review by Gregory Avery, 17 August 2001

Campbell Scott delivers one of the most stone-dead withering looks in years in the new film that he and Eric Simonson have made of Hamlet. Seated at a formal dinner across from mother Gertrude (Blair Brown) and former-uncle-now-stepfather Claudius (Jamey Sheridan, who brings a decidedly virile tone to the role), he wears his mourning band for his own departed father not on his arm but straight across his brow, like a headband, and you can tell that, from the start of the story, he's boiling over with feelings of resentment and disdain until he's ready to burst,

That doesn't come until later, when he meets the ghost of his dead father, who makes Hamlet relive what he experienced during his murder. After that, emotional reverberations begin to increasingly sound in his head, like echoes bouncing off of mountainsides: he walks about Elsinore barefoot and wearing an undone vest, abstract in countenance and with the red-rimmed eyes of a tortured insomniac. When he attempts to convince Rosencrantz (Michael Imperioli) and Guildenstern (Marcus Giamatti) that he's not really mad -- "I am but mad north-northwest: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw."--  we know that he's absolutely wrong: to borrow a phrase from Anne Robinson, this Hamlet is definitely "a few fries short of a Happy Meal".

Scott and Simonson have filmed their "Hamlet" (which will be showing at New York's Film Forum, starting August 17) in and around a magnificent country house in Nassau County, New York, and with the characters attired in the formal tailcoats and gowns of the "fin-de-siecle" period at the start of the twentieth century. Scott's performance is sometimes too literal -- he carves directly into his arm with a piece of glass while contemplating mortality, and at one point is pinned to the floor under a huge framed portrait of Claudius -- while at other times he deftly parries with self-mockery and mercurial changes of mood.

The most notable piece of staging is in the way the character of Polonius, Claudius' Lord Chamberlain, is presented, a loquaciously-written part that is usually played pedantically or as a simple fool. With Roscoe Lee Browne in the role, performing with the ease and confidence of a master, Polonius' penchant for words is used to make him a fuller, richer character, generously mannered, artful, diplomatic, and in the utmost the "noble heart" that the other characters regard him to be.

Lisa Gay Hamilton's casting as Ophelia is a bit of a surprise, not just because it's the first time I've seen an African-American actress playing the part, but because her dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty is in direct contrast to all the lilting, fair Ophelias that one commonly expects to see, their looks and manner setting them up to already become the tragic victim. (In Kenneth Branagh's 1996 film, his Hamlet not only verbally abused Kate Winslet's Ophelia, he thrashed and bashed her and mashed her face against the woodwork.) Hamilton's casting, and performance, brings out something unexpected, which is Ophelia's strength in character -- she never entirely turns against Hamlet, no matter how much he rebukes her, and there is a tangible, sharp sense of loss in their scenes together, of a romance that might have been -- but when Ophelia herself begins to go on the downward spiral, her madness in this film comes across more as an act of defiance than as a defeat (she seems too angry at what happened to become overwhelmed by remorse), making it hard to believe that she would go so quickly and easily to her end. (The scene describing Ophelia's death is the one really noticeable cut that has been made by Scott and Simonson in the original text.)

Scott's Hamlet is shocked back into his senses after seeing, unalloyed and with his own eyes, the consequences of his out-of-joint actions, and while he doesn't backpedal on what his character has done, he emerges in the final scenes as a man who has come to terms with himself, unafraid to face the future.

While the film comes in at just under three hours, it is always dynamic and moves along at a clip without ever sacrificing any of the integrity of Shakespeare's words. The filmmakers and performers have staked out their own way in finding what's true and meaningful in the drama, and as a result both the story and the film work extremely well as a result of it, as do many of the performances. (John Benjamin Hickey, for one, makes probably the best Horatio that I can recall seeing.)

This is the third film Hamlet in five years, after Branagh's Austro-Hungarian version (with all those mirrors, and all those idiotic spot-the-star cameos) and Michael Almereyda's extremely streamlined, up-to-the-minute modern version (with Denmark as corporate politics, and a now-famous opening scene set in a video store). However, after Olivier, Burton, Asta Nielsen, Maximilian Schell, Innokenti Smoktunovsky (allegedly the best Hamlet ever filmed -- and in Russian), Richard Chamberlain (who did a very 1960s Hamlet for television), Nicol Williamson, Derek Jacobi, and Mel Gibson -- plus a smidgen of John Barrymore's great stage performance, preserved on-film at the beginning of the 1941 Kay Kyser film Playmates, and Mark Wahlberg's condensed rap version in "Renaissance Man" -- I can't think of how else to otherwise approach this material, except to either send it into outer space (which was actually done, on the San Francisco Bay Area stage, in the early Eighties, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern portrayed as R2D2 and C3PO-like robots), or, as with the recent Carmen on MTV, do it as a hip-hopera. The great thing about Shakespeare's play is that it can accommodate all manner of versions, and still remain great.

Written and
Directed by:

Campbell Scott
Eric Simonson

Campbell Scott
Blair Brown
Jamey Sheridan
Roscoe Lee Browne
Roger Guenveur Smith
John Benjamin Hickey
Lisa Gay Hamilton

Based on the
Play be:

William Shakespeare

NR - Not Rated
This film has not
yet been rated







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