- Mel Gibson as Prince Hamlet
- Glenn Close as Queen Gertrude
- Alan Bates as King Claudius
- Helena Bonham Carter as Ophelia
- Ian Holm as Polonius
- Paul Scofield as the ghost of King Hamlet
- Stephen Dillane as Horatio
- Nathaniel Parker as Laertes
In this adaptation of the classic William Shakespeare tragedy, Franco Zeffirelli assembles an unexpected but engaging cast and directs with vigour and atmospheric skill in an attempt to show an individuality from other versions of the play. And he certainly does a good job of it.
The film begins with the funeral of Hamlet’s father, the King of Denmark. Hamlet’s mother Gertrude is saddened but seems a little too close to her late husband’s brother Claudius. Surely enough, the two marry soon after and Claudius becomes king. The young Prince Hamlet is puzzled by this courtship at first, but information regarding the sudden remarriage soon comes his way in eerie fashion. One night after hearing from his trusted friend Horatio that an apparition has been wandering around the castle at night, he is visited by the ghost of his father, who informs him that he was murdered by Claudius so he could take the throne. Hamlet swears revenge on his uncle and descends into madness as he attempts to complete the murderous task.
The first thing to note in Hamlet is the visual style. Dark and hushed shades of blue over the castle, which are juxtaposed with glaring images of sun capture the themes of life and death and the complementary nature of each. The camerawork is stunning as it glides around the surroundings and quite often nestles close to a character, this technique is especially useful and full of impact when Hamlet delivers monologues. Ennio Morricone provides the atmospheric and melancholy music, giving Hamlet a gloomy and suspenseful edge. What many purists will take issue with is the removal of certain parts of dialogue and the transference of certain pieces into different scenes. Yet, with this the film has a strong pace and in some ways makes it more accessible to those unfamiliar with the play. Only at certain times does the removal of parts of dialogue cause Hamlet to lose its way.
Heading the cast is Mel Gibson as Hamlet. At first I wasn’t sure that Gibson would fit the role of Hamlet, but surprisingly he makes the role his own. He contributes vigor, sadness and madness to the part as Hamlet becomes more vengeful and his delivery of dialogue is excellent. Unlike many who portray Hamlet as constantly brooding, Gibson has more fun with the role by adding intelligence and a playful smile which eventually gives way to sinister grins . Glenn Close is effectively cast as Gertrude who changes from grieving widow into a sexually liberated woman after marrying Claudius. The scenes between Close and Gibson are interesting to watch because of the ambiguous nature of their relationship. This unusual examination of mother-son relations adds dimension to the story and adds an edge to the classic piece by giving it more dramatic prominence. Alan Bates makes for a quietly villainous Claudius, whose scheming is masked by a courteous exterior. Helena Bonham Carter brings deep sadness to the role of the tragic Ophelia, whose treatment at the hands of Hamlet sends her spiralling out of control. The sight of her bare foot, chanting old love songs with wild eyes and mournful voice whilst wandering around the castle is a chilling sight to behold. Ian Holm makes for an intelligent Polonius, while Paul Scofield gives wisdom to the part of the King’s ghost. In supporting roles, Stephen Dillane and Nathaniel Parker are wonderfully effective in the parts of Horatio and Laertes.
Liberties taken with the text aside, Zeffirelli makes a vigorous movie of Hamlet that adds another spin to the classic tragedy.