A Hawk from a Handsaw: Hamlet in Film

Craig Clarke wrote this essay.

“I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.”
–Hamlet, Act II, scene ii

Hamlet is arguably both the greatest play in the English language and perhaps the most film-adapted tale of all. A work so ingrained in global consciousness that people introduced to the play for the first time have seen it as “nothing but a bunch of quotations strung together.” A character so much a part of modern culture that A&E’s Biography has profiled him with experts such as Orson Welles giving their interpretations of his “life story.”

For the uninitiated, the story is pretty simple. Young Hamlet, prince of Denmark, comes home from boarding school to find his father, King Hamlet, dead. To make matters worse, he does not ascend to the throne as his uncle Claudius — his father’s brother — has married Hamlet’s mother Gertrude and usurped the kingship. Hamlet is visited by his father’s ghost, who tells him it was Claudius that did the murder and that Hamlet must avenge him. The rest of the play involves Hamlet’s pursuit of evidence and of an opportunity to kill the new king. As it is a Shakespearean tragedy, by the end all the major characters die, save one to tell the story.

Hamlet is a very complex role involving a constant state of switching emotions to suit the present scene. In some scenes, he mourns his father, in others anger is present, and in still others Hamlet acts as if he is crazy. (Whether he is or not is still debated.) It is also a very physically demanding role, requiring one to drain oneself emotionally for hours and still retain the energy for a lengthy sword fight at the end. (Joan Plowwright, widow of Laurence Olivier, in her scene in the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Last Action Hero, called Hamlet the “first action hero.”)

Thus, every actor dreams of playing the “melancholy Dane,” of adding his (or her, in the case of Sarah Bernhardt and other brave women) name to the long list of True Actors — those who have tackled this most difficult of roles. But why, one wonders? What can one more interpretation add to the canon? How many more times can a cinematic audience be confronted with the question of whether “to be or not to be” and not get a real answer?

Well, I respond to that question with a resounding “I don’t know.” After all, I am just a film reviewer, and am neither clairvoyant nor privy to one. Hamlet’s character is so complex that everyone can have their own interpretation of the story. There is even a reported rumor that states that an actor playing the gravedigger was asked what the play was about.

His answer: “It’s about this gravedigger who…”

What I do know, instead, is that there have been many standout portrayals of Hamlet — whether standout in skill or simply in popularity. And every year more are added in cinemas, in theatres around the world, and especially in front of bedroom mirrors (arguably the most numerous, but I lack the numbers to prove it).

Perhaps the most famous film Hamlet is Laurence Olivier. Released in 1948, his Hamlet is considered the definitive adaptation. He even directed himself to an Academy Award for Best Actor, only one of two actor/directors to do so. (Ten points if you know the other one.)

And his performance is certainly one of the best (I’m not about to make a final pronouncement). While watching his Hamlet, I found myself newly understanding lines I’d previously misinterpreted (“country matters” was finally — and rather shockingly, I must admit — elucidated); and that’s a firm feather-in-the-cap in my book for anyone who can do that for me. However, his motivation behind the character of a “man who could not make up his mind” is far too simplistic for me to easily stomach.

Undoubtedly, the Hamlet that made schoolchildren cheer was the Franco Zeffirelli version from 1990 starring Mel Gibson and Glenn Close. Now here was a Hamlet modern folk could sink their teeth into. Gibson’s performance is the most natural of the ones I have seen, but here again, it is played too simply to appreciate the nuances of the text. Watching this film is more like reading the Cliff Notes; you get the main gist without any real appreciation. Hamlet as mass media cinematic entertainment. Zeffirelli even rearranges scenes and dialogue so that they flow better as a film.

But that’s his thing. His Romeo and Juliet (starring actual teenagers Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey) and The Taming of the Shrew (with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor) are considered to be the landmark film versions of those plays. I think in his bringing the plot of Shakespeare to the masses, he forgets to stay true to the essence, but you can’t deny that he makes Shakespeare accessible.

A much more dramatic misstep was taken by Kenneth Branagh. His marvelous Henry V has overshadowed the original Olivier version in its warlike realism and his Much Ado About Nothing is a favorite with romantics everywhere (Branagh and then-wife Emma Thompson are particular standouts as Benedick and Beatrice), but when he decided to film Hamlet in its entirety, I could but groan and think “Houston, the ego has landed.” His Hamlet is the most overwrought spectacle ever given the name of Shakespeare.

Not only does Branagh chew up every piece of opulent scenery available, but he actually succeeds in making his fellow actors appear worse than they are by simply being onscreen with him. (And this comes — regrettably — from one who was once a fan.) Plus, he allows the comedians in this troupe (specifically Billy Crystal but also Robin Williams) to ham it up in a way that is never acceptable outside of vaudeville and Jim Carrey movies. Williams gave a beautifully nuanced performance in Branagh’s Dead Again, but here he seems to have forgotten all about that. One can only think that he was directed to act in this offensive fashion.

Even the wonderful Kate Winslet goes over the top with her Ophelia. It is regrettable that Helena Bonham Carter was not around to give her some pointers on the role she perfected in the Zefferelli version. Only King Claudius (Derek Jacobi) and Queen Gertrude (Julie Christie) survive unscathed by this travesty of an adaptation. The royalty shows how it should be done.

Didn’t Branagh learn a thing from Jacobi’s terrifically energetic performance filmed by the BBC in 1980? It may not be the best interpretation, but it’s certainly the most fun to watch. One thinks that Jacobi must have been exhausted playing this Hamlet night after night on the stage. He puts every fiber of his being into it. No melancholy Dane, he.

Agreeing with the modern interpretation that Prince Hamlet is not crazy but is merely acting (“…shall think meet to put an antic disposition on…”) until he can prove that Claudius (the underappreciated Patrick Stewart) murdered his father, Jacobi is especially animated throughout the play, hardly settling down, even to die. It is a fine portrayal and the first one I really loved. I’ve been a fan of Jacobi ever since.

One actor of whom I am not a fan, however, is Ethan Hawke. His tendency to play every character with shallow, pretentious arrogance puts me off so much that I can barely watch him onscreen. But in Michael Almereyda’s updated Hamlet, this works in the film’s favor. After all, wouldn’t a prince of Denmark (or, in this case, the son of the CEO of the Denmark Corporation)–a young man who was born rich and has been given everything — be shallow, pretentious, and arrogant? Of course he would, and that is why Hawke is perfect in this role.

In fact, almost everything is perfect about this adaptation. Once you get past its modernization of the text (including fax machines and Hamlet’s film school aspirations), it is a truly faithful interpretation — and probably the first to show genuine affection between Claudius (Kyle McLachlan) and Gertrude (Diane Venora), implying another motive for the quick wedding besides the normal political one.

Also worth mentioning is the performance of Julia Stiles as Ophelia. The foremost “modernized-Shakespearean” actress of our time — with parts in 10 Things I Hate About You and O in addition to this — Stiles really shines. Her scenes with father Polonius (Bill Murray, truly showing himself as an actor of great courage) are worth viewing for their subtext alone.

A rather oblique rendering that still deserves mention is Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, where Hamlet is only a minor character in the story of his two “bosom friends.” Iain Glen thus gives the expectedly static performance as the Dane — understandable as his character has no discernible arc.

The fun is in watching the titular duo spar verbally, the more logical and intellectual Guildenstern (Tim Roth) against the more childlike, easily fascinated Rosencrantz (Gary Oldman). The Players (headed by Richard Dreyfuss) also get vastly more screen time. A wonderful literary romp with scads of memorable quotes — although not an especially good showcase for the actor playing Hamlet.

But, I digress. There is a reason why Hamlet is interpreted anew at every opportunity, and not only in English-speaking countries. Although he is not an everyman, he is a character which we all understand in a situation we would not like to see ourselves. In short, he’s an entertaining sod. His story is never boring and it ends with all major (and most minor) characters visiting “the undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns.”

A modern producer would probably call it “Ordinary People meets Reservoir Dogs” and then complain that there’s no room for a sequel. (“Can’t we do something with that Fortinbras guy?”)

Hamlet (J. Arthur Rank Films, 1948)
Hamlet (BBC, 1980)
Hamlet (Warner Brothers, 1990)
Hamlet (Columbia Pictures, 1996)
Hamlet (Double A Films, 2000)
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (Cinecom Pictures, 1990)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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