Tuesday, April 16, 2013

"Hamlet" (1969) -- Initial Thoughts

From the author of 'Romeo and Juliet' -- duh!
The other night, after the kids were all in bed, I said to my husband, "Well, I suppose I should finish watching that Hamlet now."

This is not my usual reaction to having some Hamlet to watch.  Guess that's kind of obvious, since I took my user name and blog name from the play.  I love studying the text, watching adaptations, and reading everything I can find about it, from various rewrites of the story to literary criticisms to Manga books.  If it's about Hamlet, I'll try it.

But I don't like every production I see or every update I read.  I don't agree with every textual criticism out there.  I have my own (constantly evolving) ideas about the play, the characters, its meaning, etc.  But I love how almost every version I see or read will give me a new insight into a scene or a character or even just a line.

Since this review is also part of the Period Drama Challenge, I'll do a little recap of the story here:

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark concerns Prince Hamlet, whose father (King Hamlet) died recently.  Shortly after that, his mother (Queen Gertrude) marries his father's brother (Claudius).  Prince Hamlet is not amused.  Then his father's ghost appears and tells Hamlet that he was murdered by Claudius, and makes Hamlet swear to avenge his murder.  Hamlet may or may not go a little or a lot crazy at this point.  He may or may not then pretend to be crazy in order to try to figure out whether the ghost is telling the truth -- if he believes the ghost, then he's going to need to kill Claudius, who has assumed the throne.  The rest of the world will probably think Hamlet is just mad that he didn't get to be king, like he should have when his father died, and is committing vengeful regicide for that reason, so Hamlet wants some proof before he acts.  He confides all this in his friend and fellow university student, Horatio.  Also around are Ophelia and Laertes and their father Polonius, who's the king's top adviser.  Hamlet and Ophelia may or may not have been in love.

Or, as the old song says, "A ghost and a prince meet, and everyone ends in mincemeat."

While I didn't care for this production on a whole, it did have amazing readings of two key scenes, readings I absolutely loved.  And they both involved Ophelia!  She's not one of my favorite characters... well, okay, she's probably my 4th fave, after Hamlet himself, Horatio, and Laertes.  Too often, she gets portrayed as a frail beauty who is too emotionally fragile to withstand getting dumped, much less her dad dying at the hand of her erstwhile paramour.

Hamlet and Princess Leia... no, no, I mean Ophelia

This Ophelia (Marianne Faithfull) is no hothouse tea rose.  She teases Hamlet (Nicol Williamson).  He teases her back.  I absolutely loved the first half of their main scene together, the one where Claudius (Anthony Hopkins) and Polonius (Mark Dignam) are spying on them and she knows it.  She and Hamlet tease and canoodle -- when he says, "You should not have believed me -- I loved you not," he's about to kiss her and clearly kidding.  She flirts back with an "I was the more deceived" that could curl your toes.  It makes that whole scene work so much better for me, as Hamlet's not being mean at all, which is how he usually comes off.  But then once he figures out they're being watched, he does get really angry, and justifiably so.  The second half of that scene was so much sadder because the first half was joyful.  Awesomely done.


The other scene I loved, because it was not the way we usually see it done, was Ophelia's mad scene.  Which in the play is two scenes, but they're kind of all one scene in this, somewhat interrupted by Laertes' return.  Ophelia seemed to have taken her cue from Hamlet, playing mad to get away with saying things she would get in deep trouble for otherwise.

Gertrude, Ophelia, and Claudius

Her little song about the man who sleeps with a girl and then won't marry her?  While she sings it, she pointedly looks from Gertrude (Judy Parfitt) to Claudius and back.  And when she comes in with her flowers, she gives the rue to Gertrude, not Claudius, which is who she usually is shown giving it to.  This Ophelia clearly knows that there's something very rotten going on indeed, and with Hamlet gone and her father dead, she has thrown caution to the wind and is going to try to have her say.  It was really just amazingly done, and I may end up keeping my copy just for that scene alone.

Okay, but I said I didn't like this version, so what didn't I like?  Well, first of all, I didn't really care for Nicol Williamson as Hamlet.  Once in a while, he would be seized with emotion and be lovely, but most of the time he seemed... disconnected from the role?  I don't know, maybe he was trying to portray Hamlet's growing detachment from everyone but Horatio.  But it didn't work for me.  And if I don't care for the Hamlet, I'm not going to care for the play.

Also, um, Hamlet looked older than Claudius.  That's just wrong.  Truth be told, Nicol Williamson is actually a year older than Anthony Hopkins.  (What was Gertrude thinking???)

But speaking of Anthony Hopkins, he was quite good!  He's only 32 here, if you can imagine him that young (my age!), and very sinister and plotty and lustful.  I'd say he was probably my third-favorite Claudius of all the ones I've seen. One nifty touch -- he wore this dangly earring through the whole play, which turns out to be the poisoned pearl he sticks in the cup during the final duel.

Polonius and Claudius -- see the earring?

As for Horatio (Gordon Jackson), I spent a lot of time trying to figure out where I'd seen him before.  Looked him up on imdb.com just now, and of course!  He played MacDonald ("Intelligence") in The Great Escape (1963).  No wonder he seemed familiar!  I liked his Horatio okay, though he seemed a bit more jovial than I usually like.  Also, his mouth hung half-open almost all the time, which was annoying.

This Gertrude is very cold, especially toward Ophelia.  When Ophelia comes in, "mad," crying for the beauteous majesty of Denmark, Gertrude clearly wants nothing to do with her, and just agrees to see her to keep the court gossips quiet.  I tend to want Gertrude to be at least sympathetic toward Hamlet, but even in their confrontation in her chambers, she seemed really distanced from Hamlet.  Not motherly.  I was not a fan.

Gertrude and Claudius

And Laertes (Michael Pennington)... I'm used to being disappointed by Laertes.  Only once have I seen him played to my liking (Liev Schreiber in the 2000 version), but this guy... eeeeeee!  He looked like a Monkee who wandered onto the wrong soundstage.  I happen to love the Monkees, but not in a serious production of Hamlet.  Also, there was some severe weirdness going on between him and Ophelia.  When she said goodbye because he was returning to Paris, they kissed.  Like, reeeeeally kissed.  I know this was the '60s and all, but... ew!  There's wrong, and then there's wrong, and then there's that.

Laertes and Ophelia.  Are they watching TV?

Polonius (Mark Dignam) was just kind of there.  I was indifferent to him, but I often am.

And I really hated how the duel between Hamlet and Laertes was shot.  They stuck a big candelabra between the actors and the camera for almost the entire scene!  Was this to mask their ineptness at swordplay?  Suddenly try to distance the audience from the action?  It was distracting and annoying.

Also, they never showed the Ghost!  It was just a bright light shining from behind the camera.  And Nicol Williamson did the voice.  Which, in a way, was kind of intriguing, like maybe Hamlet really was just imagining everything the Ghost said, and that's why he's the only one who can hear it.  But that's not an interpretation I like much (that Hamlet is truly mad), so that didn't really spark any joy for me.

From now on, whenever I watch or rewatch a version of Hamlet, I'm going to do a little rating thing at the end of my review.  Just to make it easier to compare what I think of different versions.  Here's how I rate this one:

Hamlet:  C-
Horatio:  B-
Laertes:  D
Ophelia:  A
Claudius:  B+
Gertrude:  C-
Polonius:  C
Overall Production:  C-

As for the costumes, they were your usual doublets and hose kind of stuff.  (Though I just realized that, of all the versions of Hamlet I've seen, only 3 have used doublets and hose.  So it's more stereotypical than usual anymore.)  I watched a VHS version, so can't screencap it in any way, and there are very few photos around online of this production.  Ophelia had a very pretty dress toward the beginning, but her overall look was so very Barbra Streisand that... yeah, it was the '60s, and you can tell.

Ophelia's prettiest dress, which I can't find much of a picture of.
Is this movie family-friendly?  As much as a story of about murder and probable adultery and vengeance can be.  Plus, there's that one icky kiss between Laertes and Ophelia that I want to scrub out of my brain.  And a low-cut dress or two, and of course a bunch of people die.


  1. I'm sorry the movie was a bit of a disappointment to you. That's always such a bummer.

    Dare I admit that I'm not a Shakespeare kind of gal? The sorriest thing about that is that my maiden name is McBeth (My great-great-grandfather took the "a" out of the spelling, though his brother maintained the MacBeth spelling.) With such a name, I ought to love Shakespeare, don't you think?

    1. Well, I've seen 11 different versions now (10 on VHS/DVD, 1 live), and this is only the 3rd to disappoint me, so I'm not too sad.

      Shakespeare is not for everyone, just like westerns aren't, and rom-coms aren't, and epistolary novels aren't, etc. I adore Hamlet, and I really love some of his other plays, but of the ones I've read/seen (and there are a bunch I haven't), I'd say I downright dislike about a quarter of them.

      You know that in live theatre, it's bad luck to say "MacBeth," right? So... maybe it's okay you don't like Shakespeare ;-)

  2. Cait and Mime are always doing something fun at their site. I have never seen two book obsessed people in my life.

    Actually, I had a hard time trying to decide who my favorite couple is...I love Ron and Hermione and also Finnick Odair and Annie Cestra from "The Hunger Games," but James and Lily had the most interesting relationship to me.


    1. Ron and Hermione were almost my choice!

    2. Sorry to bother you...but how can you add the reply/delete on your comments? Everyone has it, except me and I'm in utter embarrassment at not being able to figure out how to add it.

    3. No prob! It depends on what option of comment style you've chosen, I think. Go to your blogs "Settings" and click on "Posts and Comments." Then choose "embedded" from the drop-down menu where it says "Comment Location." That should do it! If that doesn't make sense, let me know and I'll try to re-explain it.

    4. It worked! Thank you so much!


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