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Saturday, 25 of May of 2019

DVD Review – “Hamlet” (2010)

Madness in great ones must not unwatch’d go.”

Just in case you were wondering, he plays Hamlet as crazy

Tackling THE Shakespearean tragedy for the blog’s first DVD review and for the first review of a TV movie is perhaps a bit overly ambitious. Much like any staging of Hamlet, done in any medium, a review of Hamlet must figure out what new things it can say about a canonical piece of literature (no qualifier such as “Western” or “world” needed). Indeed, critiquing the script is pretty pointless (sure, I could complain about which quarto the production used, but I’m not that much of a Shakespeare nerd), so you’re left deciding if the production’s version of the script offers a new spin, if there is cultural relevancy, and whether or not the actors make the script engaging or collapse under its immense weight.

This particular adaption, based on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s staging from their 2008 season with the majority of that cast returning for the film, works very well even if it’s a bit conservative in its staging (compared, say, to Branagh’s opus, the gold standard of filmed versions). However, it’s well worth a watch if only for some fine performances.

I say the staging is conservative because there’s very little added or subtracted to the play overall. Fortinbras’ invasion at the end is ignored (despite the scene where Hamlet encounters those troops remaining in the film), but this is a pretty standard omission in stagings (despite Fortinbras’ parallels with Hamlet, the poor Norwegian is often the first one cut). The setting aims to be vaguely contemporary, given the clothes and the technology, but lacks a definable period. This really isn’t a huge issue, though I think Hamlet, what with its geopolitical bent (if you choose to mention/include/play up Fortinbras and Norway), works better if you can firmly located at a time or place where there are countries/kingdoms/corporations at war.

Indeed, the technology is kind of the glaring thing about this production. Some of it plays from the perspective of security cameras located around Elsinore, giving the sense of someone always spying on someone in the castle. Hamlet’s crazed encounter with Ophelia (“Get thee to a nunnery!”) has Claudius and Polonius watching from behind a 2-way mirror in a room that also houses the security consoles. It’s an ill-played scene from a cinematography and editing perspective, cutting between our normal camera, the closeted perspective, and the security cam. The only pay off the security cameras really get is Hamlet tearing it down, saying, “Now I’m alone.”

Hamlet also pulls out a vintage home movie recorder during the players’ scene, but there’s limited follow through here as well. The shifts in camera technology seem to be a way to enliven the soliloquies, but don’t really achieve this. Indeed, it’s the one fault in the acting: the soliloquies tend to fall fairly flat, existing more as acting exercises than actual performances. David Tennant, while not lost in them by any means, struggles to keep them interesting for us, as soliloquies (and the asides) are delivered directly into the camera. It’s not something particular works on screen as it would on stage. There needs to be more bits of business, otherwise it grinds the production to a halt.

Thankfully, the soliloquies are the only times the acting really ever crumbles. There’s verve in the performers when they act together, crackling energy between all. Tennant allows the 10th Doctor to spill in every now and then, both in tone and facial tics, but his Hamlet isn’t the Doctor doing Hamlet, but a fully realized performance, albeit on that veers into a Hamlet that doesn’t know when to stop playing crazy, and the production never makes a clear cut decision if he has actually gone mad.

Patrick Stewart’s Claudius is a schemer, but a masterful one. Sadly, the superb intellect Stewart plays Claudius as having makes his confessional scene a bit of a weak spot (though it is well said) as it doesn’t fit with the depiction before and after. Penny Downie’s Gertrude is played fairly straight, though she allows Gertrude to have a look of recognition before she drinks from the poisoned goblet, knowing full well that she sacrifices herself in an effort to save her son.

The real scene-stealer, however, is Oliver Ford Davies as Polonius. The production shifts away from the more arch and sinister of recent depictions as instead Davies plays the character more as a bumbling, senile, self-important busy-body. There’s such wit and dedication to the depiction, the asides delivered just splendidly, that Davies walks off with the production, and when Polonius is murdered, a bit of the production is murdered with him.

The special features are standard, including a commentary track with some insight, but you’d be better off watching the 30-minute making of, which is considerably more interesting (and shorter!). The film, overall, is one of the better screen adaptations I’ve seen, and I would recommend it for classroom use, if only because everyone speaks the poetry with lucidity, but not with ponderousness (an occasional problem in the Branagh version), that I think will appeal to students. For scholars and aficionados, I’m not sure that there’s much new here, other than a very solid production.


  • I’ve said nothing of Ophelia because there is little to say. The role is a hard one to crack (I’d argue harder than Hamlet), and Mariah Gale does what she can, but the performance comes off flat before Polonius’ murder and down-right deranged and a bit indulgent after it.
  • The RED One camera keeps things crisp and shiny, which may be why the security cams and home movie look seem so startling out of place.

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