By moving the London stage version that sold out in mere hours to an on location shoot for this filmed adaptation of director Gregory Doran’s Royal Shakespeare Company production of Hamlet, audiences of both the UK’s BBC Network and also fans with access to Region 1 DVD or Blu-ray players are now able to witness the extraordinarily well-received rendition.
Reprising their acclaimed and multiple award-winning roles as Hamlet and The Ghost/Claudius respectively, Doctor Who’s David Tennant and X-Men, Star Trek star Patrick Stewart reunite with the rest of the impressive color and gender blind casting for this contemporary staging of the play that initially invites the voyeur in us to peep through the eye of a kingdom’s security camera footage as royal guards discuss the baffling presence of Hamlet’s ghostly, recently deceased father.
With his mother Gertrude (Penny Downie) far-too-quickly remarried to her husband’s brother, the new King Claudius (Stewart), Hamlet has been in a judgmental funk for weeks but it isn’t until The Ghost beseeches him to avenge his murder by proving the guilt of and getting revenge on Claudius that Hamlet really starts to lose his mind, puzzling the adoring Ophelia (Mariah Gale) and others who ascertain that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
Thanks to the exceedingly polished production design to heighten the sense of paranoid claustrophobia, entrapment, and the thought that just around a corner, anyone could be lurking – as is often the case in Shakespeare – the rich black, white, and gray symmetrical columns and curtains give off the feel of foreboding even more in high definition Blu-ray, which helps make up for the shortcomings in its 2.0 soundtrack that leaves some of the Bard’s most famous lines muddled by a missed microphone mark.
And indeed, the authentic setting and intriguing way of balancing the past and the present in this modern but unaltered presentation really sets the ideal stage for the actors, especially Stewart, to play Claudius in a more understated and subtle way than the actor has attacked roles in the past, giving the character a new reading that’s as effective as it is impressive.
It’s hard to say exactly what to make of Tennant’s Hamlet, since there are moments of pure magic in his portrayal but he seems to swing from the pendulum of sanity to insanity so often that he’s all over the place, running from manic to serious as though he just needed the right dose of lithium to make him right as rain again as a Bipolar individual.
Some of his readings are particularly memorable and much like Stewart’s unexpected as he doesn’t go after the major speeches the way that some actors have years earlier but it’s an inconsistent performance that needed some better direction and reeling in to prevent any scenery chewing or confusion.
However, he’s even better than most Hamlets in the confrontational bedroom scene where he charges his mother Gertrude, just before the unfortunate death of Polonius (scene stealer Oliver Ford Davies) as the rage and madness in his eyes is not only believable but so spot-on for the sequence that I’d go as far as to suggest that actors studying the play be shown that interpretation before some of the others that have been filmed. It’s also quite gorgeously photographed on a cinematic level as a fractured mirror and intriguing angles are used to convey the strange way he’s seeing the outside world, moving from stability to insanity.
It’s this sort of back-and-forth approach by Tennant that makes you wonder if he was being encouraged to play the role in an unnatural way for the actor as a human being or how he felt it was right or if perhaps too much time had gone by between the stage and screen production to accurately capture his magic.
And in fact, I was left with the same sense of questioning in regard to the talented Mariah Gale who certainly makes a beautiful and tragic Ophelia… but only when she’s giving one of her big speeches as the rest of the time she looks like she’s in desperate need of direction as to how to react or what to do instead of stare ahead blankly while others reveal startling revelations.
While it doesn’t stand among Kenneth Branagh’s version, which I personally consider to be the definitive filmed adaptation of the work, nor is it even as intriguing to view as the 2000 Hamlet starring Ethan Hawke, it’s still an interesting work to compare and contrast that has enough fine turns and wondrous decisions in camera or design to make it well worth a look.
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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.