Hamlet is a 1990 film based on the Shakespearean play of that name. It was directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Hamlet is also another film version of William Shakespeare's play, directed by Kenneth Branagh, who also stars in the title role as Prince Hamlet. It co-stars Derek Jacobi as King Claudius. Although both of the films are well done and entertaining, the Zeffirelli captures the true of the spirit of the Prince of Denmark. There are some similarities between the two creations such as star power including such names as Glen Close, Mel Gibson and the amazing Sir John Gielgud. The Branagh production includes cameos such as Charlton Heston, Billy Crystal and Robin Williams. This is where the similarities end. These are radically different productions given the approach to the choice of text, staging, time period and characterization.
The Zeffirelli production is more serious and Mel Gibson’s Hamlet is more introspective and thoughtful. The director has chosen to cut huge portion of text and place some of the elsewhere in the play. This allows Gibson to slow down and savor the emotional lines with more thought and less flair. The Kenneth Branagh, version approaches the text in a full frontal assault to all of the senses. Branaghs’ Hamlet is brash and brooding, but also seems to be chewing the scenery as if it was a race. The subject matter is handled word for word. This unabridged version can be followed from a text as the film is being watched. The problem with this is the four hour running time and even considering that, Branagh seems as though he cannot get the words out of his mouth fast enough.
The staging of the two Hamlets could not be anymore varied. Branaghs’ version brings the viewer into an 18th century castle complete with ballrooms and mirrored doors. The soldiers have guns and modern uniforms. There is a large amount of color splashed on the screen. Zeffirellis’ version is dark and gray with very little color and light. The faces are shadow filled and drab. This seems to work better given the subject matter. The clothing is supposed actual time period clothing complete with long robes and sashes. The latter is subdued and the former is colorful and loud.
The characterization from the text is somewhat questionable in the Branaghs’ film. Jack Lemmon appears as one of the royal guards and appears as though he has never acted before. The inclusion of Billy Crystal as the first gravedigger is dubious at best. The thick New Jersey accent can still be heard and unfortunately the character brings to mind Miracle Max from The Princess Bride. Robin Williams does a ridiculous Oric as only Mr. Williams can play, way over the top. The characterizations are believable but too much pomp and circumstance prevails in what should be a cerebral film. After all, are we not deciding “To be or not to be?” The characterizations in Zeffirelli’s film are believable and cerebral. One of the standouts in the film is Glen Close’ Gertrude, who is only slightly older that Mel Gibson, but movie magic and make up artists make it believable. Gibsons’ Hamlet is introspective and very physical in the way he hands out revenge. There is no question that those who needed to suffer indeed would. Gibson uses restraint with great skill and the viewer recognizes the undercurrent.
The differences in these two films show the depth of genius that can be found in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. A version such as the Zeffirelli that plays it so close to the bone is preferable in this comparison. They are different productions in their approach to the choice of text, staging, time period and characterization, but both very entertaining.