Sunday, December 11, 2022

"Hamlet at Elsinore" (1964) -- Initial Thoughts

Although many, many productions of Hamlet had been filmed before this 1964 version, this is only the second one to have been recorded in the Kronborg Castle at Elsinore (Helsingør, in Danish), where the play takes place.  The first was a silent film, and no one has done another since, which is kind of weird because they do a live production of Hamlet there every summer, and it's a really big deal.  They get big-name actors, and I'm surprised they don't record the performances more often.

Anyway, this particular production was done by the BBC in 1964, and it was recorded on videotape, not film, which I suspected when I was watching it.  Early videotape has a very distinctive look; once you've seen it, you won't have a hard time recognizing it.  Christopher Plummer received an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of Prince Hamlet, as this was telecast in Great Britain and the US.  Oddly, considering the fabulous cast, it was not made available on home video or DVD until 2011.  I'm so glad it wasn't lost, and that we can watch it now, because it is overall so good.  The print gets a little grimy here and there, though, but it's never unwatchable.

It kind of boggles my mind that this was made only one year before The Sound of Music (1965).  Christopher Plummer's Captain von Trapp always strikes me as quite a middle-aged chap in that, but he exudes youth and promise in this.  I would have thought this was about ten years earlier, not one, and the fact that Plummer can convince me he's so young here really adds to my admiration of his performance.

Over all, Plummer is a sympathetic Hamlet.  He is generally gentle and even playful, which I found very pleasing.  But sometimes he ran around and shouted and waved his arms a lot, and that was jarring.  I think he was playing Hamlet as actually going somewhat mad, so I guess all the shouting and arm-waving was supposed to show that?  It was usually super abrupt and unexpected, though, and sometimes pulled me out of the story, which I did not appreciate.

But I really loved a lot of his readings of lines that are often just considered throw-aways or ignored totally.  He clearly put a LOT of thought into his portrayal.  I know that Plummer was a stage actor before he got into movies, and you can see he's very comfortable with this style of storytelling.  I suppose all the shouting and gesticulating might be a carryover from his stage acting, actually, as that's such a different style from film.

Michael Caine was an absolute stand-out as Horatio.  Solid, dependable, loyal, brave, even wise -- everything a Horatio ought to be.  I can't believe Caine has never done any more Shakespeare.  He absolutely sold me here.  At the very end, his exchange with Fortinbras was particularly moving.  I would rather have liked to see how he would play Hamlet himself. 

The other stand-out in this production was Robert Shaw as Claudius.  Oh my goodness!  He was fantastic!  When I looked at the casting for this and saw him here, I was kind of dubious because I mostly think of him as the bad guy in The Sting (1973), and that's kind of a blustery sort of role, more blunt cudgel than sharp knife.  

But oh my, he was so good as Claudius.  Crafty, cunning, and quite sexy.  Wandering about in a dressing gown with no shirt underneath, and canoodling in bed with Gertrude, and then there's this whole thing with him being half-drunk at the play-within-a-play that was super interesting.  I think he's going to edge his way onto my Top 5 Claudiuses list with another viewing or two.

I'm afraid that Polonius (Alec Clunes), Ophelia (Jo Maxwell Muller), and Laertes (Dyson Lovell) were not particularly noteworthy.  Lovell and Muller started out pretty well as an affectionate pair of siblings, but their first scene was their best, and they both bored me later on, until Ophelia's mad scenes.  Muller shone there, I thought.  But Lovell never got interesting again, alas.  And Clunes as Polonius grated on me, though I think that was probably intentional, as this Polonius is not sympathetic at all.

June Tobin was okay as Gertrude.  She pretty clearly didn't believe Hamlet at all in the closet scene, and really preferred to think he was actually mad, as evidenced by the aforementioned satisfied canoodling later on.  No avoiding sharing her bed with Claudius for this Gertrude, which was interesting just because it's so different from a lot of portrayals.

The one rather odd bit of casting was Donald Sutherland as Fortinbras.  Maybe it's just because I've seen him in quite a few other things, but he just felt weirdly modern in the role, while all the others felt suitably... well, Elizabethan, if not actually ancient Danish.  That may just be a personal quibble, though.

The only thing I didn't like much at all was the way the person voicing the Ghost just ranted and shouted and roared and yowled.  If you can chew the scenery with just your voice, that actor did it.  Also, they did a lot of extreme close-ups that were supposed to be really cool or whatever, this being the sixties, but they seem very dated now.

Having the whole thing actually filmed in the real Kronborg Castle was really cool, though the acting was so good that I rarely pulled out of the story enough to think, "Oh, so that's what the actual courtyard looks like!" and so on.

Overall, it's a solidly enjoyable production, and I look forward to watching it again.  For the purpose of my Hamlet Comparisons, here's how I rate the various portrayals:

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

Random note, but wow, 1964 was an amazing year for Hamlet fans.  Not only did this get filmed and telecast, but that's when Richard Burton was playing Hamlet on Broadway, and his version was filmed and released to theaters!  Wow.

Is this version of Hamlet family friendly?  Well, mostly.  But you do have Claudius and Gertrude kissing in bed, him shirtless and her in a sort of corset thing, but it goes no farther than kissing.  But there are a whole lot of paintings all around the castle featuring a lot of naked people, and some families might not be comfortable with that.  

This is my contribution to the Charismatic Christopher Plummer Blogathon hosted by RealWeegieMidget Reviews and Pale Writer this weekend.


  1. Wow, what a cast.. I have never seen this, so this post was full of some lovely surprises.. Caine and Shaw doing Shakespeare and Donald Sutherland!!!!! I totally agree Plummer should stick to his dulcet tones, I watched another of his films at the weekend and did find him difficult to watch when he went shouty. Thanks for joining the blogathon with this fabulous post

    1. Gill, I know, right? Plummer, Shaw, Caine, and Sutherland were all relative unknowns at the time, but that would not be true for long.

      Yes, shouting does not become Plummer. He's much more effective when he's quiet.

  2. This is indeed a very interesting cast, and I guess all you can say is "better late than never" as far as it finally getting a home video release. Donald Sutherland does seem like an odd choice for Fortinbras, but I suppose that's somewhat due in retrospect to the counterculture image he picked up after appearing in MASH and Kelly's Heroes. It sounds like Plummer's performance is somewhat variable, but variable (and shouty) Plummer is better than no Plummer at all. :-)

    1. Brian, yes, I'm glad they did release it at last!

      I've mostly seen Donald Sutherland in things like Pride and Prejudice, Ordinary People, and Cold Mountain, so I think it's more that I'm just not used to him being so very young. I did see MASH once, but that was more than a decade ago and I barely remember it.

      I think Plummer eventually realized that he is better when he's quiet and gave up the shouting -- at least, I don't remember him shouting in later performances, lol.

  3. Seeing photos of Michael Caine and Donald Sutherland when they're both so young is WILD. Definitely had me doing a double-take.

    1. Katie, um, yes. Especially Donald Sutherland, who clearly needed to grow into his face.

  4. I started watching Hamlet with some friends this summer. Not sure what version, and we haven't finished it yet. But loving it!!

    1. Keturah, that's awesome! There are a LOT of versions out there, and I have only seen a fraction of them myself ;-)

  5. I'm so there with this film--it looks better than the Olivier version. Or the Mel Gibson one. Wow.

    1. Rebecca, I definitely enjoyed this more than Olivier's version -- right up there with Richard Burton's for me. It sure gets my recommendation as a solidly interesting and enjoyable adaptation! (It's been so long since I saw Gibson's that I can compare the two.)


Agree or disagree? That is the question...

Comments on old posts are always welcome! Posts older than 7 days are on moderation to dissuade spambots, so if your comment doesn't show up right away, don't worry -- it will once I approve it.

(Rudeness and vulgar language will not be tolerated.)