Monday, May 19, 2014

Hamlet (1969) DVD Review

Hamlet (1969) stars Nicol Williamson, Anthony Hopkins, Judy Parfitt, Marianne Faithfull and Mark Dignam. It was directed by Tony Richardson. There is little in the way of sets in this film version, and the focus is clearly on the performances. And there are some excellent performances, especially those by Nicol Williamson as Hamlet and Anthony Hopkins as Claudius. The weakest performance is that by Marianne Faithfull as Ophelia. She is absolutely awful. Almost everything is done in close-ups, with the backgrounds mostly dark. This works for the most part. However, there are some scenes where it causes problems, particularly in the “Get thee to a nunnery” scene.

Act I

In the first scene, we don’t see the Ghost. The camera remains on Horatio and the other two men. We see their reactions, and there is a bright light shining on their faces, presumably from the Ghost. Horatio is really good in this scene (though a bit on the older side). The last few lines of the scene are cut.

The second scene has a great contrast, with a joyful party atmosphere, with someone pouring Claudius a drink. But then it calms down when Claudius reads the news regarding Fortinbras. Hamlet stresses “you” when he says, “I shall in all my best obey you, madam,” meaning he wouldn’t have stayed at only Claudius’ request. The camera remains close on Hamlet as the others exit in the background. Hamlet then turns to face the camera for his first soliloquy. Most of it is done in a close-up shot, and it’s excellent. We’re close on Hamlet when he says he thinks he sees his father, so we don’t see Horatio’s immediate reaction. The film then cuts to Horatio for his “Where, my lord?” But he delivers it without any urgency or fear, but in a more relaxed tone. Nicol Williamson is excellent when reacting to Horatio’s news about the Ghost. The scene is cut after Horatio’s “I warr’nt it will.”

After Ophelia’s “Do you doubt that,” she and Laertes kiss. But the kiss lingers a bit long for that between siblings. It’s very odd, because then Laertes speaks against Hamlet. So is it out of jealousy? Also, since this is the first thing we see Ophelia do, she certainly does not come across as overly innocent. And she lies down, and Laertes bends over and kisses her again, after “O fear me not.” She actually seems to initiate this kiss, with a look and a turning of her head up to him. This kiss is brief, only because Polonius enters, interrupting them. So clearly something incestuous is going on between Laertes and Ophelia, which is a very odd choice. Interestingly, Ophelia’s last line of the scene is cut, where she promises to obey her father.

The Ghost enters after Hamlet says “More honor’d in the breach than in the observance.” Again, we see Hamlet’s reaction to the Ghost, a light on his face. This scene doesn’t begin on the platform, but in a dark corridor. We don’t see the Ghost, but we do hear his voice. There is a somewhat silly effect where certain words echo, such as “queen.” On “So, uncle, there you are,” Hamlet sticks his dagger into the wall. Most of the stuff about the swearing is cut. The Ghost says “Swear” but once, and Hamlet says, “Rest, rest, perturbed spirit.” Because of the camera angle, it’s unclear whether Horatio and Marcellus actually heard the Ghost or not.

Act II

Much of the dialogue between Polonius and Reynaldo is cut, which makes Polonius seem more suspicious, almost sinister in his distrust of Laertes. Ophelia’s performance is much too weak when she rushes in to describe how Hamlet frightened her. And her white makeup looks odd.

Claudius and Gertrude are in bed, being attended to by servants, while they speak to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In this version, Gertrude doesn’t correct Claudius on their names with her repetition of his line. Claudius and Gertrude are eating in bed when Polonius enters. After Gertrude’s “Our o’erhasty marriage,” she leans over to share a passionate kiss with Claudius. She’s clearly a lusty woman in this version, and it is likely that which led her to marry Claudius. Voltimand and Cornelius are cut. Claudius, Gertrude and Polonius are all quite good in this scene. Right after Polonius says, “I’ll loose my daughter to him,” the film cuts to Polonius giving Ophelia a book (from Act III Scene i).


After Polonius gives Ophelia the book, we go right to “To be or not to be.”  Hamlet pauses before “or not to be.” He is lying down for the beginning of this speech. He sits up on “Ay, there’s the rub.” He delivers the speech to the camera. When he says, “Soft you now, the fair Ophelia,” he looks off screen as if she is approaching. But because it’s all in close-ups, we don’t see her. The film then cuts to her, but she is reclining with a book. That makes no sense. So the two of them were lying down in the same room, and without being aware of it? We have no sense of the geography of the place, but certainly they couldn’t have been resting in the same room. Suddenly Hamlet is crouched next to her bed. So he’s in her chamber again, even after she spurned his advances? That doesn’t make sense. Where are we, film? After Ophelia’s “I was the more deceiv’d,” Hamlet leans over her and kisses her. This scene doesn’t work at all. It’s very relaxed. This film seems to forget that Ophelia has obeyed her father’s request to turn down all advances from Hamlet. And Ophelia seems to forget that her father and the king are watching. Then we finally see Polonius looking in. He moves, and Hamlet catches that movement, and that leads to him ask, “Where’s your father?” When Ophelia responds, “At home, my lord,” it might not be a lie. After all, we have no idea where this scene is taking place. Maybe they’re at Ophelia’s home.  Anyway, it’s then that Hamlet gets upset. Hamlet directs “all but one shall live” to where Polonius is hiding. But he has no idea that Claudius is there as well. And in fact, Claudius was cut from the scene where Polonius gave Ophelia the book, so at this point we’re not even sure if Claudius is back there. Marianne Faithfull is definitely the weakest actor in this production. Her soliloquy is awful, just awful. And she delivers it toward where her father is hidden, which is odd. Claudius is finally revealed to be back there too. After Polonius goes to Ophelia, he says to Claudius: “My lord, do as you please. I will myself go try him. Let me alone to sound the depths of him.” This is quite different from the play.

Then the film goes back to Act II Scene ii, with Hamlet reading and Polonius approaching him. This re-ordering of scenes changes things. And then Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive. Hamlet mixes up their names, even if Claudius didn’t. Hamlet puts out a series of candles toward the end of his soliloquy, when he says, “I have heard,/That guilty creatures sitting at a play…” He puts out the final candle on the word “king.”

From there, the film cuts to Hamlet’s “Speak the speech.” This film adds a moment with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. When Hamlet is about to speak with Horatio before the play, they suddenly appear. And Hamlet sends them away. The “country matters” line is cut. Hamlet’s response to “Nay, ‘tis twice two months, my lord” is cut. Interestingly, Claudius turns to Polonius for his line, “Have you heard the argument? Is there no offense in ‘t?” A nice touch. Of course, Hamlet jumps in with his response.

The film goes from Hamlet being summoned to his mother straight to Polonius going to hide behind the curtain, skipping a lot. Hamlet then enters his mother’s room. When the Ghost appears in his mother’s chamber, again we don’t see him. Oddly, this time we also don’t hear him. The Ghost’s lines are all cut (which means we also lose that great moment where the Ghost commands Hamlet to speak to Gertrude). Because the Ghost doesn’t speak, Hamlet’s “Nor did you nothing hear?” has a much different tone. Is this appearance by the Ghost merely in Hamlet’s head? One of my favorite lines is sadly cut: “Assume a virtue, if you have it not.” After Hamlet’s “cruel only to be kind,” he says, “Good night indeed.” Then he exits. So the whole thing about moving Polonius’ body is cut.

The film goes right to Scene vii, with Claudius’ “How dangerous is it that this man goes loose?” So it skipped Scenes v and vi. Even though Hamlet left the body with Gertrude, the film still includes the bit about them not being able to learn where the body is, which is stupid. After Claudius sends Hamlet to England, he then oddly gives his “O my offense is rank” speech. But Hamlet does not come upon him. This is by far the worst cut of the film. It changes way too much. After all, this is one of the most important scenes of the play. Hamlet has a chance to kill Claudius, but doesn’t. This film denies him that chance. That is a big mistake.

The film then goes to Scene viii, starting with Hamlet’s “Good sir, whose powers are these?

Act IV

Ophelia’s madness isn’t the least bit believable, partly because she didn’t seem vulnerable before. And she didn’t seem enough of a pawn in her father and the king’s little game. So she had nothing to build from. She seems more angry than mad, more irritated than despairing. After Claudius’ “But in battalions,” the rest of his speech is cut, and we go right to the noise at the door.

Two sailors grab Horatio. One holds a knife to his throat while the other holds up the letter for him to read.

The beginning of the third scene is cut, and it starts with Claudius’ line, “I lov’d your father, as we love ourself.” For some reason, the line where Gertrude tells Laertes that Ophelia drowned is cut, as is then his response. Instead, she says, “One woe doth tread upon another’s heel,/So fast they follow,” and then goes right to the description: “There is a willow grows…”  This is just wrong, because it makes Gertrude coy with her news, teasing Laertes, which is exactly the opposite of what she is supposed to be doing here.

Act V

The fifth act begins with a close-up of a skull. All of the dialogue at the beginning of the scene is cut, and there is only one gravedigger. The stuff about the first skill is also cut, and they go right to Yorick’s skull. Hamlet jumps into the grave with Laertes.

Hamlet is excellent in the scene with Osric, and in the speech that follows.

When Laertes and Hamlet go to choose their foils, the foils are in the foreground, which is nice. Hamlet gets his first hit almost immediately. Claudius’ aside about the poison is cut. Hamlet drinks more of the poison after taking the cup from Horatio. Fortinbras is cut. The last line of the film is Horatio’s “And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

Time: 118 minutes

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