LOS ANGELES -- Hamlet is no wimp.
Franco Zeffirelli, director of the new film adaptation of the classic play, is quite adamant on the point.
"Hamlet is a storm of a man, a volcano," Zeffirelli insisted during a recent interview. "I've always seen him as a very wild cat. All this melancholy has been added, like bad varnish on a great painting."
The director, whose 1968 film of "Romeo and Juliet" introduced a generation to Shakespearean tragedy, hopes to scrape away some of that varnish with his new "Hamlet," which stars Mel Gibson, Glenn Close, Alan Bates, Ian Holm and Helena Bonham-Carter.
It says a lot about his approach that he cast Gibson in the title role. It says even more that he did so after seeing Gibson in "Lethal Weapon."
"He gave a magnificent performance [in that police drama]," Zeffirelli said. "I thought, 'That's it. He is attractive, he is naughty, he is dangerous.' "
Beyond those qualities, Zeffirelli said he was attracted to Gibson's "vitality, his mystery, his sudden changes of color, his humor. We've never had this humor in Hamlet, but it's there. Shakespeare gives him lines to bring the house down. But the wimpys" don't convey it.
The wimpys. That's Zeffirelli's derisive term for the actors who play Hamlet in a brooding way. Though he doesn't say so directly, one suspects he includes Laurence Olivier in that category; his praise for Olivier's 1948 film of "Hamlet" is, at best, grudging.
Olivier's Hamlet, in a sentence, is "a man who could not make up his mind." Zeffirelli's Hamlet, in contrast, is "a man who has a terrible problem with his mother."
Specifically, in Zeffirelli and Gibson's interpretation, he's a prince who has never fully let go of the royal apron strings.
Zeffirelli believes his interpretation also explains the doomed relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia.
"This is a love affair that cannot happen," he said. "He cannot really be, for Ophelia, what she would expect and deserve him to be. At the end, he's honest. He says, 'Get thee to a nunnery.' "