Hamlet may very well be the greatest work in the English language. Scholars have devoted entire careers to studying the play, and any male actor worth his salt longs to land this plum role. It’s been staged, televised, and released in theaters more times than I can count, but sometimes you have to go back to the mother country for some good, old-fashioned British Shakespeare.
Given that this was produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company, it would be a surprise if this interpretation didn’t come out as anything less than fantastic. Well, I’m happy to say that I was pleasantly un-surprised by it, but that doesn’t mean that it’s without its faults.
Before I get all nitpicky, let’s focus on the good parts, because what is good in this production is incredible. The writing is a given, but even the best writing—yes, even Shakespeare’s—can fall flat coming from the mouths of lesser actors. Luckily, we’re dealing with the RSC here, one of the greatest troops of actors ever, and I’m not being hyperbolic. As far as the acting goes, there was no weak link in this production, but there were a few that really stood out. Oliver Ford Davies is now officially my favorite Polonius, managing somehow to be constantly befuddled and charmingly pedantic, and Patrick Stewart gives an incredible performance as Claudius, especially the praying scene where he asks God for forgiveness while at the same time reveling in his ill-gotten gains.
But David Tennant understandably steals the show as Hamlet. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Hamlet so energetic, youthful, or funny as Tennant’s. His posture, mannerisms, even inflections when he pretends to be crazy is that of a petulant, somewhat Emo, teenager, and it works marvelously. Tennant makes every scene better, and—even though the other actors are great—you really miss his presence when he’s not onscreen. I don’t mean this as a slight to any of the other actors, just a compliment to Tennant’s magnetic personality.
The only place where the production hits a snag is in some of the more artful choices for scene design. Most of the time the production is shot cinematically, but every once in a while it will shift and you’ll be viewing the action through a security camera. These switches occur seemingly at random and I’m not exactly sure what the director was trying do with it. If I had to guess, I’d say that the security camera point of view highlights the fact that Hamlet is never truly alone—that somebody is always watching him. But if that’s the effect the director wanted, it’s muted, ambiguous, and distracting.
Another choice I found jarring was having the actors give their soliloquies straight to the camera. This breaks the fourth wall and makes you feel like the characters are talking directly to you. In effect, it brings you into the production as a silent witness, and it interrupts the story’s flow. It’s an interesting choice, and one, I think, that tries to mimic the feel of attending a play, but for me it fell flat.
Those are minor quibbles in an otherwise superb rendition of this seminal play. Plus, it has the actors that played Doctor Who and Captain Picard, so you can add a whole new level to the story by pretending that the Doctor and Picard are trapped in some weird space-time trap where they must play Hamlet and Claudius.
Or maybe that’s just me.
The movie is presented in 16:9 Widescreen aspect ratio with the audio in PCM Stereo. English subtitles are provided for the hearing impaired. Both the sound and video quality were good with no discernable problems with either.
The special features are rather sparse, but given that I don’t particularly care for special features that’s fine with me. The making of special was actually pretty good, but I found the audio commentary to be a bit boring.
Audio commentary with Gregory Doran, Sebastian Grant, and Chris Seager
The Making of Hamlet
All nerd jokes aside, this was an amazing production of a timeless play. It stands up there, as far as I’m concerned, with the versions done by Olivier, Zeffirelli, and Branagh. Highly recommended.
BBC Worldwide presents Hamlet. Directed by: Gregory Doran. Starring: David Tennant, Patrick Stewart, Penny Downie, Oliver Ford Davies, Mariah Gale, Edward Bennett, Peter de Jersey. Written by: William Shakespeare. Running time: 182 minutes. Rating: NR. Released on DVD: May 4, 2010. Available at Amazon.com.