The first movie Hamlet was played by a woman--Sarah Bernhardt, in a 1900 short of the duel scene. Plainly, Hamlet has been as open to interpretation in the cinema as it has been in the theater. Of the dozens of film versions, ranging from cross-dressing intrigues to psychological case studies to spaghetti Westerns, it's too bad that most haven't made it to video. Even so, a few stellar varieties await you at the video store. What follows is the essential Hamlet videography.
Hamlet--(Hallmark Home Entertainment, 1948) Laurence Olivier's self-directed star vehicle is a chopped and channeled adaptation which tosses out such key characters as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and drops the Fortinbras subplot altogether, gutting the text from nearly four hours to a little more than two. Yet what remains is impressive. Lord Larry's vigorous, Aryan-looking interpretation is the closest that the 20th century has to an archetype of this most immortal, and most mortal, of Shakespeare's characters. Olivier's voice-over diagnosis of Hamlet's plight--that it's "the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind"--is about as convincing a one-liner as the play allows. Felix Aylmer is a superb Polonius, Jean Simmons a lovely Ophelia, and Eileen Herlie is a joltingly Oedipal Gertrude.
Hamlet--(Columbia/RCA Home Video, 1969) Tony Richardson directed this dark, spare, close-in, low-budget film of his own stage production. Nicol Williamson is virile in the title role and, if he's somewhat off-puttingly intense, he does, at least, truly seem like his sanity could be questioned. Richardson pruned the text even more savagely than Olivier, meanwhile leaving in scenes that are normally dropped. Anthony Hopkins plays Claudius, Marianne Faithfull is Ophelia, Gordon Jackson is a fine Horatio, and there's an early glimpse of the young Anjelica Huston.
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Hamlet--(Warner Home Video, 1990) Mel Gibson may not have been quite up to the Dane, but he didn't deserve the critical drubbing he got for this performance; it's not inspired, but it's far from embarrassing. Director Franco Zeffirelli's leaden direction is far more to blame for this version's drabness. Glenn Close, just six years older than the man playing her son, is an acceptable Gertrude, Helena Bonham Carter is a sad, sensual Ophelia, Ian Holm keeps Polonius free of coyness, and Alan Bates is given just enough of Claudius' lines to suggest that he could probably do them all well. But only Paul Scofield, as the Ghost, imparts any real sense of tragedy.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead--(Buena Vista Home Video, 1990) This early play by Tom Stoppard, an existential, verbally slick comedy focusing on the two hapless courtiers sent by the King to spy on Hamlet, certainly didn't seem like obvious movie material, and the fact that the film was directed by Stoppard himself boded even less well. But the results are surprisingly fresh and funny. Hamlet (Iain Glen), Claudius (Ian Richardson) and the other principals are minor players here, as we go behind the scenes with R&G, a pair of pleasant, unassuming mediocrities so thoroughly anonymous they can't even keep their names straight themselves. Gary Oldman and Tim Roth are touching in the title roles, and they handle some fast-patter scenes like vaudevillians crossed with professors of rhetoric. Richard Dreyfuss has a high time as the First Player. Stoppard's direction has a nice, chilly period feel, and the overheard passages of the Hamlet text seem startlingly realistic in this context.
Strange Brew--(MGM/UA Home Video, 1983) Although it brings new meaning to the term "loosely based," this sole feature outing of SCTV's touque-wearing, beer-and-doughnut-loving Canadian hosers Bob and Doug McKenzie (Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis) is a recognizable Hamlet. The title character is a pretty young woman (Lynne Griffin) whose Uncle Claude (Paul Dooley) has taken over Elsinore Brewery and married her mother after the suspicious death of her father, the brewery's owner. Bob and Doug become a sort of joint Horatio, and the Ghost is a video game. This bizarre, underrated comedy is the only film on which both Mel Blanc and Max von Sydow worked--a testament to its dizziness. And is there not, perhaps, a touch of the Bard's lyricism in the line, "Geez, you're real nice. If I didn't have puke breath, I'd kiss you"?
Last Action Hero--(Columbia/Tristar Home Video, 1993) This flatulent action-movie spoof has one sterling scene near the beginning. The schoolboy hero, having been introduced to Olivier's Hamlet by his teacher (Joan Plowright), daydreams the trailer of an action Hamlet starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. As we see Arnie's Hamlet quipping and blasting his enemies while puffing a stogie, a narrator informs us that "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark . . . and Hamlet is takin' out the trash!