Picks and Pans Review: Hamlet

UPDATED 01/21/1991 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 01/21/1991 at 01:00 AM EST

Mel Gibson, Glenn Close

Most of the attention accorded this version of Shakespeare's most revered and most often abused tragedy has gone to Gibson. Fair enough. Although he risked getting stuck in a bard-on-a-wire disaster, Gibson, in the event, makes a most estimable Hamlet, never studied nor tentative, always intriguing, making up in zeal, black-spirited wit and ease of passion what he lacks in elocutionary expertise.

What is most striking about this film, however, is how much light, both literal and figurative, director Franco Zeffirelli sheds not only on Hamlet, but on Shakespeare's whole array of fascinating characters.

Shot in England and Scotland, the movie includes frequent sunlit shots of the countryside, and even the castle scenes' brightness seems enlightening. Then, too, Zeffirelli adds what are essentially illustrations to the play, showing scenes Shakespeare alludes to but didn't write. As Gibson confronts his father's ghost, for instance, Zeffirelli intercuts those scenes with shots of the revelry within the castle centering on Hamlet's mother, Close, and his murderous stepfather, Alan Bates.

Zeffirelli's cutting and pasting, while usually enlivening, has its unhappy side effects. Lost, for example, is the stunning poetry and mood-setting of Shakespeare's opening scenes on the ramparts; instead the film opens with Zeffirelli's invented scene set around the tomb of Hamlet's newly dead father (Paul Scofield). Zeffirelli also cuts the "my words fly up, my thoughts remain below" speech, in which the anguished Bates tries to pray for forgiveness for his crimes, and omits entirely the scene in which Hamlet tells the traveling actors he wants to rewrite the play within the play.

This amounts to cutting entire courses out of a banquet. Yet a feast it remains.

By allowing Scofield to appear on-camera in human form rather than as a vague apparition, Zeffirelli allows him to act instead of just doing a voice-over. His speech to Hamlet about the details of his murder encompasses an infinity of prideful anger, regret, vanity and love.

Close beautifully portrays Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, as a model of a woman who loves neither wisely nor too well but compulsively, out of fear.

Zeffirelli deftly distracts attention from the clichés within the clichés of Polonius's "this above all: to thine own self be true" speech to his son, Laertes, concentrating on the bemused reactions of Laertes (Nathaniel Parker) to his pompous father (Ian Holm).

The director also uses Horatio insightfully, and Stephen Dillane's presence in the role complements that insight.

There are uneasy moments in Zeffirelli's graphic approach to the Oedipal aspects of Gertrude and Hamlet's mother-son relationship, notably in an on-the-bed, kissing-on-the-lips variation on the bedroom scene. (Close, 43, is a bit young to be playing the mother of the 35-year-old Gibson.) Most of the time, though, Gibson is in total control in a performance that ranges from athletic to touching—especially in his reading of his "get thee to a nunnery" speech to Ophelia (Helena Bonham-Carter).

You may never think of Gibson, as you did of Olivier, that he will break your heart with the beauty of his delivery. But then again, you sometimes suspect with Gibson, as you never did with Olivier, that he may find a way to pull a happy ending out of it after all. (PG)

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