“Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” (BBC: 1980) starring Derek Jacobi, Patrick Stewart, & Claire Bloom

This movie (available to rent on Amazon Prime) was part of the BBC TV Shakespeare project (1978-1985). Claudius (Patrick Stewart) played Derek Jacobi’s stepdad though he is 2 yrs younger. Gertrude (Claire Bloom) was only 7 yrs older than Hamlet. Jacobi was mentored by Olivier while he was a new actor on the London stage! Jacobi played Claudius in the 1996 movie version directed/starring his mentee- Kenneth Branagh. Jacobi’s long-time partner, Richard Clifford, has a fine supporting role in Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing.

Originally, Director Rodney Bennett wanted to shoot on-location, but BBC said all productions were to be studio based. He said: “it is essentially a theatrical reality. The way to do it is to start with nothing and gradually feed in only what’s actually required.” The production design is open w/ no time-specific architecture, and a lot of empty space. It looks like a kind of filmed-copy of the stage play. The play is in its entirety, which is rare in film.

As I watch Jacobi, I’m tempted to think that he’s every bit as intelligent as Hamlet himself, so alive is he to every nuance of this character’s wit. He deepens, rather than solves, every puzzle regarding Hamlet’s character.

His displays of emotion swing from hatred to sorrow, love to vengefulness and everywhere else on the map… some of the more powerful sequences occur when he underplays them, with stillness, soft speech and thoughtful expression. 

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

We know the story, some of the lines, and the role is coveted by actors from all over the world. Olivier, Christopher Plummer, Richard Burton, Kevin Kline, Campbell Scott, Mel Gibson, Branagh, Ethan Hawke, David Tennant, Adrian Lester, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Simm, Andrew Scott, and Paapa Essiedou have all played Hamlet. Jacobi is able to show Hamlet as indecisive, funny (in a dark way), passionate, judgmental, and thoughtful. He puts the feeling behind the words, but it (for the most part) feels natural and not forced. When the players arrive at Elsinore, we see Hamlet’s flair for drama. One of the “meta” moments comes when the players gather around Hamlet as he takes on the role of director.

Is Hamlet really mad (crazy)? I don’t think so, though there are a few points where that can be debated. Is he contemplating suicide in the famous “to be or not to be scene?” I didn’t think so when I read it in HS and college, but now think differently. Does he want power himself or is mostly angry about the murder of his father? It’s up to us to decide; though he sees in young Fortinbras the “man of action” which he can’t (or maybe doesn’t want) to be. I thought of Hamlet as a scholarly type who (though 30 y.o.) isn’t quite ready for a leadership role. Though this took me two nights to watch, I thought the last hour was very compelling (incl. the sword fight w/ Laertes).

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