Calling Dr. Freud

Glenn Close is nine years older than Mel Gibson, give or take a few months. (Shhh — don’t tell her I said that.) This span of not even a decade makes them an odd pairing to be cast as mother and son.

What in tarnation possesses older men to insist on playing Hamlet?

That said, he hits the ball way out of the park in this version. Many a moment took my breath away. It’s a pure pleasure to watch from start to finish. But, me being me, there are still a few aspects with which I’d like to quibble.

First: I’m not terribly fond of how Helena Bonham Carter played Ophelia. Fine actress, no doubt. But her reading robbed the girl of a great measure of her innocence. She seemed far too knowing, far too insightful into Hamlet’s behavior than the role warrants.

Second: Most of the abridgements were handled smoothly, and didn’t call too much attention to their absence. Gone again, understanably, is the outer doubling with Fortinbras and the Norwegians. To the good, we have Rosencrantz and Guildenstern back, who were notably absent from Olivier’s. But I take umbrage at how the burial scene was mangled. This, I believe, is more than a quibble. Watching it, I even got angry.

Here’s why: Laertes’s actions are in part driven by the cold-heartedness of the Priest, who insists that Ophelia did not deserve a Christian burial, and indeed, was only receiving anything more than a pauper’s burial because of her connections. Laertes, in reply, defends his sister’s purity and honor, saying she’ll be among the angels singing in heaven while he rots away in hell. It’s powerful stuff.

Maybe Mel didn’t like it because he’s a devout Cathlolic. But the tone of the scene turns wrong from the moment the funeral procession comes in singing a requiem. The Priest’s lines state specifically that she didn’t get one because she didn’t deserve one, at least according to the letter of the law.

Shakespeare indicates that there is stealth to the procession, that it has to occur under a cloak of secrecy due to the circumstances. Yet in they come, this long freight train of mourners, singing away.

Laertes does not jump into the grave. And his passionate words are not what motivate Hamlet to reveal himself in a bit of a pissy who-loved-her-more sort of a duel. Leaping into the grave and grappling in the midst of a burial — yeah, that’s over the top. But it also foreshadows the duel ahead and the ever-spiraling tragedy engulfing them. It’s one of my favorite moments of the play, and this telling did not do it justice.

The finale, however, was a huge improvement over Olivier’s — with one exception. The swordfight, the death of the King, Hamlet’s final speech… these were all superlative and fitting. But whoa whoa whoa, I did not like the alternative reading of the Queen’s innocent victimhood with the poisoned wine. It’s a viable option and it deserves credence. But it sounds a sour note in my heart.

Gertrude’s pivotal moment occured just prior, when Hamlet serves as a mirror to repent and change her ways. That she does so, we can see in her tenderness for Ophelia, her devotion to her son, and (we can only interpolate) her withdrawl of affections for the King.

It would in part explain why Claudius puts up such faint-hearted resistence when she takes the cup to drink. But then again, he’s such a foul and corrupted man at this point, all he really cares about is saving his own skin.

I’m not saying that there’s definitive proof in the text for either reading. Certainly a case can be made for Gertrude’s shock and surprise at the level of treachery uncovered by her own unwitting demise. There is poetic justice in her falling victim to her own husband’s trickery.

But I guess what I miss is her own immolation as a form of ultimate repentence. That’s the note that feels more right in Olivier’s telling. First, she suspects that Claudius is up to no good yet again. Second, she willingly intercepts the cup and sacrifices herself, in her mind with the hope of saving her son.

Take that away, she becomes yet another pawn in the villainy.

But maybe that’s just me.

I recommend both Zefirelli (Gibson) and Olivier DVDs very highly. If I protest, I do protest too much. I am cruel only to be kind.

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