The prince of Denmark is haunted by the ghost of his father the king, who claims to have been murdered by his brother in an act of high treason, and it encourages young Hamlet to avenge him. But the prince has doubts, and is torn between his allegiance and fear of madness.
Hairdressing has a certain amount to answer for in Zeffirelli’s screen Hamlet for the 90s. Glen Close’s Gertrude on first sight, keening over her husband’s corpse while exchanging come-hither glances with Alan Bates’ Claudius sports enough flaxen plaits nailed to her head to kit out three Valkyries and a Swedish housekeeper on the side. Mel Gibson, meanwhile, glowers from under a ginger fringe that does absolutely nothing for him except clash with his beard.
Tonsorial peeves aside, however, Zeffirelli’s choice of Gibson to tackle the greatest dramatic role in the English language is vindicated by a competent and attractive performance that has thought, vigour and humour. No noble youth, nor particularly persuasive as a scholar, Gibson is too, too stolid when soliloquizing but impressive when his blood is up or feigning madness. Once the killing gets underway, he really starts cooking and few Hamlets can have been more plausible when warning, “I have in me that which is dangerous.” Close, meanwhile looks ridiculously young to have hatched this particular Ham (in real life the actors are only 9 years apart in age) , though the credit side of this freshness is an Oedipal confrontation one can readily buy.
Around Gibson and Close, Brit thesps do their stuff – with Ian Holm and Paul Scofield particularly strong. And Helena Bonham Cater, one may fairly say with surprise, is an affecting Ophelia, thanks to Zefferelli shunning the manically fey blonde clichés for a quieter an quite disturbingl manifestation of madness.
Zeffirelli and script collaborator Chrisophe De Vore have done an honorable job of abbreviating the play into a coherent screen affair, and the visuals are fine, but one might have hoped for more inspiration and audacity.
The result is that those familiar with the play are likely to view this production with indifference – those less well acquainted are a little in danger of falling asleep.
It's a mixed bag, but all in all manages to hold its own.