Thursday, March 28, 2019

Thin Walls and Torment in Denmark

There is an interior, psychological quality to Hamlet that often inspires minimalist productions such as Tony Richardson's 1969 film adaptation. Like Laurence Olivier's adaptation, Richardson's features darkly lit backgrounds and minimalist sets, though Richardson employs more detailed period decor and some really pretty, effectively used tapestries. But a sense of minimalism is emphasised by the incredible number of close-up shots on actors' faces; it feels like the whole movie is close-ups. It is sometimes dizzying but the performances by Nicol Williamson, Anthony Hopkins, Roger Livesey, and Marianne Faithfull happily justify the visual scrutiny.

Actually Marianne Faithfull isn't a terribly good Ophelia--I found myself wondering if her eyebrows were paralysed. They never, ever move. But she's really sexy; for some reason she delivers all her lines like a seductress, even in her final scene when she's becoming unglued. The Wikipedia entry says Richardson focuses on the sexual aspects of the play, "to the point of strongly implying an incestuous relationship between Laertes and Ophelia," an impression I didn't get at all but Richardson does introduce Ophelia in her scene with Laertes with a wonderfully sexual low angle shot of her reclining while he leans over her.

But one of the things I really liked about this version is that the bedroom scene between Hamlet (Williamson) and Gertrude doesn't come across as sexual at all despite the fact that the actress who plays Gertrude, Judy Parfitt, was only two years older than Williamson. The idea that Hamlet wants to have sex with his mother is about as tediously commonplace as productions of Shakespeare where everyone dresses as Nazis. I really liked Williamson in this scene; he becomes plaintive and childlike and you get the sense of how much his pain is informed by the loss of his family not only through the death of his father but through treachery of his mother.

It's hard to say if I would appreciate Nicol Williamson quite so much if I hadn't grown up watching him over and over again in Excalibur but I love all his peculiar intonations and surprising emotional shifts. Anthony Hopkins was an interesting choice for Claudius--he was a year younger than Williamson but already capable of an excellently naturalistic delivery. I especially loved how he delivered the line telling Gertrude not to drink from the cup at the end--he says it just as he's turning from looking at something else and spots her putting the cup to her lips. So you hear the surprise in his voice that prompts him to show his hand abruptly but there's enough cunning in it, Hopkins' tone drawing back, that it doesn't come to more than the ambiguous, "Gertrude, do not drink," Richardson omitting the aside, "It is the poison'd cup: it is too late."

I was very pleasantly surprised to see Roger Livesey in two roles as the lead player and the grave digger. Like Charleton Heston in the Kenneth Branagh film, it seems like there's a tradition of casting the lead player with an established star from a previous generation and Livesey's refined bombast made him perfect. And it was just cool seeing Merlin doing a scene with Clive Candy from The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. This version of Hamlet is available on Amazon Prime, a really nice HD edition.

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