Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Hamlet (2000) DVD Review

Hamlet (2000) stars Campbell Scott, Jamey Sheridan, Blair Brown, LisaGay Hamilton, and Roscoe Lee Browne. It was directed by Campbell Scott and Eric Simonson. This version of Hamlet takes place at the beginning of the twentieth century, and features a very good Campbell Scott as Hamlet. The supporting cast is a mixed bag, with John Benjamin Hickey absolutely excellent as Horatio, but Roger Guenveur Smith completely awful in the role of Laertes. At three hours, there aren’t too many extreme cuts, though there is one that shocked me. And the film generally avoids re-ordering the scenes, which is good (though the “To be or not to be” speech is moved to an earlier spot).

Act I

The film opens with a couple of shots in daylight before the credits. Then there is a shot of Francisco nervously looking about while on his watch. There are also a couple of shots of a few characters inside, without dialogue, an interesting way of introducing them. Then we go to Act I Scene i. The Ghost appears in the dark distance, and is seen only partially, which is nice. The second time he appears, he is suddenly standing closer, and so we get a better view of him. The Ghost takes a few steps toward Horatio (John Benjamin Hickey), then stops when Horatio says, “Stay, illusion.” It’s an interesting choice, having the Ghost move toward the men rather than away, and also for it to actually listen to Horatio. The Ghost then moves forward again, seemingly about to speak.

A jazz band plays for those dining at the beginning of the second scene. Ophelia is present at the table, and exchanges looks with Hamlet. Hamlet has a black ribbon tied around his head. Claudius (Jamey Sheridan) stands, and the band stops, and he addresses those present. After Claudius gives Laertes (Roger Guenveur Smith) leave to return to France, Hamlet (Campbell Scott) gets up and walks away from the table. And that leads to Claudius addressing him. Hamlet says his first line to himself, facing away from Claudius. On “unschool’d,” Claudius suddenly, forcefully removes Hamlet’s head band. Hamlet then wears the black band tied around his arm, and he moves to a different part of the castle before delivering his first big speech (“O that this too too solid flesh”). He says it to himself, not to the camera. Horatio’s reaction to Hamlet saying he sees his father is perfect, and I love the way he covers after that. The lines about the ghost being armed are cut.

While Polonius (Roscoe Lee Browne) and Ophelia (LisaGay Hamilton) talk, they watch as Laertes leaves. Laertes and Hamlet exchange words and shake hands in the distance while Ophelia and Polonius talk. The scene ends with Polonius’ “I charge you.”

The Ghost appears on a platform above Hamlet. He is not wearing armor. As the Ghost describes his own murder, Hamlet suffers, seemingly to experience it, even bleeding from his ear. Hamlet and the Ghost’s conversation takes place on a beach, apart from the castle. Horatio and Marcellus catch up to Hamlet there. When the Ghost says “Swear,” it is like he is rising from the sand. On the second “Swear,” fingers begin to rise out of the sand. Campbell Scott gives an interesting reading of “Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” After they swear on the sword, the Ghost’s arm reaches out of the sand and seizes the sword, pulling it into the dirt (it is, after all, Hamlet’s father’s sword – earlier we saw Hamlet take it).

Act II

As Reynaldo leaves, he sees Ophelia at the door, and says, “My lady” (a line not in the play), which causes Polonius to look up.

I like that Gertrude and Claudius seem concerned with Fortinbras’ request to pass through their lands. Polonius opens the door to reveal Ophelia seated a bit away. Polonius then says, “I have a daughter,” indicating her to Claudius and Gertrude. Polonius then bids Ophelia to leave as Hamlet enters, reading. Hamlet can’t concentrate, hearing the whispers of the Ghost. He tosses the book away, then breaks his reading glasses. He then takes the broken glass and holds it to his wrist. After a moment he cuts himself, leading to “To be or not to be,” a bit earlier than in the play. This is the first re-ordering of speeches in this film version, and the only major instance of it. After “lose the name of action,” Polonius appears, and asks, “How does my good Lord Hamlet?” Hamlet says “good kissing carrion,” not the emendation “god kissing carrion.” Hamlet sort of sings the third “Except my life.” Hamlet is actually surprised and pleased to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet really asks, “Were you not sent for?” It’s not said with suspicion, which is great, as it allows Hamlet the moment to become so during the exchange. Campbell Scott is absolutely excellent in this scene. Polonius does not say “tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral.” Because this is a more modern setting, the players include women as well as men. So all the lines about the player’s beard and voice are cut. Hamlet pauses after “blood of fathers.” Hamlet’s reaction to Polonius’ interruption is great. After that, two other players deliver some of the Player’s lines.


The third act begins with Ophelia being prepared for her exchange with Hamlet. Then it goes to Gertrude’s “Did he receive you well?” to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as they walk through a corridor. Though the “To be or not to be” speech was moved to an earlier spot and so Hamlet wasn’t speaking upon his entrance, he still says, “Soft you now,” which doesn’t really make sense. After “Go thy ways to a nunnery,” Ophelia kisses Hamlet, and he returns the kiss. While they’re making out he asks, “Where’s your father?” But it seems like he really doesn’t know. He’s simply inquiring. But why? There’s been no indication from the hiding place. But then he must think her reply dishonest. Oddly, at this point Polonius and Claudius sneak out of their hiding place without being seen, and Hamlet suspects now that they are in there and grabs Ophelia’s hand and pulls her to the door, which is now open. None of this quite works.

Scene ii begins with one of the actors reciting lines with Hamlet, who is seated and wearing the costume crown. Hamlet then gets up to say “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you” – an interesting variation. The scene really has Hamlet coaching this one particular actor on a particular scene. The dumb show is cut.

Hamlet begins sneaking up on Claudius, with his dagger drawn. After “And so ‘a goes to heaven; And so am I reveng’d,” an arm reaches into frame to push his dagger down. It’s a strange choice. First, Hamlet doesn’t ask, “And so am I reveng’d?” He delivers it as a statement, like he’s resolved to do it. And then it’s the Ghost that stops him, which is odd, especially as just a bit later the Ghost will appear to Hamlet “to whet thy almost blunted purpose.” So why would he stop him from the revenge? It doesn’t make sense.

Polonius doesn’t die immediately. And in fact at one point he stands up before finally dying. And when he falls, the Ghost stands there in his place. As Hamlet exits with Polonius’ corpse, Gertrude kneels down and begins scrubbing the blood from the floor. We see Hamlet shove Polonius’ body into the space from where Claudius and Polonius earlier spied on him. So Hamlet’s line is changed to “nose him as you go into this closet by the lobby.” Obviously, that’s a more awkward line. As the men open the door, Ophelia appears and sees. Horatio draws her away.

Act IV

The Gentleman is cut, and his lines are given to Horatio. When Ophelia enters, she is wearing her father’s jacket and bloody shirt. Claudius tells a servant, not Horatio, to follow Ophelia. Horatio exits too. Laertes is the weakest actor in the film and his reading of “I’ll be reveng’d/Most throughly for my father” sounds positively odd. The “flowers” that Ophelia distributes are all blades of grass.

The Attendant and Sailor are both cut from Scene ii, and the scene begins with Horatio reading the letter. It’s read by Hamlet in voice over. That goes right to Claudius reading his letter, thus cutting the beginning of the third scene. Shockingly, that scene ends with Claudius’ “How, sweet Queen?” Gertrude’s sad look toward Laertes is all we get. Gone is her famous description of Ophelia’s death. This is one of the few cuts in the film that is just wrong.

Act V

The second gravedigger is actually present in this version, and the fifth act begins with their dialogue about Ophelia. The bit about the grave-maker building the strongest is cut. The first skull is cut. Laertes’ line “A ministering angel shall my sister be/When thou liest howling” is cut. But Hamlet still then says, “What! the fair Ophelia?” But how would he know without Laertes’ line? Hearing Laertes say “sister” is what alerts Hamlet. Though even if Laertes had said the line, Hamlet might not have heard it, for this Laertes has a habit of speaking very softly (perhaps as a way of masking his poor acting abilities). Still, it’s a line that absolutely cannot be cut. I would argue this is the worst cut in the entire film, even worse than Gertrude’s speech about Ophelia. This scene doesn’t quite work, partly because of that cut, and partly because of the questionable acting skills of Laertes, and partly because of the piano music which doesn’t feel appropriate. (Actually, the piano score almost never feels right in this film.)

Hamlet’s line about staying in practice is cut. The Lord’s line “The queen desires you to use some gentle entertainment…” is given to Osric, who says it to Hamlet just before Claudius and Gertrude enter. Laertes almost whispers “Have at you now,” which is really odd. After all, this is the moment when he kills Hamlet. And he speaks quietly, almost matter-of-factly. It’s almost like he’s bored. (He really should have been re-cast.) The bit where Horatio tries to drink the poison is cut. Hamlet sees the Ghost just before he says “The rest is silence.” The film ends with the soldiers shooting, which we view through a window.

Time: 180 minutes

The DVD includes a ten-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, with interviews with some of the cast members, including Campbell Scott, Roscoe Lee Browne, Blair Brown, LisaGay Hamilton, Jamey Sheridan and Roger G. Smith.

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