Hamlet on Film: Franco Zeffirelli/Mel Gibson, 1990

GibsonTo start the process of cataloging productions of Hamlet, I figured I’d start with the first film version I saw: Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 production, starring Alan Bates, Glenn Close, and Mel Gibson. I saw this film during its theatrical release, which would have made me 16 or 17. I’m pretty sure I read the play before seeing it; I was that sort of geek.

My impressions of this film version have vacillated over the years. I remember being impressed by it at first, but then my attitude swiftly cooled, possibly because I got to see a few stage versions which struck me even more strongly. By the time I sat down to start this blog, I had convinced myself that it was a second-rate production…until I watched it again. Now I’m back to being impressed; it’s not the best version of the play set to film, and it’s far from the most daring interpretation. But I’m surprised by how much of my overall sense of the play comes directly from this film.

In trying to recall the film, all the shots I could picture were close-ups of Gibson’s face — not a bad thing, necessarily, since the actor’s bright blue eyes and malleable smirk can be captivating. At the time of its release, critics doubted whether the Lethal Weapon star would be able to handle the role’s gravitas — and, indeed, he does goof it up a lot, sometimes at seemingly inappropriate moments. But he’s a dynamic and watchable Dane, and if his performance ultimately doesn’t add up to a comprehensive character…well, that’s hardly Gibson’s fault. How many Hamlets can attest to that miraculous accomplishment?

Upon recent review, what struck me most about the film were not its close-ups, but its wide shots. Most of the film maintains a muddy, stony visual palette, but its architecture is simply gorgeous. Zeffirelli shot footage in 14 different locations, including some of the most astonishing castles in the world. Dover Castle plays Elsinore most frequently in establishing shots, but it’s the interiors that serve to create a multi-tiered maze for Denmark’s royal family to scurry around in, cats chasing mice chasing cats. Every corridor seems to yield a window or doorway to each other locale, making the castle ideal for eavesdropping. Indeed, Zeffirelli adds several unscripted cases of overheard dialogue or monologue to the mix, which sets up for the Hamlet-savvy viewer an additional challenge: keeping track of who knows what.

Along with most other film directors, Zeffirelli cuts dialogue and adds visual sequences that either don’t appear in the play, or else get described after the fact. Mostly, this works — for instance, we first meet Hamlet as he sprinkles dirt into his father’s sarcophagus during a mostly silent funeral — but sometimes it distracts, and occasionally Zeffirelli gets greedy, as when he shows Ophelia approaching a stream and provides Gertrude’s puzzling description of O’s death in voice over. Film is a visual medium; if you want to let the camera tell the story, then get the actors away from the microphones, and let it do its job.

There’s also some script shuffling. Significantly, the film uses the First Quarto’s placement of the Nunnery scene, placing it immediately after Polonius interviews Hamlet — but “To be or not to be,” which usually precedes the Nunnery scene, gets bumped until after Hamlet shouts at Ophelia. There’s a real advantage to this arrangement, since it launches two difficult challenges at Hamlet, one right after the other; his suicidal musings seem well-earned at that point, whereas they often feel out of place in stage productions, coming right after he hatches the Mousetrap plot, which should galvanize, not deflate, him.

Speaking of Ophelia, I think I have yet to see a better portrayal, on film or stage. Helena Bonham-Carter was 24, and an unknown to North American audiences. She brings a restless energy to the screen, brilliantly anticipating her descent into madness, and her eyes reveal a constant search for truth and understanding — or else a frustration whenever she is checked in her quest. Her mad scenes bristle with sexual tension, but she doesn’t parade herself like some young Ophelias who want to make a splash. In a cast full of Shakespearean vets (Alan Bates, Paul Scofield, Ian Holm), she delivers the strongest performance in the film.

Other Perks:

  • Claudius is established as a strong antagonist from the beginning, but his crisis of conscience was plausible (although cut a bit short by the film’s framing and editing).
  • As the Ghost, Paul Scofield uses stark, uncanny gestures and pitch, not only to create a sense of the supernatural, but also to suggest that maybe Hamlet’s madness has a hint of the hereditary.
  • Hamlet establishes a great, antagonistic relationship with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern almost at once. This is a deeply suspicious Dane, and his paranoia pays off, giving him the advantage even when he’s acting like a buffoon.


  • Horatio (played by Stephen Dillane, aka Stannis Baratheon) gets relegated to the background, so we never really get to see a friendship or trust develop between him and Hamlet.
  • Glenn Close has a few different cards to play in the thankless role of Gertrude, but the play’s Oedipal subtext erupts and overwhelms the Closet scene, so that we can never really get past the mental image of Gertrude snogging her son. For all that, though, she has a nice moment during the climax, as she realizes she’s been poisoned by a drink intended for Hamlet.
  • Lots of weird accessorizing to the duel scene. Why do they keep changing armour? Between that, and Gibson’s incessant goofing around, the scene loses almost all of its tension prior to the big stab-tastrophe.

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