Being a native Dane, it is a special thrill for me to see a Hamlet adaptation actually shot at Kronborg Castle in Elsinore – a castle that was newly built in Shakespeare’s day, and has an entire church built into it. I have been to the castle several times, so I recognize the halls, the chandeliers, the plentiful arrases and the surrounding battlements displayed in this television film. The location, however, is not used as well as it might have been, because most shots are close-ups of the actors’ faces, leaving very little of the background in view. The black and white master tape is also somewhat faded and smeared, the BBC apparently having opted not to do a proper remastering of it (for which I cannot blame them, as this is hardly best-selling material). Still, although the picture and sound are not up to current standards, nor are they below 1964 standards, and the adaptation remains eminently watchable.
Well, “watchable” is really an understatement – it is actually a lot better than that. Once you accept the 1964 production values, what we have here is one of the most astounding Hamlet versions yet made. There are some very noticeable textual cuts, but the acting and directing manage to compensate with impressive intelligence. The scene constructions and the facial expressions (and the choice of the cuts) constantly help to make the spoken words meaningful and understandable in such clear and subtle ways that I have never seen the like. When Hamlet is first told of the ghost’s appearance by Horatio, it is plain that he doesn’t really believe it – not in any overt sense, but by way of an overbearing demeanor. Not dissimilar to the patient forbearance with which Laertes listens to his father’s “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” speech. Honestly, I can’t help but feeling that this quality of acting, comprising so much of the real narrative of a play, is nearly lost to current cinema and television. It is rare enough in Shakespeare adaptations.
When Hamlet encounters his father’s ghost, this version departs radically from others. Here we do not see the ghost, but rather sees Hamlet from the ghost’s point of view. Then we hear the ghost speak, first in a croaking voice, as if half asphyxiated, and then in a higher pitch, and then repeatedly spanning the range from calm to shouting, culminating in horrid despair. In short, exactly the way you would imagine a real, suffering and properly frightening ghost to speak. Quite breathtaking, and with a harrowing effect on Plummer’s Hamlet.
Later, as Hamlet has met the players and started on his “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I” speech, the initial climax of it – “Bloody bawdy villain! Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain! O, vengeance!” – is not from the heart, but is Hamlet’s stumbling attempt to act out his just-mentioned cue for passion, in imitation of the Player King. A great idea for that scene, which I have not seen performed that way before.
As the Mousetrap unfolds, Claudius is clearly “marvelous distempered” with drink, which makes him react all the more strongly to it. Besides the “posy of a ring” prologue, all the Player King and Player Queen dialogue of the Mousetrap is cut, leaving only the dumbshow, but it works well. Even Gertrude sees the effect the poisoning of Gonzago has on Claudius. Gertrude, incidentally, has a rather large birthmark above her upper lip; undoubtedly to show that she is stained with a “vicious mole of nature”. The scene in her bedchamber, where Polonius is killed, is perhaps the clearest demonstration I have even seen of how Hamlet’s words penetrate her heart like daggers, and she starts understanding, in emotional full, what Claudius has done. Sadly, though, she does not refrain from the king’s bed as Hamlet suggests she should, which deflates the impact of that scene a bit. In Branagh’s film, as I judge it, Gertrude actually does largely forsake Claudius hereafter, staying with him only for the sake of appearances.
Hamlet and Laertes’ final duel in this version is played pretty straight, with Claudius’ lines sort of interrupting the ritualized proceedings. As in several other places in this adaptation, the sequence of events is slightly rearranged, but once more it works well here. As Hamlet runs to his poison-weakened mother, Claudius gives a sign to Laertes to prick Hamlet with the envenomed rapier. As Hamlet speaks his last words in Horatio’s arms, Horatio is deeply stricken and seems firmly decided on following Hamlet in death, but of course he is won over by those extraordinary words: “If thou didst even hold me in thy heart, absent thee from felicity awhile, and in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain, to tell my story.”
In general, Polonius is effectively comical, Michael Caine’s Horatio is a pillar of reason and stability (except for that final, teary scene), Ophelia is standard but well-acted, and a young Donald Sutherland’s brief stint as a Fortinbras with bad teeth is disconcertingly strange. Dyson Lovell’s Laertes doesn’t have that much to do, as his rebellious return scene has been cut altogether, but his performance is in the same great league as the rest.
The textual cuts also provide the benefit of giving the rest of the words more space. In Branagh’s 1996 Hamlet film, which admirably uses all of the text, much of it has to take place at a furious rate, rarely giving the words time to sink in; never insisting on the luxury of dwelling on certain pregnant passages. This 1964 version, in contrast, does insist on that luxury, enabling the audience to be caught up in the fascinating depth of the poetry by creating a dreaming and philosophical ambience that provokes a great many intriguing thoughts. Christopher Plummer’s acting sensibility is a much better fit for a thoughtful pace than for a performance overly steeped in frenetic action, and in this Hamlet we see Plummer at his level best; at his undeniable career pinnacle. This is the thirteenth Hamlet version I have watched on DVD, and it is among the top three.
The second disc of this 2-disc package (a Region 1 release) contains a new 90-minute interview with Plummer, much of which is spent talking about this and other Shakespeare productions. It is both informative and funny; every bit as entertaining as you have any right to expect. However, there is no extra material relating specifically to the original production, which is slightly disappointing. Still, the BBC deserves kudos for this splendid release.
Director: Philip Saville
Cast: Christopher Plummer, Michael Caine, Robert Shaw, Alec Clunes, Jo Maxwell Muller, June Tobin, Dyson Lovell, Roy Kinnear, Donald Sutherland.
Runtime: 166 min.