I was just reading a book about an evil younger brother who conspires to destroy the life of his weaker older brother in order to seize the elder’s more powerful position. The child of the brother who has been destroyed speaks out, revealing the sins of the younger brother. No, I wasn’t reading Hamlet; I was reading Mary Trump’s book, Too Much and Never Enough.
But the Trump saga reminded me just how universal a story of family conflict can be… and how powerful and how vicious these stories play out. So I turned to Hamlet, a timeless play written by William Shakespeare around 1600. Motion Pictures of Hamlet have entranced audiences since the days of silent films. Pioneering French filmmaker Georges Melies created Hamlet, Prince of Denmark in October 1907. The Divine Sarah Bernhardt, in a gender-bending performance of Hamlet, filmed the duel scenes with Laertes in October 1908. For those who are interested, the first female player to appear as Hamlet was Sarah Siddons in 1775. A comedy short called Alas Poor Yorick with Fatty Arbuckle entertained audiences in 1913.
Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film production won four Academy Awards, and there are many who consider this movie to be the most elegant and even the archetype of interpretations. Olivier speaks the lines with a tendency towards naturalism, never setting aside the approach of a beautifully trained actor. It’s an odd coupling of styles, but works well for him.
John Gielgud first played Hamlet in 1930 and played the role more than 400 times. One source said he played the Danish prince 500 times! To my knowledge, Gielgud did not record his Hamlet on celluloid, a format he didn’t take too seriously until his later years, although he can be seen online in a clip from Romeo and Juliet.
Derek Jacobi, whom we are enjoying these days in Last Tango in Halifax on PBS, played the part onstage for close to 400 performances and then came down with a case of stage fright that lasted two years. Jacobi made a film of Hamlet in 1980. It’s well worth seeing. His interpretation is graceful, dignified, and from the heart. He would later direct Kenneth Branagh in the part for an onstage production, and then Branagh would cast Jacobi in various parts in Shakespearean productions in which he directed and starred.
Another generation of actors such as Mel Gibson, Richard Burton, and Nicol Williamson starred in films of Hamlet. Some are traditional films; others are recorded stage performances.
David Tennant, who was playing The Doctor in Dr. Who at the time, filmed a Royal Shakespeare Company production in 2009 for BBC Two. His performance is spellbinding, and one of the most demonstrative of recent decades. At times, he appears so devastated by his predicament that he dissolves into an animalistic anguish. Patrick Stewart plays the Uncle and Ghost (He also is in the Jacobi version.) and Oliver Ford Davies is one of the best Polonius’s that I have seen. His character role is as fine as the portrayal by Hume Cronyn in Richard Burton’s Hamlet of 1964 which I thank goodness and my mother, I was able to see on Broadway!
Ethan Hawke filmed an untraditional, loose version of Hamlet in 2000. While I respect Hawke’s acting ability and willingness to be part of this bold interpretation, the movie doesn’t work for me. Having said that, it may work better than other interpretations for younger audiences.
Most recently, Benedict Cumberbatch, who has found so many fans in Sherlock, and Andrew Scott, also of Sherlock, and who recently made a hit as the controversial priest in Fleabag, have recorded their stage performances of Hamlet. I saw Scott’s performance live in London a couple years ago. It was first rate.
Since it was written, Hamlet has been a play that has never stopped giving. All sorts of productions will continue into the next century and beyond. As the days become colder and indoor entertainment fills more of our hours, why not give Hamlet your attention? As with the case of Mary Trump’s book, the challenging circumstances of family intrigue is one situation that never goes out of style!
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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