Saturday, June 14, 2014

Hamlet (2009) DVD Review

Hamlet (2009) stars David Tennant, Patrick Stewart, Penny Downie, Oliver Ford Davies, Mariah Gale, Edward Bennett and Peter De Jersey. It was directed by Gregory Doran. This is a special film version of The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of the play (not a filmed stage version). It features some excellent performances. There is only a bit of re-ordering of scenes, and just a few odd cuts, particularly regarding Fortinbras.

Act I

This version has a modern setting, and the opening shot is through a security camera. Francisco has a rifle. Marcellus’ flashlight shines on Francisco’s face, leading Francisco to say: “Stand, ho! Who is there?” We don’t see the Ghost in the first scene. The camera at one point acts as the perspective of the Ghost, with Horatio (Peter De Jersey) addressing it. After the Ghost exits, there is then another shot from the security camera, leading us to wonder whether the camera has captured the Ghost’s image. The second time the Ghost (Patrick Stewart) appears, we see it. In fact, we see it before Horatio and the others do, as it appears behind them. It advances on Horatio. And on the security camera, it is not visible.

Hamlet (David Tennant) is in a black suit, with black tie. Cornelius becomes Cornelia, a woman, in this version. Only she, not Voltimand, says “In that and in all things we show our duty” (a slight variation on the play’s line). Laertes (Edward Bennett) looks to Polonius (Oliver Ford Davies) for guidance in what to say to the king, and in the background we see Polonius mouth, “Your leave and favor to return to France/From whence though willingly I came to Denmark.” Polonius whispers, “And bow them,” which Laertes then repeats. That makes Claudius’ asking for Polonius’ word on the matter rather funny. Claudius (Patrick Stewart) gives a serious and pointed delivery of “’tis unmanly grief.” As everyone exits, we get another security camera shot (a little distracting and off-putting). Hamlet says his first big speech to himself at first, not to camera, and breaks down almost immediately and is on his knees for much of his speech. He then does turn to the camera partway through the speech. Hamlet delivers the last lines of the scene to the camera.

Because Polonius prompted Laertes in the second scene, the connection between those two characters is made stronger, and so we better see their similarities when Laertes gives Ophelia (Mariah Gale) advice just before Polonius advises Laertes. On Ophelia’s line “and recks not his own reed,” she pulls two condoms out of Laertes’ suitcase and holds them up. Ophelia and Laertes have clearly heard Polonius’ advice before, for they chime in with some of his lines. Ophelia’s last line of the scene, “I shall obey, my lord,” is certainly not delivered with any happiness.

Hamlet falls to his knees on “Murther!” Patrick Stewart is fantastic as the Ghost. He grabs Hamlet and pulls him up slightly from his knees on “If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not,” which he says with anger. When the Ghost disappears, a cloud of smoke hangs in the air in his place. When the Ghost commands “Swear,” the ground shakes. Hamlet says “our philosophy” instead of “your philosophy” to Horatio. There’s a wonderful moment after “Rest, rest, perturbed spirit,” when Hamlet looks around, as if waiting to see if the Ghost is truly gone or not. Horatio and Marcellus exit after “And still your fingers on your lips, I pray.” So Hamlet’s final line of the scene is cut.

Act II

The second act opens with Polonius saying “Give my son this money” rather than “Give him this money.” There is another security camera shot during Polonius’ exchange with Reynaldo. Polonius gives a wonderful, confused pause before “What was I about to say?” The scene ends with Polonius’ “This must be known.”

Claudius does confuse Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Gertrude corrects him, but sweetly. Cornelia delivers the first of Voltimand’s lines, and changes “nephew’s levies” to “nephew’s march.” Then Voltimand takes up the speech there. The speech is simplified, paraphrased. But oddly, the lines about Fortinbras’ request to pass over the land are cut completely. Polonius is wonderful in the scene with Claudius and Gertrude. On “I have a daughter,” Ophelia is escorted into the room. Claudius says “As of a friend faithful and honorable” rather than “As a man faithful and honorable.”

After Gertrude says, “But look, where sadly the poor wretch comes” (cutting the word “reading”), this production jumps to lines from the first scene of Act III, beginning with Claudius’ “Sweet Gertrude, leave us.” When Gertrude says “And for your part, Ophelia…” it’s clear that she has never met Ophelia before. This scene continues with “To be or not to be…,” and then into the scene with Ophelia, which Claudius and Polonius watch from behind a two-way mirror. Hamlet, by the way, wears a very silly T-shirt with muscles printed on it, which just doesn’t seem right. After Ophelia asks “What means your lordship,” Hamlet jumps to “I did love you once.” After Hamlet says “Go thy ways to a nunnery,” the surveillance camera zooms in, making a noise. He looks up to it, while Ophelia looks toward where Polonius and Claudius are watching. Hamlet then says “Let the doors be shut upon him…” directly to the surveillance camera. He tears up his letters before exiting. After Polonius says “We heard it all,” the film then goes back to Act II, and Polonius says: “Away! I do beseech you. Here he comes. I’ll board him presently.” In the play he delivers these lines to Claudius and Gertrude, and they are: “Away! I do beseech you, both away./I’ll board him presently. O, give me leave.” In this version Hamlet exits after tearing the letters, then returns only moments later, and looks into the mirror, where Claudius is still hiding. And that’s what leads him to say, “Well, God-a-mercy.” An interesting idea. And so in the exchange with Polonius, Hamlet knows he’s being observed, and that certainly colors his responses. Hamlet picks up the book that Ophelia left behind, and that is what he reads. This version uses the emendation “god kissing carrion.” It doesn’t makes sense for Polonius to ask, “What do you read, my lord,” as it is the very book that he himself gave to Ophelia. On the third “Except my life,” Hamlet makes a face that reminds me of a particular bit that Terry Gilliam did in one of the Monty Python skits. When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter, we see it from the security camera. Several of the lines about dreams are cut. The sound of a car horn (rather than a flourish) leads Guildenstern to say, “There are the players.” Hamlet is excellent in his dialogue with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, particularly just before Polonius enters. Though this version has a modern setting, the players are all men, so Hamlet’s lines about the one actor’s voice and height are delivered to a long-haired man. The First Player is wonderful. After “who shall ‘scape whipping,” Polonius says “Come, sirs,” thus cutting a couple of Hamlet’s lines. Hamlet reaches up and smashes the security camera, and that leads to his “Now I am alone.” He then sits down on the floor before beginning “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I.” Hamlet approaches the camera to ask us directly, “Am I a coward?


After Claudius says, “And drive his purpose to these delights,” he then jumps to “I have in quick determination,” skipping over lines that were moved to an earlier spot. Claudius spots the broken surveillance camera, leading to his “Madness in great ones must not unwatch’d go.” That is the best use thus far of those cameras.

The second scene begins from the point of view of Hamlet’s personal camera, as he says, “Speak the speech…” Hamlet takes a player’s mirror and reflects light onto several players in succession on the lines about “the mirror up to nature.” Hamlet really hits the joke of “country matters,” saying “cunt…ry matters.” The players enter after “died two months ago and not forgotten yet,” thus cutting much of Hamlet’s speech. Hamlet films part of the dumb show and the play, sometimes capturing Claudius’ reactions. Claudius asks Polonius: “Have you heard the argument? Is there no offence in ‘t?” Claudius calmly says, “Give me some light.” Hamlet wears the costume crown and sits on the throne, thus when he asks, “Have you any further trade with us,” he uses the royal “we” (or in this case, “us”). Hamlet is excellent in the bit regarding the recorder. Hamlet speaks his soliloquy into his personal camera.

Claudius bends over and coughs before beginning “O my offense is rank.” While Claudius is knelt in prayer, Hamlet approaches him from behind with a knife raised. Hamlet’s following lines are done as voice over. Because it’s a knife, he says, “Up, blade” instead of “Up, sword.”

Polonius hides behind a mirror. Hamlet grabs a pistol from a bedside table and shoots through the mirror. The pictures of the two kings are in newspapers rather than the usual lockets. When the Ghost appears, his love for Gertrude is still clear, which is wonderful. As Hamlet drags out Polonius’ body, he calls out cheerfully, “Good night, mother,” which makes Gertrude laugh in spite of herself – a wonderful moment. Her laughter quickly turns to tears.

And then Claudius is behind her, rubbing her shoulders, to begin Scene v. Instead of “Behind the arras” Gertrude says “Behind the mirror.” And instead of “Whips out his rapier,” Gertrude says “Whips out his weapon.”

We have a scene of Hamlet dragging Polonius’ body up stairs, and the men looking for him. When they bring Hamlet before Claudius, he is gagged and bound to a wheeled office chair (bringing to mind Bobby Seale during the Trial of the Chicago 8).

Scene viii, with Fortinbras, is cut. So gone from its rightful place is one of Hamlet’s major speeches (“How all occasions do inform against me”).

Act IV

Scene i takes place in Gertrude’s room, and she stands by the broken mirror where Hamlet shot Polonius. The Gentleman is cut, and Horatio speaks his lines. Ophelia first appears in the broken mirror. At one point Ophelia’s hand goes to touch the bullet hole in the mirror. Ophelia dances about and removes her clothes as she sings her mad song. Laertes enters with gun drawn and aimed at Claudius. Ophelia enters with giant clumps of weeds, rather than just a few small flowers. Ophelia is quite good in this difficult scene. When Claudius says, “Where th’ offence is let the great axe fall,” we see Gertrude’s astonished reaction in the background, which is very nice.

Oddly, the film then goes to Act III Scene viii, with the lines about the “promis’d march.” The problem, of course, is that the earlier lines about that promise were cut, and no mention has been made of it until now. That’s the first big problem in this production. Hamlet then sits down and again turns his camera on himself for the “O how all occasions do inform against me” speech. Also odd is that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not with him. Hamlet is alone. Has he already dispatched them then?

The film then goes to Act IV Scene iii (skipping Scene ii), beginning with Claudius’ line, “Laertes, was your father dear to you” (approximately halfway through the scene as written). Then after Laertes asks, “Why ask you this,” Claudius holds up the letter and says, “Hamlet comes back.” He then goes to “What would you undertake…” Claudius still says, “How much I had to do to calm his rage,” even though the first half of the scene, where he works to do just that, is completely cut. The scene began with Laertes fairly relaxed, so that line no longer makes sense.

Act V

The second gravedigger is included in this version, and they begin the scene talking about Ophelia’s death. But all the stuff about Adam and about grave-makers building strongest is cut. One skull is already out of the grave at the beginning of the scene. Another is tossed up out of it as Hamlet and Horatio approach. And then another skull is tossed up (so actually the third skull of the scene). It is the first skull that is Yorick’s. When the funeral procession approaches, Hamlet and Horatio run off, Hamlet still holding Yorick’s skull. The Gravedigger quickly gathers up the other two skulls. Laertes lifts Ophelia’s body, holding her in his arms, when he tells the Gravedigger to toss the dirt on them both.

The beginning of the second scene is cut. Horatio says, “So, Guildenstern and Rosencrantz are dead” rather than “… go to ‘t.” The Lord is cut. Much of Hamlet’s speech to Laertes is cut. It goes from “I here proclaim was madness” to “Sir, in this audience…” Most of Laertes’ response is also cut, and the cut makes Laertes seem more dishonest and treacherous. We get several shots from the security camera. Hamlet gets the first hit immediately. When Claudius tells Gertrude not to drink, she right away understands the reason, looks into the cup, then says, “I will, my lord.” Hamlet actually hands Claudius the cup when telling him to drink rather than forcing it down his throat. And since he’s already cut (and perhaps also because he really loved Gertrude), Claudius gulps it down to make his death easier, quicker. A very interesting choice. Osric’s lines about Fortinbras are cut, as are Hamlet’s. Hamlet says, “To tell my story,” then goes right to “The rest is silence.” The last line is Horatio’s “And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” Fortinbras is cut, which makes me wonder why the earlier Fortinbras scene was included.

Time: 182 minutes

DVD Special Features

The DVD includes Hamlet: Behind The Scenes, with interviews with key cast and crew members and plenty of behind-the scenes footage. David Tennant talks a bit about the “To be or not to be” speech. Both he and Patrick Stewart talk about performing soliloquys on film. Patrick Stewart also talks about the Claudius’ choice to drink the poison. Penny Downie gives her thoughts on performing the closet scene. Director Gregory Doran talks about the use of surveillance cameras. This feature is approximately thirty-two minutes.

There is also a commentary track by director Gregory Doran, director of photography Chris Seager, and producer Seb Grant.

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