-son relationship versus the Ophelia-Hamlet romance, as Helena Bonham-Carter presents an overly passive, almost prepubescent and one-dimensional performance of Ophelia. Too young, too much manipulated by her father, Ophelia in her insanity scene merely shows a weak young woman overcome by her own pitiful plight. Because her relationship with Hamlet is never developed in Gibson’s “Hamlet,” Ophelia’s suicide is a merely an action that furthers the plot of Hamlet’s fate–it is not given consideration as the fate of Ophelia herself, a complex, passionate, and “three-dimensional” character in the play.
Brannagh’s casting of “Shakespeare’s women” gives an entirely different interpretation. To begin with, Julie Christie (as Gertrude) is downright homely in comparison to Glenn Close (check out the differences between the early “consoling scene” of each film in which Gertrude tells Hamlet that death is “common”). Thus, Christie is perfect for Brannagh’s interpretation–Hamlet seeks to avenge his father’s death not because of his Oedipal attraction to his mother (which would be too emotional and adolescent for this prince), but rather for some higher sense of truth and justice (perfect for the philosophical Brannagh). Christie is not the amiable, all-loving (or sensual) mother that we saw Close to be, and thus Gertrude’s “motivation” to marry the brother of her dead husband seems more about politics and power than pure passion. Her role in the movie and the sympathy she evokes in the viewers diminishes greatly as we view her (and her second husband) with suspicion and even aversion.
Yet Kate Winslet (also starring in “Sense and Sensibility,” “Heavenly Creatures”), cast as Ophelia, is simply breathtaking. Her presence on the screen commands the full attention of viewers, and Brannagh uses her charisma to create perhaps the most fully developed representation of Ophelia to be brought to any film. She is shown as a strong-willed, intelligent and independent young woman who is passionately in love (and lust!) with her eccentric prince. If you have seen and heard her grief expressed in “Heavenly Creatures,” then you will know that her “insanity scene” is the most harrowing display of a heart’s devastation that you might ever see. Her ethereal voice, her song of sadness, will be hard for viewers
With a cast of characters including Billy Crystal, Charlton Heston, Robin Williams and Jack Lemmon, Kenneth Brannagh’s “Hamlet” is a sure-hit among devoted “Shakespeare-philes.” Yet, the dynamic performances of the characters in Gibson’s “Hamlet” guarantee that both movies are even better appreciated when viewed, and compared, together.
One of the greatest aspects about Shakespeare’s plays is the never-ending interpretations and expressions that can be made–not only by film makers with their elaborate scenery and all-star casts, but also by each of us as viewers and, hopefully, as readers too.