This is another of those not-really-a-request requests that arises out of the suggestion that I include the movies that didn’t quite make my Facebook Fave Fifty list. Hamlet would have been #69.
Despite my doctorate in English, I’m woefully uninformed about Shakespeare. I favor the big tragedies, having seen several versions each of Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, and Othello. The rest? I’ve read them all at some point, seen a few, never been a big fan (although I’m looking forward to Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing). Olivier’s Hamlet is criticized by some for eliminating large parts of the text, and I respect that criticism, but it doesn’t matter to me, except as it informs Olivier’s interpretation of the play. Much as a screenplay writer will remove parts of a novel during adaptation in order to focus on the decided-upon themes of the film makers, so too does anyone attempting a Shakespeare play make decisions about what will bring focus. When Kenneth Branagh makes a four-hour Hamlet, including all of the original text, he is making a statement about what he finds important, and he is likely appealing to purists. But I’m not convinced Branagh’s version is the “right” way to do Shakespeare, any more than is Olivier’s.
I’ve seen many film versions of Hamlet. I barely remember most of them. Mel Gibson, Kevin Kline, Ethan Hawke … I’m sure they were fine, but I was never inspired to watch them again, and they leave little impression on me now. On the other hand, I’ve seen Olivier’s Hamlet many times, and never tire of it. I wish I could pinpoint why that is. Certainly, Olivier makes the most of the title role, and the staging is atmospheric in its debt to Citizen Kane. Perhaps I like the fact that Olivier states up front what his focus will be: “a man who could not make up his mind”. I find this reductive, at best. But it’s Olivier’s take, and he works with it. I prefer an interpretation that knows what it is doing to one that is slavishly loyal to the “real” play.
There is one other film version of Hamlet that sticks in my mind, and not only because I’ve seen it more than once. That’s the 1969 Tony Richardson production with Nicol Williamson as the Danish Prince. Williamson is so intensely over-the-top that you can’t forget him, even if you tried. His Hamlet is a babbling, weepy mess … I’m always reminded of Kael’s line about Anthony Hopkins as Claudius, “one rather wishes he were left in peace to rule the country, since Hamlet is obviously unfit.” Richardson and Williamson had an interpretation and they went with it, and I don’t know how it looked on stage, but on film, with almost the entire movie shot in extreme close-up, and with Williamson on screen for most of the film’s running time … well, like I say, it sticks in your mind, you won’t forget seeing it, and I think it’s a bit of a disaster. (I like Marianne Faithfull as Ophelia, though.)
But back to Olivier. I’m tempted to say the play’s the thing, that Shakespeare is what makes any version of Hamlet great, but then, not every version is great, is it? And if the play truly is “the thing”, then wouldn’t Branagh’s full version by definition be the best? Yet it’s Olivier who gets my highest rating, and it’s Olivier that I’ll watch the next time I’m in the mood for Hamlet.