Mel Gibson’s Hamlet, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, is by no means a sustained great performance but it’s one helluva try and thus respectable. If you’re a Shakespeare purist, you’ll argue successfully there isn’t much left of the story of the tormented prince because Zeffirelli trimmed or eliminated a lot of the text; in short, this version has been synopsized. If you are one of those whose juices flow while watching Gibson (before his racist and misogynist rants), not much else will matter. Wanting to make Hamlet after seeing Gibson in Lethal Weapon, bravely assessing Olivier’s as “too soft, too much like a ballerina...a wonderful piece of theatre, but you wouldn’t believe for a moment that he was the Prince of Denmark,” Zeffirelli utilized Gibson’s winsomeness and guided the play to make a 90s interpretation of Hamlet as sex-obsessed. The gamble has to traverse some difficulties before eventually paying off: the first 60 minutes are bogged down by too many close-ups on Gibson’s booze-bloated face; we have to get beyond his bowl-cut hair noticeably changing hues due to lighting conditions; his clownish butch bouncing from one balcony or castle’s ledge to another might induce recoil and given unwelcome encore at the finale. Getting to the pivotal play-within-the-play revelation about Hamlet’s mother’s sudden wedding to the brother of her recently deceased husband (Paul Scofield elsewhere in quiet eloquence of painful despair), there’s acute transformation; boosted by the realization of the perfidy permitting the marriage is now public ridicule, Gibson’s prince abruptly shifts into an altogether different movie. The atmosphere steams with betrayal, with more murder most foul to come, around which he’s an emotional maelstrom, a Lethal Oedipus Rex. Displayed in The Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet, Zeffirelli’s gift is the delirious worship of the physical but here, in a dearth of healthy-looking faces, he subs a raw incestuous charge emitting from Hamlet’s mother Gertrude, played by Glenn Close. Flabby in the morals department no matter whose version, her Gertrude, in Lady Godiva do, goes the Jocasta distance even if contestable that Shakespeare intended the familial hots: would she have wanted to kiss this son in any other way? Unlike other mothers of Hamlet on screen, she’s so absolutely thrilling she causes outbreaks of gooseflesh. This Gertrude and her Sonny von Bülow in Reversal of Fortune make her the supporting act of 1990. For those worried about Zeffirelli’s infamous overdosing of Cimmerian effects, this presentation, on the economy plan, is fairly free of the dusty tapestries and oppressive junkiness gone pretentious in his filmed operas but there are some cheesy Oscar-nominated costumes: as Claudius, Alan Bates wears a brown fur cape looking like a K-Mart throw, and Close wraps herself in a blue cloak as a portable chenille warmer. Perhaps Zeffirelli had future visions of Twitter and Instagram, as he seems to intuit a click-minded audience who needs the Bard headlined as mix of hyperdrama and pre-Freudian sexology—a compost of barbaric glory and disease.
Text COPYRIGHT © 2005 RALPH BENNER (Revised 7/2023) All Rights Reserved.