Thursday, February 08, 2018

"Hamlet" (2011)

Do you remember when I made up a film noir version of Hamlet called Murder Most Foul for the Imaginary Film Blogathon a few years back?  Well, it turns out somebody really, truly made a noir version back in 2011, filmed in only three days on a shoestring budget.  It's available on Blu-Ray only, never been released to DVD, which annoys me to no end because I don't own a Blue-Ray player.  HOWEVER!  You can watch it on Amazon Instant Video too, and if you have Amazon Prime, it's free.  For now.  Which is how I found it and watched it multiple times.  (And then I bought the Blu-Ray anyway because I'll end up with a Blu-Ray player someday, that's pretty obviously how the tech is trending.)(And I liked this so stinking much I can't bear not to have it in my collection.)

OH MY GOODNESS.  This movie!  I have so many things to say about it, I could do multiple posts.  One on the script, one on the acting, one on the cinematography, one on the scenery and costumes -- it is an absolute triumph of a film.

(Before I gush, I do need to warn you that there are two scenes that most of my readers are going to want to skip.  If you can watch this via ClearPlay or VidAngel, do so.  More on that at the bottom, okay?)

First off, this film is only 1 hour and 27 minutes long.  Which makes it the shortest serious production of Hamlet I've ever encountered.  I mean, most people don't go the Kenneth Branagh route and do the 4-hour full text version, but up to now, the shortest one I'd seen was the 2000 version with Ethan Hawke, which is just a hair under 2 hours.  If you had said to me, "I bet someone can tell Hamlet in under 90 minutes and include absolutely everything essential," I would have laughed at you.  In a less-than-credulous manner. Because, dude, how could you squish four hours of story into ninety minutes?  Not possible.

Silly me.  It's totally possible.  Bruce Ramsay adapted the screenplay, as well as directing the film and starring in it (my kind of person -- I would totally want to wear all those hats at once for a project like this), and he did a brilliant job of paring this story down to its absolute essentials.  And instead of feeling like you are missing things, it makes you really tune in to the various relationships and emotions, which are what drive the story, after all.

And then there's the setting -- post-WWII, a big manor house called Elsinore on the night of Gertrude's remarriage to Claudius.  Every scene takes place inside the house, except those of someone arriving in a car.

This makes the story fearsomely claustrophobic, really zeroing in on how trapped these characters are in their tragic circumstances.  The house is almost deserted -- the cast has been honed down to only twelve people, and one of them has zero lines and isn't actually in the original play at all.

Oh, and the first 8 minutes of the film have no dialog at all.  Which is amazing.  Here's how it all plays out.

Hamlet (Bruce Ramsay) arrives after all the wedding guests have departed.  He skulks about the house, gazing at all the party remnants, eventually being found by Ophelia (Lara Gilchrist).

The two of them fall into each others' arms, and the next thing you know, they're engaging in skippable content in a back hallway, where they get interrupted and have to flee.

Meanwhile, Laertes (Haig Sutherland) is on his way out, sped by permission from Claudius (Peter Winfield) and money from his father Polonius (Duncan Fraser).

Claudius and Gertrude (Gillian Barber) welcome Hamlet, both still wearing their wedding clothes.

Hamlet refuses to rejoice with them.  The party is over, and he wants it to stay that way.  He skulks around his dead father's office, brooding nicely, until his friend Horatio (Stephen Lobo) finds him there.

Horatio gently reveals the fact that he has seen Hamlet's father's ghost, and of course Hamlet can't rest until he gets to see it too.

Up Hamlet goes to a set of abandoned servant-quarters high inside the mansion, where he encounters the ghost of his father, King Hamlet (Russell Roberts).

The king, of course, reveals that he has been murdered by his brother Claudius, who wanted his crown and his queen.

This knowledge eats away at Hamlet, who restlessly paces the halls, ending up in Ophelia's room.

They begin to engage in more skippable content, but she promised her father she would not have anything to do with Hamlet, so she eventually repulses him, then tells her father that Hamlet came to her room behaving most bizarrely, and Polonius jumps to the conclusion that Hamlet has gone mad.  Hamlet encourages this notion, of course.

Hamlet decides to try to get proof of some sort that what the Ghost told him was true, so he and Horatio act out a bit of a play for Gertrude and Claudius, a play that closely resembles the way his father's ghost says he was murdered.

Claudius freaks out and leaves, so Hamlet is convinced the ghost was telling the truth.  Hamlet eavesdrops as Claudius confesses his sins aloud in what he thinks is an empty room, praying for a way to gain forgiveness.

Hamlet confronts his mother in her room, accusing her of killing her husband so she can marry her brother-in-law.  This Gertrude is pretty shocked by that accusation, clearly innocent of the whole thing.  To my way of thinking, anyway.

Polonius is hiding behind her curtains, spying on them, and Hamlet stabs him, thinking it's Claudius.  He lugs the body out and down to hide it in a storage room or something that opens off the banquet hall.

Meanwhile, Ophelia has learned of her father's murder at the hand of the man she loves, and she begins to grieve uncontrollably.  Ophelia calls Laertes to inform him of their father's death, then doesn't so much go mad as sink into despair.

She does get part of her "mad scene," singing songs about dead people and maids who lose their maidenly virtue.

And Hamlet gets to be there for that scene, which is such an amazing change.  He's confronted with the direct consequences of his rash and bloody deed, which stops him from being so cavalier about the whole affair.

Laertes arrives seeking vengeance.  He arrives just in time to hear that Ophelia has drowned, and pulls her out of the water himself in a very sweet and touching scene.

Hamlet finds him there, and they fight.  Laertes pulls out a pistol Claudius gave him and starts shooting people.

He and Hamlet fight more, and then people get shot and stabbed right and left until Horatio is left alone, surrounded by dead bodies and cradling his friend's lifeless form.

The entire thing has taken place in one night, by the way.  It's a masterful condensation of a long story into a short time-frame.

But it ends kind of abruptly there, no police arriving or anything, and the suddenness of that ending is the only real writing decision I dislike.  I need more denouement to absorb the events, and when I don't get that, I just sort of sit there staring at the end credits feeling shocked.  But that's a minor quibble, compared to the absolute excellence of the rest of the production.

Interestingly, it's Hamlet who does most of the eavesdropping and spying in this version.  Usually he's the one being spied upon, but here he is constantly lurking outside doors and around corners, overhearing what others say.  It's a nifty twist, especially since it lets him overhear Claudius' confession.

They do a lot of mixing up of lines in this, giving different bits to different people wherever it will make the most sense.  I'm fine with that.  This is not a production aimed at purists, but rather one that seeks to tell this story in a fresh, vibrant way.  I say it succeeds.

The cinematography is delicious.  The brooding atmosphere, lavish and decaying and eerie, makes this a beautiful bit of neo-noir filmmaking.  I mean, look at these shots!

The acting here is top-notch.  Bruce Ramsay makes such a good Hamlet, charming and angry and confused and suspicious and mournful and rash.

Stephen Lobo is a fantastic Horatio, sympathetic and helpful and kind and protective -- one of my favorite Horatios ever, and you know I'm picky about them.

I'm not as keen on Haig Sutherland as Laertes, for he lacks some of the verve and charm I want from the role, but he's a loving brother to Ophelia, which I absolutely require in a Laertes, so he gets props for that.

Ophelia is sweet and beautiful, somehow both fragile and steely, which fascinates me.  One of the best Ophelias I've ever seen.

Peter Wingfield is a sinisterly charming Claudius, sly and bold and handsome.  Gillian Barber is fine as Gertrude, very sympathetic.

Duncan Fraser is a smarmy Polonius, but seems to genuinely care about his children for once.  Some Polonius portrayals make me want to slap him, but he's not a bad guy here, just too nosy for his own good.

And then there's John Cassini as the Butler.  There's no butler in the original play.  His character is 100% added, and 100% awesome.  He's entirely on Hamlet's side, helps him out numerous times, and even though he never says a word, I am basically in love with him.  I call him The Wonderful Butler because... that's what he is.

Is this movie family friendly?  Nope.  Like I said, there are two times when Hamlet and Ophelia engage in activities that are absolutely inappropriate.  They're pretty easy to skip, though.  The first runs from 6:23 to 7:30, and the second is from 31:10 to 32:09.

My rating of the various characterizations and overall production, which I will add to my Hamlet Comparisons page:

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


  1. I call him The Wonderful Butler because... that's what he is.

    Is he ever! Absolutely love his silent character. This is such a good movie. Works on so many levels for me, and at the moment, I have to say it's my favorite movie version of Hamlet because of how tight the writing is, the atmospheric setting, and all the actors. Really loved reading this write-up.

    1. DKoren, exactly. He is The Wonderful Butler.

      This is probably tied with the Ethan Hawke 2000 movie as my favorite filmed version of Hamlet.

  2. This sounds like a great film. I can see how you would be very very happy to have found it :D

    Aw. I love characters who can endear themselves to audiences without saying a single word.

    One question: Have you ever seen David Tennant's Hamlet? If so, is it good? I ask because he's such a huge favorite of mine, I'm looking to see him in more roles--and Hamlet seems like an obvious choice, provided he does a good job.

    1. Jessica, it is just... breathtaking, really. And very pretty, nudge nudge wink wink.

      Yup, David Tennant's is really good! He's excellent, Patrick Stewart is chilling, and yeah... good production overall. Very much worth checking out. I've switched up my Hamlet-centric page here on this blog to include some thoughts on all the versions I've seen, so you can check that out here if you want to see a few more of my thoughts on that one.

    2. Ah ;-)

      All right, then! I'll have to check that one out; because I pretty much adore David Tennant, and to see him act Shakespeare would truly be something special.

  3. I read about three paragraphs of this until I just had to go over to Amazon and watch it for myself! Great review of it! I was really impressed with how short and concise it was too. Didn't miss anything they cut out, because they didn't leave any holes. Super impressed with the acting. I liked the Horatio too, he felt very warm. Very different from the character that actor plays in Continuum! Hehe. The only thing that bothered me was the production quality -- with the camera and lights. Sometimes it would look awesome, and sometimes the coloring would be off, or the light awkward, and the camera's focus would be on the background. It's the photographer in me I guess. I read on imdb that they used the same camera I use to shoot the film, which is impressive even with the few mistakes! I like the long takes they did too. With long takes of wide shots you get to look where you want to look, and I enjoy that a lot! Great review Hamlette, thanks for sharing this movie's existence!

    1. Sarah, wow! I'm so excited to hear you went and watched it! I agree some of the filming was a little squiffy, but I put that down to the low budget and short filming time. So glad you enjoyed both the movie and my post!

  4. Wow! Who knew there were so many different versions of Hamlet?

    1. MC, yeah, there are probably hundreds by this point? Of filmed versions, I mean -- there have been thousands and thousands of different stage productions.


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