After finally watching, for the first time, Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996) (click here for my review), I thought it would be fun to crack open the other production of Hamlet I had sitting on my DVD shelf — the BBC’s 2009 version starring Patrick Stewart and David Tennant!
While I certainly enjoyed Mr. Branagh’s version, I was really much more engaged by the BBC’s effort (despite my assumption that it was made for a much smaller budget)!
Mr. Branagh’s version had a more modern look to it than one might be used to thinking of Hamlet – his film seemed to be set around the era of WWI, with trains, newspapers, etc. The BBC’s Hamlet is even more modern than that — this Elsinore castle contains electronic surveillance cameras, a character wields a handgun, and many of the actors wear modern-looking collar-shirts and ties. Some aspects of this modernity were a bit jarring — the device of our occasionally seeing scenes play out through the castle’s surveillance cameras continually felt distracting to me, and the choice of Hamlet’s outfit during the “to be or not to be” speech and the key scenes that followed (jeans and a muscle t-shirt) was weird — but for the most part, the film found a potent sweet spot between modernity and timelessness.
Then there were the scenes in which the film was decidedly NOT timeless, but in a purposeful way that really worked. I laughed out loud, for instance, at the moment when Ophelia pulls a bunch of condoms out of her brother Laertes’ bag early in the film. (It was a decidedly unexpected way to show her gently mocking her brother for the rather condescending speech of advice he had just given her.) And speaking of Ophelia and unexpected, I was not expecting Ophelia to strip down to her bra while freaking out in front of the king and queen after her father’s death! (Though I’m not complaining, mind you.) Those are two extreme examples — I don’t want to suggest that the filmmakers were falling all over themselves in order to make Shakespeare “hip.” This is a series, dramatic presentation of the play. But it’s also one in which the creative team was unafraid to add in a surprising twist or reinterpretation of a famous moment here and there, in a way that keeps viewers powerfully engrossed. (At least this viewer.)
I loved the look of the Elsinore castle sets, particularly the throne room in which much of the film takes place (a sign, to me, of a far less expansive budget than that of Mr. Branagh’s film, which was able to open up the story into many different sets and locales). But I didn’t mind that, like a play, so much of the film took place in that one room. I loved the look of the set — all sleek dark tiles and mirrors, and the austere, sparse sets focused our attention on the characters and the drama in a way that gave the film a far more intimate feel than that of Mr. Branagh’s. I really enjoyed that. I also really dug the costumes, for the most part. I particularly liked the look of Patrick Stewart’s outfits as king Claudius. Most of the costumes were black, like the sets, giving the film an interestingly monochromatic feel — and they were similarly sleek and simple, but not too simple.
The cast, though with far less star wattage than that of Mr. Branagh’s film, is quite excellent. I was a bit dubious going in, but I’ve got to say that I think I preferred Mr. Tennant’s performance as Hamlet over that of Mr. Branagh. His Hamlet is a more centered creature than that of Mr. Branagh, with fewer wild zigzags of emotion up and down. Mr. Tennant is quite facile with Shakespeare’s words, bringing great emotion and context to the speeches in a way that really made it easy for me, as a viewer, to follow along with his meaning, his shifting feelings, his puns and his jibes. He also makes some surprising shifts into silliness, making faces and creating voices, all part of Hamlet’s near-constant efforts to mock and undermine those he hates or merely looks down upon. And boy, does he knock some of the big speeches out of the park — most notably the “to be or not to be” speech and the “rogue and peasant slave” monologue.
No surprise, Patrick Stewart is a magnificent, dominant force in the film as king Claudius. What did surprise me — pleasantly! — was the way that Mr. Stewart, who I have seen really chew the scenery when cut loose — underplays much of his dialogue in the film. I was sort of expecting Mr. Stewart’s Claudius to be an imposing, snarling monster — but Mr. Stewart makes the far more clever choice to play Claudius as quiet, dignified, and at times almost gentle. At times, this Claudius seems like an endearing grandpa, such as in the scene that introduces Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, which Mr. Stewart plays in such a way that indicates that he — like many audiences over the years! — has confused which one is which. Though, make no mistake, Mr. Stewart does give us glimpses of the dangerous man lurking beneath. Many actors have shown Claudius as near hysterical when he ends the play-within-the-play, but Stewart’s Claudius merely growls and walks slowly off, which somehow seems far more menacing. I was also really gripped by Mr. Stewart’s performance during Claudius’ monologue, after the play-within-the-play, in which we see him confess his sins. Here, too, Mr. Stewart avoids taking things too far over the top, keeping his performance quiet, desperate, and gripping. This is a master class in performing Shakespeare.
The rest of the ensemble are strong, too, though unlike Mr. Branagh’s Hamlet – in which many actors had a number of moments in the spotlight — here the show is clearly focused on Mr. Stewart and Mr. Tennant. But that’s not to say the rest of the cast in this Hamlet is weak. In particular, Mariah Gale makes quite an impression as Ophelia. I love the way she handles the scene with her brother Laertes early in the film. This Ophelia is no wallflower — she’s a modern gal who has no problem holding her own with her strong-willed brother, playfully teasing him and keeping him in his place. Penny Downie brings a lot of humanity to the role of Gertrude, and we feel for her emotions which are torn between love for her dead husband, her new husband, and of course her son Hamlet. Oliver Ford Davies plays Polonius as more doddering, friendly uncle than menacing, savvy politician, which is an interesting choice. I loved his performance, and he brought a lot of humor to Polonius’ scenes (as we see this old man being forgetful at times, and continually slow to get to the point), though it did take a bit of the danger out of this character. In Mr. Branagh’s Hamlet, Polonius felt like a real threat to Hamlet, which I liked — here, when he’s killed, I felt far more sympathy for the old man than I did for Hamlet. It’s an interesting way to go with the character. Peter De Jersey makes a fine Horatio, solid and true, though the way this film is edited makes his friendship with Hamlet feel much less central than it did in Mr. Branagh’s Hamlet. (That focus was, to me, another great strength of Mr. Branagh’s film.) I also enjoyed Edward Bennett’s Laertes. Though brash and fierce when angered late in the story, this Laertes still feels like a real, human young man whose bright, promising life has been unexpectedly filled with overwhelming grief.
Though not the complete text of Hamlet, as Mr. Branagh’s film was, this is still a long film (over three hours), and I did need to take a break after the death of Polonius as my attention was waning. But that’s not really a criticism — I can’t see how one WOULDN’T need to stretch one’s legs when watching even a slightly edited performance of Hamlet!
This version of Hamlet feels far more like a filmed version of the play than did Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet — which was able to create more of the feeling of a big, sprawling MOVIE. Yet somehow, despite the far smaller sets and less elaborate costumes, I felt quite a bit more engaged by this version. There were times when the small budget shone through in a way that weakened the overall effect — such as when Claudius orders the guards to search the castle for Hamlet, following his murder of Polonius. Rather than a tense moment with a cadre of armed guards combing Elsinore, what we get is the silly sight of two extras in goofy, ill-fitting costumes running around in Blues Brothers “hup hup hup” style. Unfortunate. But those moments are few and far between. For the most part, the sleek design of the film only enhances the live-wire performances of the cast, particularly the two leads.
This BBC production of Hamlet is an excellent example in how to perform the words of Shakespeare in an exciting, vibrant way. This is a film that feels modern, but not to the degree that it becomes a distraction. This is an old play, but the actors on screen perform the words with an immediacy and an intensity that is incredibly compelling. I’m really glad to have seen it.