Whether 'tis nobler on screen to play 'Hamlet' for intellect or for glamour and charm


January 13, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

It has been remarked that each age invents its own Shakespeare, which is certainly true, or at least true enough. But if it follows necessarily that each age invents its own Hamlet, then brother, are we in trouble.

Compare Laurence Olivier's 1948 version of the Shakespearian tragedy with the Mel Gibson/Franco Zeffirelli model opening here Friday and you get a chilling sense of what that means. It's not that Gibson is ungifted, or that he brings to his interpretation -- the word is used loosely -- a particular sense of stupidity. Or that he's technically not up to the most demanding part in the canon. Rather it's that his Hamlet has an eerie sense of limits, of callowness. He's beautiful but shallow, not so much a melancholy Dane as one who's not having a nice day.

With this yuppie-Prince at its center, Zeffirelli has managed to make Shakespeare's greatest and most modern play one-dimensional. It's quite an achievement -- though of what I'm not sure.

But perhaps it's not surprising. Zeffirelli, after all, made his fortune and reputation back in 1968 with a gaudy, romantic teen-age version of "Romeo and Juliet," which however remarkable in concept and execution it may or may not have been, was high art as demographics. Zeffirelli had to know that the burgeoning power of the emergent baby-boom generation, then on the cusp of teenhood, was just beginning to be felt at the movies. Thus he made a movie for them, through the medium of Shakespeare. It was if he were saying: "Hey kids, guess what? The most important grown-up play in the world . . . it's really about you!"

His "Hamlet" may have the same hidden agenda: It seems a work calculated not to provoke or challenge, but to reassure. There's little anger or sense of betrayal brooding through it; rather, we get a Hamlet who is a paradigm of early middle-aged dreamlife, complete to a Timothy Busfield close-cropped beard, workout-supple body and glossy charm, none of it masking a particularly incisive intelligence.

Thus we get a Hamlet, courtesy of the ever-charming Gibson, who is best at the social aspects of the role -- a Hamlet who gives great lunch. Watch him flirt his way through the performance, wagging lashes not only with Ophelia and his mother, but also with the camera and the audience. It's as if Zeffirelli has come back to the same audience that made "Romeo and Juliet" such a hit, giving them a thirtysomething Hamlet for their thirtysomething lives.

This is certainly legitimate, even enjoyable, after a fashion, though it's certainly not resonant. In fact, it seems to strip from the character exactly what has made him timeless; it's as if Zeffirelli is replacing complexity with movie-star persona and hoping that it is enough. But one has merely to contrast this smile-button Hamlet with the more complex creation of Laurence Olivier in his 1948 film.

Olivier's "Hamlet" remains an astonishment. It is rumored that a Russian "Hamlet," starring Innokenti Smoktunovsky as directed by Grigori Kozintsev in 1964, is better, but I have not seen it and cannot say. What is true is that Olivier's "Hamlet," scorned by some at the time of its release, is an extraordinary performance and, more, an extraordinary film (Olivier directed). It was also, as they say, a helluva movie.

To begin with, Olivier's "Hamlet" (the film, not the character; to distinguish I'll refer to the movie in quotes and the character without them) is a kind of film-noir version of the play, or at least the "Hamlet" of a director who had seen and loved Welles' "Citizen Kane," for it's full of the same low ceilings and dark and twisty corridors and it deploys the same unusually deep-focus photography that made "Kane" so unsettling.

For Olivier's production, unlike his storybook-lovely, gently pastel Henry V" of a few years earlier, is dark and crabbed, in black and white; his Elsinore has an almost urban-street feel, a fog-shrouded warren of halls and corridors. As severe as the nearly monochromatic cinematography is, so too is the production nearly monochromatic: There's little enough medieval pageantry, the costumes are nondescript, the setting somewhat timelessly set in a "past" rather than a specific past.

By contrast, Zeffirelli's is a costume "Hamlet," an explicitly medieval "Hamlet." One of the conceits of the piece -- and another of its comforting nods to the baby-boom generation -- is its sense of return to the bourgeois pleasures of the historical drama of the mid-'50s, such as "When Knighthood Was in Flower" or "The Black Knight" -- that is, when their childhood was in flower.

In blossoming color, it's set in a glorious seaside castle against the verdant landscape (no Denmark ever looked this lush); the costumes are vivid and flattering, the cinematography is romantic and particularly sensitive to ripe skin tones. Everything in the film reeks of class and seriousness -- the best in middlebrow "important" movie making.

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