Kozintsev’s Hamlet, like his King Lear, is one of those movies that are obviously made for a big screen. The locations are detailed and impressive in their scope, effectively setting the scene for a huge imaginary world inspired by Shakespeare’s great play. Each scene has its own visual style and particular ambience. You will thrill, trust me, to the first shot of the ghost of Hamlet’s father, ominously dominating the screen, clad in dark armor and wearing a cape that billows slowly in the wind like a gathering thunder-cloud.
Hamlet, prince of Denmark, has recently made a speedy return to his native country because of the death of his father, old king Hamlet. However, Hamlet did not move fast enough, for at his return he finds that his father’s brother, his uncle Claudius, has already claimed the throne for himself. And married the widowed queen, too. Is it any wonder that Hamlet is moody? Suspicious? That his mind misgives? Already angry, distracted and irritable, a mind-blowing (and mind-numbing?) visitation from his father’s ghost makes Hamlet full-on depressed, almost drowning in melancholia. Yet his father asks him to put things right; to revenge his foul murder, and Hamlet vows to do so. It is deeply sworn indeed: “Yea, from the table of my memory I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records, all saws of books, all forms, all pressures past, that youth and observation copied there, and thy commandment all alone shall live within the book and volume of my brain, unmix’d with baser matter.”
Hamlet does not forget. But he doubts. He throws about his brains, he weighs his options, ponders how to obtain proof, how to be certain that the ghost is not an evil spirit. Plans within plans are churning in his mind, but he hesitates – and although he makes progress, he keeps hesitating, until the big finish, when another prince who is a mirror of all Hamlet’s virtues and qualities except his hesitation comes along to solve the big problem, namely the wholesale overthrow of Claudius’ corrupt rule. As Fortinbras takes Denmark, Hamlet has gotten himself into a mess that he doesn’t get out of alive. In the Danish court, only Horatio remains alive to recount the tragic tale of “carnal, bloody and unnatural acts; of accidental judgments, casual slaughters; of deaths put on by cunning and forc’d cause; and, in this upshot, purposes mistook fall’n on th’ inventors’ heads.”
There is an infinity of questions and topics to be discussed in this play. Let me choose one thing to focus on. The thing in which Hamlet will catch the conscience of the king: the play within the play. The Murder of Gonzago. Or, as Hamlet cunningly names it, The Mousetrap. This is one of the most complex sequences in the play, for several reasons. For one thing, Hamlet claims that he has written a dozen or sixteen lines and inserted into the play. And he discusses at length with the Player King how to act his lines, demonstrating that indeed those lines have been added. And yet it has never been quite clear just which lines are Hamlet’s work. Also, it is generally assumed that both Hamlet’s lines and The Mousetrap itself are meant for Claudius. He is the one who must be entrapped, whose murder of the king must be reflected by the murder of Gonzago. Yes, but the thing is, the play within the play never really gets beyond the prologue. It should, at least in my opinion, be becoming increasingly clear that Hamlet’s lines are not limited to a dozen or sixteen; he in fact wrote the entire hundred lines spoken by the Player King and Player Queen, all of which is an added scene to The Murder of Gonzago. The actual Gonzago play only starts afterward. It is this added scene only, and not in fact The Murder of Gonzago that Hamlet terms The Mousetrap. And “mouse” is Claudius’ pet name for Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. Hence, most of what we see of the play within the play is actually intended for Gertrude to react on. That is why, at the close of these 100 lines, Hamlet inquires of the queen how she likes it, and she has a reaction (“The lady doth protest too much”), whereas Claudius at this point has no idea what’s going on, or that anything at all can be reacted to. That, of course, changes as the actual Murder of Gonzago gets underway. Hamlet underscores the action in the following scene, clearly connecting it with Claudius’ crime of murder by poison, and Claudius immediately rises and stops the play.
The interesting thing is how this is all played and interpreted by different performances. I contrasted Branagh’s brilliant updated Hamlet adaptation from 1996 with Kozintsev’s. Branagh, in his film, does offer, during The Mousetrap (cinematically a very good, complex and perhaps slightly over-dramatic sequence, where we see a lot of courtiers reacting), about two brief shots of Gertrude, in one of which she swallows, understanding some of the Player Queen’s relevance to herself and her former husband, the king. But during the same sequence Branagh also shows Claudius about a dozen times, reacting much more strongly to the same action! Before the symbolical reenactment of his own murder of Old Hamlet. That in fact does not make any sense. As per the text of the play, Claudius is only puzzled by the lack of conflict (“offence”) in the scene with the Player King and Player Queen. That scene only has meaning for Gertrude.
Kozintsev, on his part, gets this. In his film, Claudius is just smiling placidly throughout The Mousetrap, like any bystander not sensing any imminent danger, nor indeed anything amiss, whereas Gertrude is clearly disturbed by the scene, following it intensely with what might be construed as a guilty demeanor. It is still not as clear as I would personally have liked it to be, but it beats Branagh’s interpretation in the case of this sequence. In many other aspects, however, it is Branagh’s adaptation that tends to be superior.
Kozintsev, while cutting considerable chunks of text (necessary, if you don’t want the play to run to four hours), makes many scenes slightly simpler but therefore also more clear. For instance, the second visitation of the ghost comes just as Hamlet is shaking Gertrude around so much that she falls to the floor, and bam! There’s the ghost, come specifically to remind Hamlet of the one thing he was told not to do on the first visition: “Do not contrive against thy mother aught”. The ghost goes out of his way to emphasize that Gertrude is not to blame; if she has done objectionable things, it is because her emotions, not her reason or any ill will, drove her to it.
While Kozintsev’s Hamlet adaptation is great, and clearly the inspiration for more than one scene of Branagh’s version, it is not perfect. Most productions of Shakespeare’s plays are, as they should be, character dramas, but Kozintsev’s Hamlet is not, or only barely so. In a production that is more cinema than theater, it is the world, the backdrop, the scenery that is given most of the director’s attention and that commands most of ours. Very few of the characters in this adaptation seem to have any strong personality or memorable presence (although part of what creates that impression may be the language barrier, and also the fact that the 26” television screen I watched the film on does not begin to do the cinematic scope of the production justice), and they are very rarely shown in close-ups. Rather, they seem to be wandering around in the lavish and richly realized background, almost too firmly rooted in the texture of their universe. Hamlet, of course, is in focus, and so, much more than the others, are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. But Claudius seems colorless and one-dimensional (and gets no proper death scene), and none of the other major players – Ophelia, Polonius, Gertrude, Horatio, Laertes – ever really come to the fore. The comedy of the play – for as Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells has observed, Hamlet really has much more comedy in it than any other Shakespeare tragedy – is almost entirely absent as well. There are a few scenes clearly done for their chuckle value (such as when Hamlet needs to remove a pebble from his shoe), but Polonius, who is supposed to be the fool and comic relief of the play, has hardly any personality at all, and is certainly never funny. Perhaps the point of Kozintsev’s production is that all the characters are inmates in the prison of Denmark (hey, there’s an idea! Someone ought to do a Hamlet that is actually set in a prison!), and therefore neither particularly expressive nor merry. After all, this is Soviet-era material, and probably designed to reflect some crucial aspect of the Russian social experience.
There is revolution here, too. When Laertes returns from France to avenge his father’s death, he does so with, in Shakespeare’s words, a “rebellion [that] looks so giant-like”. Kozintsev does not neglect to make a big deal out of this sequence, with Laertes accompanied by armed and resolute peasants who break into Elsinore castle, killing several guards. Sadly, as Laertes agrees to be ruled by Claudius, his peasant brothers-in-arms are all arrested and tied up. The rebellious effort was an admirable attempt to clean up the corruption of the Danish court, but it was not strong enough.
By the end we have Fortinbras arriving in Denmark. In the Kozintsev version it is not clear whether he and his army arrive as conquerors or simply as allies to Hamlet. I actually like this better than Branagh’s version where they very specifically arrive as conquerors. The big question is whether Fortinbras comes to take Denmark for his own, or whether he comes as a friend to Hamlet, wanting only to liberate the kingdom from Claudius and place Hamlet on the throne. I believe the latter; after all, Fortinbras only has nice things to say about Hamlet, and seems to have expected that Hamlet would have been the new king. Therefore I disagree with the many versions of the ending that have Fortinbras and his army as ruthless, sometimes even fascist conquerors, rather than demontrating Fortinbras to be the person that Hamlet should have been, namely the hero king who brings peace and harmony to the country and ensures a happy ending to the story.
In my view Shakespeare’s tragedies can be divided into true tragedies and false tragedies; the latter are the ones which actually end with a new and positive social order replacing the flawed old one. Interestingly, both Hamlet and King Lear fall into the false tragedy category, while Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra, for instance, are true tragedies.
This new region 2 DVD release from distributor Mr. Bongo is superior to the 2006 American regionfree release in that its subtitles are much better. For some reason, the subs on the American release skips just about every other sentence, and has typos and errors to boot, all of which has been corrected in the new European release, where the subtitles are almost perfect. Almost, because there are still places where they disappear too quickly, as in the King Lear release. But the problem is smaller here.
However, this release has no extra features beyond chapter selection, whereas the American disc was accompanied by an informative 22-page booklet. I also felt that the picture on the American DVD was a mite sharper than on this new release, but I couldn’t swear to it. In any case, this is the kind of movie that deserves, and hopefully will one day get, a Blu-ray treatment.
Grigori Kozintsev’s Hamlet is out on DVD 17th October 2011.
Director: Grigori Kozintsev
Cast: Innokenti Smoktunovsky, Elza Radzina, Anastasiya Vertinskaya, Mikhail Nazvanov and others
Runtime: 142 min.