Released the same year as Franco Zeffirelli and Mel Gibson’s film version, Kevin Kline’s Hamlet stands as its equal and perfect opposite. Where Zeffirelli is operatic, Kline is utilitarian; where Zeffirelli is historically authentic, Kline is unapologetically modern; where Z. encourages his cast to indulge in histrionics, K. and his supporting cast dial it down, letting the text do most of the heavy lifting. And while Z.’s film is every inch a film, Kline’s Hamlet is a walking shadow, sliding amongst shadows on what is clearly, crucially a stage.
Presumably Kline drew directly from his Broadway production when, introducing the soldiers, Horatio, and the Ghost upon the battlements, he provided only the most minimalistic cues for the environment: a sinister blanket of fog and a black wooden platform jutting out from darkness. Interior scenes are similarly functional, reducing Castle Elsinore to a series of essential signifiers–tapestry, door, stone wall. It’s an odd marvel of lighting, this not-quite-film; every face is consistently and clearly lit, and yet, mere feet away, Denmark always seems to be sinking into endless gloom.
And every face earns its perfect light. The cast, if not stellar, is consistently solid. American actors proved early that they could master Shakespearean verse (or maybe it was Shakespeare proving something?), but sometimes they betray an insecurity about their speech, and one can hear their accents creeping back across the pond. This doesn’t happen often in this production, though–and never by the leading actors, several of whom aren’t American anyway. They have all found a melting pot in the verse, such that Polonius (German Josef Sommer), Claudius (South African Brian Murray), and Gertrude (Dana Ivey from Atlanta, Georgia) all find the same cadence.
It’s a testament to Kline’s direction. These actors don’t always convince me that their characters are real, but neither do they draw attention to their performances through emotive flourishes or radical interpretations. They understand the text; they speak it, and listen closely to each other; and, when the language cues them, they relish it. What more could a Shakesnerd ask for? How about one of the best Princes ever put to film?
At first glance, it’s hard to take Kline seriously as Hamlet. His comic film career may not be as deeply entrenched in the zeitgeist as, say, Robin Williams or Jim Carrey, yet this Kline is still visibly Otto “Don’t Call Me Stupid” from A Fish Called Wanda, minus the mustache. That film, for which Kline won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, was fresh in audience’s minds in 1990, and I think Kline knew he would have to be fast and furious with his characterization, or there would be no tragic Dane.
And so, in the very first shot of Hamlet, we see the tears on his face. Whether it’s the magic of editing or the power of the Method, he manages to keep the tears coming throughout Act 1, Scene 2, or at least until his first soliloquy. His soliloquies, especially “Too too solid flesh” and “To be or not to be,” are revelatory. It is hard to imagine a simpler approach: hands at his sides, head high and eyes bright, he follows the rhythm of his thoughts as they pile up like firewood, and then ignite. He doesn’t move; the energy all comes from within, and plays in his voice and face. It seems effortless, yet masterful.
At other times, Kline bounces about the set, like any good Hamlet must. After meeting the Ghost, he soliloquizes with exuberant flourishes, building to a shiver-inducing climax with “MY FATE CRIES OUT!” Indeed, Kline’s Hamlet seems obsessed with fate, perhaps moreso than with death (and definitely more than with sex or incest). The fatalistic tears, reappearing in almost every act, suggest a tortured clairvoyant–a Prince who knows he is destined for struggle, pain, and death, yet cannot find a premature exit from the stage. But his energy and vigour makes him like a lion in that cage, and it’s terrific to anticipate when–even on which precise line–he’ll choose to pounce towards the glass.
I was also impressed, though not blown away, by Diane Venora’s Ophelia. Venora, who actually played Hamlet herself in an earlier stage production, didn’t drag the character outside her conventional role as a passive pawn, but you can see her searching for an opportunity–any line or glance–to escape that trap. Unlike Helena Bonham-Carter’s ingenue, she plays Ophelia as a woman with insight and confidence who is quickly, violently placed outside her depth. To Kline’s credit, he pulls no punches with Venora in the “Nunnery” scene, hurling and even slapping her around the stage in a visceral reflection of the scene’s misogyny which often gets white-washed in performance. As viewers, we lose almost all our sympathy for Hamlet for several scenes thereafter; but with that tactical sacrifice, Kline gives Venora a strong springboard from which to launch her own tragic fall. It’s a gutsy choice, and not one I’m sure I’d be able to pull off.
I saw this production on VHS when I was still in the first bloom of love with Hamlet. I don’t remember the circumstances, but it was probably sitting four feet away from a screen in one of my high school library’s study rooms, over two or three consecutive lunch hours while my friends were playing D&D. Choosing Kline over D&D was, in itself, the highest compliment I could have paid it at the time. Now, having viewed it again for the first time in 25 years, I have to resist the temptation to compliment it again, by stealing every trick it’s got. No matter; it wouldn’t work anyway, because even more than Olivier’s or Branagh’s, this is an auteur’s Hamlet, drawn by an actor-director at the peak of his powers.