“Hamlet at Elsinore” (BBC: 1964) starring Christopher Plummer, Robert Shaw, & Michael Caine

[1] Plummer’s performance, it is a very sensitive and reflective one.

[2] Plummer gives us the complete Prince where others have given us parcels. He has looks, presence, breeding, charm, athleticism, wit and consummate grace.

[3] Christopher Plumber is always fascinating, and Robert Shaw was by far the best Claudius ever filmed… 

[4] Robert Shaw… the first Claudius I ever saw who was not only sonorous and regal, but violent, and sexy enough to seduce the Queen and make her agree to kill her husband.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

I’ve been on a theater kick lately, and I’m a really into Shakespeare. I saw this BBC TV movie on YouTube (it’s free, so the sound/picture quality weren’t perfect). This adaptation will not appeal to a mass audience, or someone who’s not a fan of Christopher Plummer (a fine and fine-looking Hamlet). He knows the words and also gives them feeling, but nothing feels overblown. Most viewers know Plummer from The Sound of Music (1965), but he had a long stage career before. Aside from a 1910 silent film, this is the only production to be filmed in Elsinore, Denmark. It’s refreshing to see a few outdoor scenes- Hamlet meets the players in Kronberg Castle’s courtyard and sees Fortinbras’ soldiers heading off to Poland. Shots of waves crashing upon rocks look back to Olivier’s Hamlet (1948).

Robert Shaw plays Claudius w/ a lot of presence (and gets several close-ups); he’s a character actor maybe best known for Jaws (1975). It’s cool to see (young/cute) Michael Caine; he plays Horatio w/ reserve and speaks softly (which works well). One viewer commented that Horatio isn’t well-developed, b/c Caine was working hard to suppress his (natural) Cockney accent. Well, I felt he did well w/ Shakespeare’s language; his role is primarily to listen. Horatio is (of course) emotional at Hamlet’s dying scene; he wants to drink from the poison cup himself! Today, there are UK-based actors (incl. people of color, immigrants, etc.) who use their natural accents and have a strong grasp of Shakespeare. I didn’t know what to make of Donald Sutherland’s accent for Fortinbras- LOL!

There are some odd editing cuts and misdirection. The “get thee to a nunnery” scene is filmed in the chapel w/ Hamlet standing above (and away from) Ophelia. Fans of the play may be puzzled by this; the scene isn’t done this way in the theater. The distance lessens the drama and their connection. “The Mousetrap” is seen as a “dumb show” (mime), so Gertrude’s “the lady doth protest too much” makes no sense! Ophelia doesn’t get her second mad scene (w/ the flowers). Hamlet is kind, quiet and clear-minded w/ Ophelia, so that her “O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!” has little effect.

“Hamlet” (1948) directed by/starring Laurence Olivier

[1] Heartbreaking, well acted, great script and direction, well paced,… it’s the clearest telling of Hamlet I’ve seen, old or contemporary.

[2] …Olivier is superb, his finest filmed acting performance. His Hamlet is measured and nuanced and brilliantly crafted…

-Excerpts from Amazon reviews

[1] Olivier portrays him primarily as “a man who could not make up his mind,” and his fine and often subtle acting brings to his role a deep understanding of his character’s inner struggles and dilemmas, both moral and practical.

[2] He shies away from the humor completely, and instead takes a slow, purposeful tack. To that, it might not appeal to some.

[3] The camera moves and sweeps everywhere… It creates extraordinary images and energy that make many scenes unforgettable- without calling too much attention to itself.

…the climactic fencing scenes are genuinely great- easily the best fencing scenes in a version of Hamlet and possibly among the best in film history.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

This is the first English movie adaptation (w/ sound) of Shakespeare’s Hamlet; it cost $2 million to produce (a large sum at that time). This is also the first British (non-American) film to win the Oscar for Best Picture. Laurence Olivier became the first person ever to direct himself and win the Best Actor Oscar. It was shot in black and white b/c (as Olivier later admitted) he was in a fight w/ Technicolor! Desmond Dickinson (the cinematographer) had a special maneuverable camera dolly made w/ tires (the first of its kind in England). To appeal to a wider public, Olivier and Alan Dent (text adaptor) modernized and/or clarified some phrases. This version omits Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The “Do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?” scene is missing. Fortinbras, Prince of Norway, also doesn’t appear; some of his lines were given to Horatio.

Olivier (who wears a blonde wig and tights) can pull off many looks; he created his characters from the outside-in. He speaks his lines in a natural way, as if he had just thought of them. Even if you’re not a huge fan of Shakespeare, you’ll understand and be able to follow Olivier. The famous “To be or not to be” speech is done in an unique way atop a tower; at first, we hear Hamlet’s thoughts, then he speaks out loud. The scene where Hamlet peruses Ophelia’s face is done well (and somewhat unexpected). The adventure w/ the pirates is briefly shown; we don’t see that in the theater. Near the end, Hamlet leaps off the high stairway and stabs Claudius- another unexpected (and potentially dangerous) directorial choice! Olivier was uninjured, but the stuntman for Claudius was knocked out from the impact and lost two of his teeth.

Some critics/viewers didn’t agree w/ the emphasis on the Oedipal complex (a concept arising from theories of Freud) in this adaptation. Hamlet is more affectionate w/ Gertrude (Eileen Herlie) than I’ve seen in other movies and plays. Herlie (who hailed from Scotland) was quite younger than Olivier; she looked familiar (she played a matriarch on the American soap opera All My Children). She also played Gertrude in the 1964 movie starring Richard Burton. Gertrude and Claudius (Basil Sydney) made a believable couple, though you can also sense some tension. I think Gertrude knows the cup of wine is poisoned in the pivotal fight scene!

Christopher Lee (Count Dooku in Star Wars; Saruman in LOTR) is one of the palace guards; he holds a spear. Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars) is Osric, a foppish courtier. Lee and Cushing worked on 22 films together- wow! Anthony Quayle (The Guns of Navarone; Lawrence of Arabia) plays Marcellus, one of the friends who sees King Hamlet’s Ghost (John Gielgud). Stanley Holloway (Eliza’s father in My Fair Lady) is the darkly funny gravedigger. Terence Morgan (in this first movie) is Laertes; he is boyishly handsome and shines in the sword fighting scene. Norman Wooland (who worked w/ Olivier in Richard III) is Horatio; he has very thick/dark hair and a strong physical presence. Jean Simmons (w/ blonde hair) is Ophelia; she is youthful and vulnerable. She does a good job, but I wanted to see deeper characterization. Vivien Leigh wanted to play Ophelia, but Olivier (then her husband) said she was too famous. The scene of Ophelia floating down a river w/ flowers all over her dress and around her body is reminiscent of the painting by Sir John Everett Millais.

“Venus in Fur” (2013) starring Mathieu Amalric & Emmanuelle Seigner

Based on the Tony-winning Broadway play by American writer, David Ives, Venus in Fur is a 2013 French film by famed/controversial director Roman Polanski. Alone in a Paris theater after a long day of auditioning actresses for his new play, writer-director Thomas (Mathieu Amalric), complains to his fiancee (on the phone) that no actress has what it takes to play the lead female character. Thomas is about to leave the theater when actress Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) bursts in, a whirlwind of energy. At first, she is pushy, desperate, and not prepared- or so it seems. Under her coat, Vanda wears a risque black leather and lace outfit (w/ a dog collar). Thomas reluctantly agrees to let her try out; he is stunned by her transformation. Vanda is perfect (even sharing the character’s name); she obviously researched the role, learned the lines by heart, and brought along some props! As the audition continues, Thomas’ feelings go from from attraction to obsession, and Vanda takes on a more dominant role in the story. Vanda comes to tower over Thomas as she becomes stronger.

This was Polanski’s first non-English feature film in over 51 yrs; I saw it several years ago (and didn’t realize he was the director). I re-watched it on YouTube (it’s available for rent). The lighting is superb and the music (composed by Frenchman Alexandre Desplat) is used very well. He moves the story from NYC to Paris, b/c Polanski wanted to work w/ his wife in her native language- French. Originally, Vanda was a 24 y.o. actress (thus her short resume) and Thomas was a young playwright (w/ a few plays under his belt). On Broadway, then recent NYU grad- Nina Arianda- made a name for herself (2010-2012) as Vanda opposite Wes Bentley and Hugh Dancy. In London, Natalie Dormer (The Tudors; Game of Thrones) played the role opposite David Oakes. Louis Garrel (who is young and conventionally handsome) was originally cast as Thomas for this movie. Amalric is middle-aged, w/ a small build, and dark/intense eyes. As some viewers noted, he resembles a younger Polanski. Amalric’s mother comes from a Polish/Jewish family; she was born in the Polish village where Polanski lived w/ his family before WWII. Directors don’t make decisions w/o a reason!

Forget that badly-written and adapted Fifty Shades trilogy! There are several layers to this clever story of power imbalance: woman vs. man (in the play set in 1870), actor who wants the role vs. director who decides who gets the role (in the theater), and man vs. goddess (Venus AKA Aphrodite). It’s also about life imitating art, hidden desires, misogyny, and role playing. Thomas has to read w/ Vanda b/c none of the actors are there; it turns out that he’s really into it. Thomas starts out directing Vanda, but later she doesn’t hesitate in directing him. She even knows how to adjust the lights in the theater- hmmm. They put on and take off clothing to create these characters, as is common backstage in the theater. They quickly and easily switch from being themselves to the characters in the play!

[1] Thanks to the brilliant connections between literature, stage and reality, and thanks to the many things that remain unclear about the character’s real identities and motivations, this movie sounds much more like a question than like a an answer…

[2] The characters conflict with each other perfectly, I don’t mean that they completely disagree on everything, I mean that they disagree on a certain number of things and they agree on a certain number of things for their characters to have great chemistry.

[3] What was most surprising for me is how much we laughed during the film. It was really hilarious…

[4] The mystery of who exactly Vanda is keeps getting bigger until it reaches deific proportions…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“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).

“Shakespeare’s Globe: A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (2014)

This is a very appealing production of one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays that should get wide attention. The cast is good, John Light ably doubles as Theseus and Oberon, and Michelle Terry impressed me as Hippolyta and Titania. -Excerpt from IMDB review

Trailer for the production

The play (which I saw last week on YouTube) opens w/ a dance/battle, showing us that Hippolyta (Michelle Terry), the leader of the Amazons (a tribe of women), was captured by Theseus (John Light) during war. Terry reveals intelligence, sensitivity, and power. She makes a connection w/ Hermia when she is threatened w/ death or life as a nun (if she doesn’t marry Demetrius- her father’s choice). As the play goes on, Hippolyta’s proud manner turns to teasing of Theseus; they share chemistry and could have a happy marriage.

The fairy land ruled by Oberon and Titania is decorated w/ animal heads and full of mischief. The quarrel between the long-married king and queen (over an orphaned Indian boy) has upset nature. Light’s Oberon is charismatic and full of energy in his gymnastic moves; he can act tough, but also has a soft side. He sympathizes w/ Helena when she’s chasing Demetrius, the man she loves. Terry’s Titania falls for (the ass-headed Bottom) after being tricked by Oberon.

The young lovers (Helena, Demetrius, Hermia, and Lysander) are cute, funny, and energetic.They become muddy and disheveled as they tumble through the woods together. Hermia (Olivia Ross- also seen in Killing Eve) and Helena (Sarah MacRae) show real pain and confusion as their friendship is tested. The young men, Lysander (Luke Thompson) and Demetrius (Joshua Silver) try to one-up each other. The mischievous fairy, Puck (Matthew Tennyson), is there to make sure they don’t hurt each other.

The Mechanicals are also clog dancers; the sounds of their arrival breaks into the goings-on of the lovers. This group of Athenian workmen are planning to present an entertainment for the Duke’s wedding. Led by the comic/anxious, Peter Quince (Fergal McElherron), they attempt at presenting the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe w/ seriousness (despite their lack of talent). Flute (Christopher Logan) plays Thisbe w/ sensitivity, though he is rather clumsy. Snug (Edward Peel) has to use his joiner’s skills to repair their little stage, even during the performance- LOL! Bottom (Pearce Quigley) starts out wanting to play all the parts; he also flirts w/ the (live) audience. The Renaissance music helps to bring it all together.