MURDER MOST FOUL is at the heart of "Hamlet" -- and that's just one from the smorgasbord of cliches spawned by Shakespeare's Danish tragedy. But thanks to director Franco Zeffirelli and an impressive cast, both the tale and the telling are strikingly fresh.
Disappointed purists will say it's fresh only because Zeffirelli, who co-wrote the screenplay with Christopher De Vore, has pared the Bard down to about 2 1/2 hours, reassigning lines and transplanting scenes as well as chopping vigorously. Reduced to "Master Pieces Theater," Shakespeare's text nevertheless gains in force what it loses in integrity. Movie audiences can savor the full implications of the Elizabethan language when there's less of it to digest.
Of course, some of us have big appetites. To divert our attention, Zeffirelli lets Mel Gibson prove there's method in his Mad Max. As Hamlet, Gibson turns in a stunning performance. Restoring humor and power to the melancholy Dane, Gibson also employs the brooding strength seen in "Mrs. Soffel" and the underrated "Tequila Sunrise." The Australian-raised actor not only holds his own with Shakespeare's diction, but also reinvigorates Hamlet's plotting with mordant wit.
Even those unfamiliar with "Hamlet" should be able to follow that plotting easily. The movie opens with the burial of Hamlet's father; while his widow Gertrude sobs, brother-in-law and new king Claudius eyes her meaningfully. Soon they have a reason to act like newlyweds, to Hamlet's dismay. Transformed from a gray Brunhild into a radiant bejeweled beauty, Gertrude (a superb Glenn Close) clearly arouses Hamlet as much as she does Claudius (Alan Bates, gracefully understated). But before the prince can sort out his Oedipal complex, his father's ghost reveals there's something rotten in Denmark: Claudius poisoned him.
As the ghost, Paul Scofield is a master of restraint during his revelation, which unfortunately highlights Gibson's one indulgence of Acting! The lethal box-office weapon lets his baby blues well up, his jaw drop and his head shake in close-up after close-up. He's so wired you almost expect Danny Glover to appear and talk him down.
Once the scene is over and Hamlet has sworn revenge, Gibson controls his character tautly. He teases courtier Polonius (a wonderfully annoying Ian Holm) and others almost impishly, yet lets us see his rage building towards a climactic bedroom scene with Gertrude.
As Ophelia, Helena Bonham-Carter still looks as childlike as she did in "A Room With a View" -- especially next to Gibson and Close -- but her acting shows maturity. Although limited by her few lines, she's absolutely chilling in her mad scenes, parceling out chicken bones instead of flowers and singing ironic love songs.
Nathaniel Parker is moving as Ophelia's aggrieved brother Laertes; Stephen Dillane is convincing as Hamlet's cautious friend Horatio; and as false friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Michael Maloney and Sean Murray mix camaraderie with creepiness. It's as if two of the guys in the Docker's ads were narcs.
Production designer Dante Ferretti and music supplier Ennio Morricone also contribute authenticity and atmosphere to "Hamlet." But forget the "trappings and the suits of woe"; what you'll remember longest is Gibson's demonstrating he has "that within which passeth show."
HAMLET (PG) -- Area theaters.