I consider myself somewhat of a scholar of Shakespeare, literally and figuratively. Literally, because I am studying English Literature and there is not an English literature course that does not feature the work of The Bard in some way, and figuratively because as long as I remember, I’ve always been captivated by the work of Shakespeare – from his most outrageous comedies to his most bleak tragedies, Shakespeare has always been a major inspiration for why I love literature. However, Shakespeare also seems to be the inspiration for cinema – all across the world, countless filmmakers have been influenced by the work of The Bard, and either directly or indirectly have adapted his work. The most adapted of these works is of course Hamlet.
Other than Tommy Wiseau, has there ever been a figure that has been more mysterious, enigmatic and complex than Hamlet, Prince of Denmark? Endlessly questioning everything from his own life to the entire existence of humanity, Hamlet is perhaps the greatest character in all of literature. It is precisely because of this that a singular definitive Hamlet does not exist – and we all know that every actor strives to play Hamlet at some point, believing that they may be able to crack the shell of who this character is and what he represents. The vast amount of films that exist for this character alone is staggering, and for some strange reason, I never feel that they are repetitive or dull – I have been able to watch each of them without any boredom or feelings that I’ve seen this all before – even the worst adaptation of Hamlet is still brimming with fresh ideas and interpretations, and the ways the filmmakers and actors conveyed the tragedy of Hamlet is always very different. I have yet to encounter a cinematic version of Hamlet that I dislike. I see something new in all of them, and each of them brings something completely different to the story. A stark contrast to my previous review of a Shakespeare adaptation, Coriolanus, which was, to date, the only cinematic adaptation of the play. We are spoiled for choice when it comes to Hamlet, which is a wonderful thing. Side note: I just managed to mention Tommy Wiseau in a review of Hamlet – has there ever been a comparison simultaneously as revolting and intriguing as this?
Perhaps my favorite of all the adaptations of Hamlet is the one I felt the most fitting to review first (but rest assured, you will not be bombarded with reviews of Hamlet after this – I plan to rewatch each and every one of them, not as a student of literature, but as a cinephile, and I surely won’t be filling my mind only with Hamlet). The often forgotten, but definitely superior adaptation (in my eyes at least) is the 2009 BBC adaptation, which has the Royal Shakespeare Company reprising their roles from the recent stage production. By all accounts, I’ve heard some negative things about this film production (whereas the stage production was universally praised) – but none of them were really relevant, and there were far too many positives in this production that outweighed the negatives. There are so many reasons why I found this version the most superior, not in the least because it is precisely reviled by many people, who find it inferior to the other more pompous adaptations.
The reason why I chose the 2009 film version of Hamlet was because I have a very strange view of Hamlet, that many people don’t share. Hamlet is seen as one of the greatest and most bleak tragedies of all time. I see Hamlet as the greatest black comedy ever written. This is an outlandish and controversial view, and one that many have criticized me for – and its a view I will stick to until my death. This view came from a re-reading of the play I did about a year ago, when something struck me that I never noticed before – Hamlet is a comedy of errors at its core – it is just framed with murder, incest and some seriously spooky occurrences. But in the center, we have a character who pretends to go crazy because his uncle married his mother, and he is being spied on all the time. Hamlet is a comedy, but one that doesn’t elicit laughter in the traditional sense, and rather creates an uneasiness in the audience, where otherwise tragic circumstances are viewed in a very bizarre way. To date, the only adaptation of Hamlet that shows the absolute insanity and darkly comical undertones of the play is the 2009 adaptation.
As everyone knows, the success of any production of Hamlet lays in the hands of the actor taking on the titular character – an unconvincing Hamlet results in an unsuccessful Hamlet. I won’t compare films (because that’s not really fair, as I said each and every film brings their own interpretations to the character and the story), but one thing I noticed in nearly all the adaptations of Hamlet is that the character is portrayed as a pompous and meandering fool at times. This is sometimes effective, sometimes ridiculous. David Tennant is perhaps my favorite cinematic Hamlet because of how he plays the character – he absolutely drives the character to the furthest extent that he could – and he played the character with such intense madness and sublime complexity, it is not a surprise that his turn on stage as the character was so well-received. Tennant is such a perfect Hamlet, because he isn’t nearly as emotional and depressing as other actors who have portrayed Hamlet. He brings out the zany humour in the character, which is hardly ever recognized in other portrayals. Tennant is absolutely marvelous, and I just wish his Hollywood career would take note, because Hamlet proves what his performances in Doctor Who and Broadchurch did – that Tennant is extraordinarily talented.
Now that we have discussed Hamlet himself, let us move onto the rest of the cast, which does pale in comparison to the lead performance (as is evident in all adaptations of Hamlet). Patrick Stewart was a superb choice for the role of King Claudius, and while he may not play the role as the fratricidal, neurotic demon that Claudius is painted to be, he does bring slimy charm and intriguing villainy to the role. Claudius is a character that isn’t always done enough justice, and with Stewart’s characterization, he isn’t seen as being quite the villainous maniac we are led to believe, but rather someone very deeply disturbed and confused. It is only made even more brilliant by the fact that Stewart also played the role of the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father, which is a strange twist of theatrical extravagance.
More obscure stage performers such as Penny Downie (Queen Gertrude) and Mariah Gale (Ophelia) are excellent, and it was a nice surprise to see Oliver Ford Davies (Sio Babble in the Star Wars prequel trilogy) be given the wonderful role of Polonius – there is an endless amount of theories on Hamlet, and many despise them, so I won’t discuss my theory that Polonius is the true villain of Hamlet (consider yourselves spared from absolute malarkey).
The production values on this adaptation of Hamlet were effective – simple, sleek and elegant, Gregory Doran put a few flourishes, but otherwise keeps it simple, which allows the actors free-reign to do what they do best. Overall, this adaptation is splendid – wonderfully acted, unique and very well-made, it shows a different side to Hamlet, and while it may not popularly be considered as so, it certainly is something very special, and I hope it receives the visibility that it deserves, because of all the adaptations, this one comes closest to how I read the play. Maybe that makes me mad, but in the end, this is Hamlet we are talking about – it pays to be mad.