When critical snobs like myself whine about endless remakes, we conveniently forget about the likes of Hamlet, which has seen dozens of screen adaptations, not to mention countless theatrical "reboots" over the centuries. In our defense, Hamlet is a deathless classic so rich and fertile as to defy a definitive interpretation while The A-Team is, well, The A-Team. At any rate, the role of Hamlet is pure catnip to actors, who haven't lived until they have climbed the mountain of Shakespeare's top tragic hero. More than any concept, the meeting of actor to role defines a Hamlet, and the Royal Shakespeare Company's most recent stage production—now filmed as a hi-def single-camera television film—put David Tennant center stage.
Since Tennant is best known for his wild popularity as the tenth incarnation of the Doctor in the BBC's revival of Doctor Who and King Claudius is essayed by Patrick Stewart (Star Trek, X-Men), this Hamlet constitutes something of a geek-gasm for genre fans. This is not the first time Stewart has played Claudius, and not even the first time he has played Claudius in a filmed version for the BBC (he previously starred as Claudius opposite Derek Jacobi in the 1980 BBC Television Shakespeare production). The 2009 BBC telefilm has also garned attention for a most unusual cameo appearance: in the famous gravedigger's scene, the skull of Yorick is played by the very real skull of pianist André Tchaikowsky, who willed it to the RSC expressly "for use in theatrical performance." Thus, the skull was Tennant's scene partner in the RSC's 2008 Stratford production, came along when the production transferred to the West End late that year, and made its way into the telefilm, at all times under the auspices of Gregory Doran, who directed Tennant on stage and on film.
The story of Hamlet needs no introduction, and includes dozens of the most famous lines in all of literature, including Hamlet's instruction that the purpose of acting "is, to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature." The "melancholy Dane," Prince Hamlet of Denmark, is as reflective a hero as they come, and he makes it his mission—at the command of his late father—ruthlessly to force others to take a hard look in the mirror. Chiefly, he intends to expose the sins of his mother Gertrude (Penny Downie) and uncle Claudius (crowned king after murdering his brother) so that they may join him in his private hell. Doran takes a modern-dress tack, placing the action in a palace with striking, sleek, reflective black floors as part of an overall concept that emphasizes mirrored surfaces. Also a part of the film's concept is the use of cutwaways to the perspective of an all-seeing CCTV system that contributes to the play's justified paranoia of a state that's gone "something rotten."
Downie makes a nervous, fierce, heartbreaking Gertrude, and Stewart's canny, subtle, Olivier-award-winning Claudius is a treat. His silken menace and borderline amorality make a strong (and witty) statement about the ruthless personality of the successful politician: no less than human, still capable of feeling dread, but ultimately sanguine with damnation as part and parcel of success and the ability to lead, ironically "the good life" (Stewart also doubles, hauntingly so, as the ghost of Hamlet's father). Mariah Gale is quite fine as Hamlet's pitiable girlfriend Ophelia, especially in her throes of madness, and Oliver Ford Davies makes life-size the iconic sputtering toady that is Polonius. Doran's smooth, three-hour cut of the play moves steadily, helped along by intelligent staging for the camera.
Still, it all comes down to Hamlet. Tennant's bold and commanding work here seizes primarily on Hamlet's crazy-like-a-fox lunacy, a razor's-edge mode the actor perfected in his interpretation of the Doctor. The overlap of style also works against Tennant, whose preening movements and chewing of vowels keep evoking the Doctor. Tennant's restless Hamlet is never boring, and it's not irredeemably a stage performance on camera: at times—like the ever-intimidating "To be or not to be speech"—Tennant curls up into fetal intimacy, with Doran's RED camera and boom mike coming close-up enough to capture a most untheatrical near-whisper. Despite this dynamism, it's hard to shake the overall impression that there's an awful lot of acting going on in Tennant's performance, rather than "being," but all in all, we can be grateful for this filmed version of a celebrated RSC Hamlet.
The BBC's 1080i hi-def transfer of Hamlet comes across nicely on Blu-ray disc. At times, there's some mild digital detritus (barely noticeable combing and ghosting), but generally, the image is clean and sharp in detail. The controlled colors are true, black level is strong, and textures are eye-catchingly life-like. Audio is LPCM 2.0, which won't impress home-theater buffs, but it's certainly adequate in putting the dialogue across. The film doesn't demand any aural gymnastics, nor should it, so the workmanlike audio suffices.
Shakespeare enthusiasts will be most pleased by the commentary with director (and RSC chief associate director) Gregory Doran, director of photography Chris Seager, and co-producer Seth Grant, which records for posterity the thinking behind Doran and Tennant's interpretation of the play and the decisions made in adapting the production for film. At three hours, it's unflaggingly informative.
Also included is a nicely produced "Behind the Scenes" (31:58, SD) documentary with footage of the cast and crew at work on the shoot, as well as thoughtful interviews with David Tennant, Patrick Stewart, Mariah Gale, Penny Downie, Oliver Ford Davies, Edward Bennett, producer John Wyver, producer Seb Grant, director Gregory Doran, set and costume designer Robert Jones, director of photography Chris Seager, editor Tony Cranstoun, fight director Terry King, and composer Paul Englishby.
Rounding out the disc is a flashly little RSC promo dubbed "Think Theatre" (3:00, SD), which promotes the idea of considering one of the many jobs that keep a company like the RSC in business.
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