HAMLET Mel Gibson plays role without soul

January 18, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic


Starring Mel Gibson and Glenn Close.

Directed by Franco Zeffirelli.

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated PG.

** 1/2

To be or not to be, that isn't the question; the question is, to be or not to be good, and the answer is, not to be good.

Franco Zeffirelli's "Hamlet" with Mel Gibson in the title role is far from a disaster, but it's also far from a triumph. It's a "Hamlet" for our times, perhaps the "Hamlet" we deserve: a "Hamlet-lite," lo-cal in the brain department, but heavy on the tofu and the sprouts.

Gibson won't make you forget Laurence Olivier but he won't make you remember Kevin Kline, either. The performance, inspired in the mind of the director when he saw Gibson's soliloquy-with-Beretta in the original "Lethal Weapon," is built out of the elements that make Gibson a world famous movie star and make him a convincing Martin Riggs, L.A.P.D. vice narc.

Gibson is handsome, charming, young, vital, tough, shallow and charismatic. And so is his Hamlet. When he feigns madness or flirts with his mother or sports with dim Polonius, when he takes up the sword, when he shows large emotions like rage or cunning that can take over his entire body, when he moves, rides, thunders, flashes -- when he's Mel -- he's great and you respond to him because you respond to the man.

But that's only half of Hamlet, the outer half, the easy half; Gibson's limits start at the heart and the mind, and so we get a Hamlet without a soul, a Hamlet who doesn't seem so much introspective, ironic or contemplative as a trifle moody. He's having a bad day.

Gibson's at his worst in the big moments, the famous lines such as "To be or not to be." He lacks the classical actor's craft to give these lines fresh readings; they don't seem spontaneous or newly imagined, but rather duty work, memorized on the rote without a twitch of an idea as to what is being really said. And he's not aided by Zeffirelli's heavy-handedness: As Gibson can't discover fresh ways to mouth the 10-pound lines, Zeffirelli can't imagine new ways to film them. He isn't willing to sneak up on them or overhear them or bumble into them; he simply stops the movie, turns his young actor toward the camera, both of them take a deep breath and then the actor lets it rip, for better or worse.

The five-act play has of course been radically chopped to accommodate the running times of modern movie houses and the attention spans of MTV-saturated audiences; although this begins to feel skimpy (Rosencrantz and Gildenstern, for two, and Fortinbras, for a third, have been zapped) it seems somewhat pointless to raise a complaint about this; nobody is going to finance a 4 1/2 -hour "Hamlet" and for better or worse, this is all the "Hamlet" we're going to get.

What's left flies along merrily, abetted by extremely glossy production values. Zeffirelli has chosen to set this "Hamlet" in a specifically medieval context and a seaside castle that is set against a lush, green sceptered isle that hasn't a shred of Danish atmosphere to it. The costumes are appropriately costume-drama rich and the photography feels seductive and warm.

As Hamlet's mother, Glenn Close is absurdly young and beautiful; she matches up sexually far better with him than with her husband Claudius, played by an avuncular Alan Bates. Close is terrific, however, and her beauty and sexual vulnerability -- emphasized by a cleavage-revealing gown -- free vibrations in the famous bedroom scene that William Shakespeare could not have conceived. But still one suspects she'd make a better Lady MacBeth than a Gertrude.

Helena Bonham-Carter, on the other hand, seems far too intelligent and willful to play the innocent, much-victimized Ophelia; memories of her brilliant turn in "Room With a View" keep interfering and she never manages to transcend that epochal film appearance.

The rest is sound and flurry, signifying nothing except box-office dreams.

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