Hamlet was no vanity project for a movie star itching to be taken seriously. Mel was taken seriously anyway, even if he had a penchant for broad action cinema (a Mad Max trilogy, two Lethal Weapons and counting). It was Franco Zeffirelli who seized on the idea of casting him, having been impressed by his mentalist (under Alan Partridge’s definition of the word) posturing as Martin Riggs. Gibson’s only previous access to Shakespeare was an all-male stage performance of Romeo and Juliet (as Juliet) so it’s unlikely he would ever have reached later life with an Uncle Monty-esque pang of unfulfilled dreams; that he had “never played the Dane”. All of which makes the accomplishment of his performance more impressive. I’d go as far to say he is the only aspect of the film that really stands out; Zeffirelli’s film is a well-crafted but almost entirely pedestrian interpretation of the Bard’s (possibly) greatest work.
The blame for which must come down to the director. A penchant for opera, and well-received versions of The Taming of the Shrew and (particularly) Romeo and Juliet during the 1960s, do not necessarily imply the rigour and insight necessary for interpreting Hamlet. Which is not to suggest Zeffirelli doesn’t understand the play; the clearly does. But he has absolutely nothing fresh to say about it. This is a handsome period piece populated by a cast of well-respected thesps; it has no real reason to exist other than the director had the clout to mount it.
Honestly, I wish I liked Hamlet more. Occasionally, Zeffirelli happens upon a scene and it rises above his measured approach, assuming an energy all of its own. And throughout, Gibson is a force to be reckoned with. The actor does not embody a fiercely cerebral Hamlet, but he is most definitely a fierce, vital one.
He’s the only “unsafe” choice here, which probably explains why the pay-off is so great. He handles the verse with aplomb, and brings physicality to every scene, reminding you that he is an actor and star with the gift of remaining completely in the moment. Thoughts do not come to him from intense mental exertion, rather they occur at the moment he utters each line of a soliloquy (something Zeffirelli often underlines by having the object of his deliberations within sight).
One might argue that the downside of casting Gibson is that you’re sitting there waiting for “Hamlet Unleashed”; like Jack Nicholson, it’s a matter of when, not if, he will do the crazy. There’s also a danger that, even softened by a blond-rinse, Mel’s age (34) and bearing stack against the indecisive observer that Hamlet embodies for much of the play; with Gibson at the gears, it’s essential to excise material on the level Zeffirelli has because he’s not the type to sit and dawdle while the malignant Claudius is enthroned. The balance to this is that he rouses his scenes from the slightly dull worthiness of his director’s (lack of) vision. You can see Gibson coming into his own in certain scenes; the arrival of the players, and the putting on of the spectacle for the king, is a highlight. The final duel is a combination of good staging (even if the director doggedly cuts back to the poisoned chalice like there’s no tomorrow) and the actor’s zest and exuberance. The fake trips and lunges are pure slapstick Mel; many a more respected thesp would make heavy weather of the humour he milks so naturally from the scene.
It’s probably fair to say that Hamlet’s soliloquies are not the most resonant aspect of Mel’s performance. Yet Gibson is a passion unto himself; his turmoil and rage do not have to be directed at another to be conveyed, far from it. Curiously, this is emphasised by the slightly damp interactions with the women in his life. More sparks fly between Gibson and Alan Bates (playing Claudius; Bates himself is a veteran of the lead) than the crucial role of Gertrude.
It’s difficult to put a finger on why Glenn Close doesn’t quite work as the mother (albeit, her performance is generally held in high esteem). If anything, the meagre nine-year age gap between Gibson and Close ought to feed the oedipal undertones of their relationship. There is the intention of intensity (physical embraces, kissing on the lips) but it doesn’t signify very much emotionally. Perhaps because you never buy into Close as anything but a strong lead; Hamlet overwhelming her and persuading her of Claudius’ guilt never carries convincingly. This is ironic, as the early sight of Close, running about friskily, suggests she might be attempting a more sensual version of Gertrude. It could be the flipside of Gibson’s inexperience; this was Close’s first Shakespeare, and she is competent but (in contrast to her fantastic turn in Dangerous Liaisons a few years previously) rather swallowed by the part and the period. Still, the moment where she slaps Hamlet, and Gibson lets out a cry of anguish like he’s turning into a werewolf, is priceless.
Helena Bonham Carter is cast as Ophelia with the same kind of weary predictability that saw Kate Winslet play the part in Kenneth Branagh’s version six years later. If there was a period role up for grabs at that time, Helena would be cast. See every Laura Ashley/Merchant Ivory production in the three or four years either side of Hamlet. HBC is quite compelling when called upon to give a crazed Ophelia, which figures, as the last decade or so has seen her embrace her more overtly theatrical side (going the “full Burton” for her hubby). Prior to that, she makes an insipid and mousey figure; you don’t really buy into the idea that he ever loved her, as there is no chemistry between the two of them.
Bates is as solid and dependable as one would expect but, as mentioned, it is ironically only in his scenes with Gibson that he becomes a memorable Claudius. Part of the problem is that Zeffirelli has cut away much that would allow more depth to him. The rest of the cast, from Stephen Dillane as Horatio to Michael Maloney as Guildenstern, are agreeable, but there’s no danger of any of them being indelible. Aside from Ian Holm, that is. His Polonious is fantastic creation, running the gamut from pompous to verbose to shrewd to foolish to hilarious. Whether he’s continually not getting to the point with the King and Queen, being fuddled by an obfuscating Hamlet in the library or announcing the players with a flourish that confirms his own courting of attention and plaudits, Holm is a delight. He’s the only performer besides Gibson who can stir scenes out of the stolid ceremony that Zeffirelli instils.
That’s the main problem. The film is well designed, shot and edited. The script, adapted by Zeffirelli and Christopher De Vore, is pruned sufficiently to ensure it doesn’t drag, and only occasionally is it exposed as deficient through that process. But there’s no atmosphere, no point of view. The director’s inspiration appears to have given out after “cast Mad Mel” sprang into his head (I suppose one could credit also him with the choice of naturalistic delivery). Elsinore is, for all Dante Ferretti’s design, a drab over-lit expanse (location work included Dover, Dunnottar and Blackness Castles). There is no atmosphere to the place, no attitude. Even Ennio Morricone’s score hangs uncertainly in the background, with not real impetus to try harder. Just look at how half-heartedly Zeffirelli depicts his ghost (Paul Scofield). He’s almost apologetic about including the supernatural at all, but is clearly far too literal to think up another means of depicting such an apparition (be it real or mental aberration).
Apparently the Zeffirelli didn’t wish his direction to be intrusive, thereby encouraging a sense of intimacy and claustrophobia. Unfortunately, this aloof approach ends up distancing us, rather than pulling us in. It ensures a version of Hamlet that it is worthy but uninspired. For Gibson, at least, it restored some cachet after a year that had seen critical drubbings (Bird on a Wire) and commercial failures (Air America).