John Bauer has given his permission to reprint his review
1990 Franco Zeffirelli Hamlet, originally posted to rec.arts.movies.past-films:
HAMLET (1990) ***1/2 [Note: After claiming otherwise,
my appetite was indeed whetted by Kenneth Branagh's HAMLET to
search out other attempts to translate Shakespeare to film in
hopes of finding a better mousetrap. As it happens, it didn't
there a more romantic director than Franco Zeffirelli?
Known mainly to American audiences as the man behind 1968's ROMEO
AND JULIET (required viewing for many high schoolers, and as
much as most ever learn of Shakespeare), he is also a favorite
at the Metropolitan Opera, where his achingly beautiful designs
further the already lush emotion of many a Puccini aria. Last
year he gave us his beautifully realized version of JANE EYRE,
one of the twin peaks (with WUTHERING HEIGHTS) of romantic literature.
It might seem peculiar, then, that Zeffirelli
ever had an interest in translating HAMLET for the screen. At
first blush, HAMLET is far removed from romance. The hero, though
a prince, is depressed, conflicted and confused. The ostensible
love interest gets little screen time, and her scenes with her
prince are usually as an object of mockery. The plot is full
of political intrigue and the players are as cursed as the House
It is Zeffirelli's genius, however, that
he is able to expose the romantic core of HAMLET and give the
sometimes dry tale an emotional embrace. In this Italian master's
hands, romance is everywhere -- in a son's worship of his father,
in the bonds of deepest friendship, in the private thoughts of
young lovers, even in the mystery of castles by the sea. After
all, the story hinges on a ghost, and what could be more romantic
than that?What seemed like a cheap way
to sell tickets at the time turned out to be one of the most
romantic gestures of all, namely, hiring then-reigning Hollywood
hunk Mel Gibson to play the lead. Who could believe that the
man who made his mark playing Mad Max and a "lethal weapon"
(in the series of the same name) would have the skill to succeed
in the most famous role in the English language? Franco Zeffirelli,
that's who. And it is apparent in every frame that his instinct
was right on the money.
What Gibson brings to the role is a naturalness
and ease which makes the whole story meaningful, not to mention
comprehensible. His line readings sound spontaneous rather than
rehearsed. His movements and gestures (excepting his sometimes
too active eyes) are totally in keeping with the character. This
is a Hamlet whose pain we feel, whose struggle we empathize with,
and whose death we mourn as sincerely as Horatio at film's end.
Glenn Close, the other big name in the production,
also does well by the script and satisfies as Hamlet's mother,
Gertrude -- though I must confess I'm still trying to understand
the character as written. (Zeffirelli's incestuous interpretation
of Hamlet's relationship with his mother doesn't help.) Alan Bates makes a believably evil Claudius
without resorting to the mannerisms of a Hollywood heavy.
By and large the rest of the cast performs admirably and comfortably.
[NOTE: click on the small photo above for a Gallery photo of
Close and Bates.]
Of special note are the cinematography by
David Watkin and the score by Ennio Morricone. Both support the
realistic mood marvelously (as do the sets and costumes), without
any overstated effects that declare "this is important;
this is Shakespeare!" I particularly appreciate that the
words are often spoken without any music at all: the melody of
a wonderfully wrought phrase is given its due.
Perhaps it is difficult to call edited Shakespeare
"definitive." And there are certainly quite a few other
filmed versions of HAMLET that I have not seen. But if you've
ever felt the urge to overcome your fear of the Bard, this HAMLET
is an excellent place to start.
-- John Bauer 5/10/97