You can relax, it's not "Lethal Bodkin." But Franco Zeffirelli's "Hamlet," with Mel Gibson as the Melancholy Dane, has been given a stripped-down, aerodynamic design -- it's the first production of a Shakespearean tragedy to be built to wind tunnel specifications.
There's nothing embarrassing about Zeffirelli's brisk new version, nor anything particularly remarkable; it's an entirely credible, middle-of-the-road production. In adapting the play, Zeffirelli appears not to have been moved by any strong new reading of the material; there's no special insight or original spin on the play's meaning. It's strictly by the numbers.
If Zeffirelli has brought anything to the proceedings, it's a sort of Cliffs Notes quality. This "Hamlet" -- which, the credits reveal, is based on the play by William Shakespeare with a screenplay by the director and Christopher De Vore -- has been radically trimmed, with scenes rearranged or speeches shifted from one character to another; it's not a "Hamlet" for purists. There is only a single plot line -- that dealing with Hamlet's revenge on his stepfather, Claudius (Alan Bates), for the murder of his father. All other subplots or grace notes -- in other words, anything that might slow down the play's headlong dash to its conclusion -- have been jettisoned.
Not everything that has been trimmed is fat, though. Zeffirelli's approach is based on the assertion that Shakespeare was a popular playwright, writing for the common man, and that concessions for the mass audience and for shortened modern attention spans are allowable. And though he hasn't trashed the play, he has robbed it of its more resonant dimensions. In Zeffirelli's hands, "Hamlet" is more of a potboiler; it's very much a revenge play, a genre piece. And what the director has lost in depth he's attempted to recover in immediacy. Zeffirelli has succeeded in one respect; this is an intimate, close-in "Hamlet." Most of the credit for this must go to the film's star. Gibson's Hamlet is deeply felt, electric and made very much for the camera. There's nothing held back in his performance, yet at the same time it's subtly calibrated.
From the film's first scene, which takes place not on the battlements with the ghost of Hamlet's father but at the murdered king's funeral, we are locked into Hamlet's fury and disappointment. As Gibson plays him, there's nothing bookish or neurasthenic about this angry young man; he's not a neurotic. Instead, he seems rather foursquare and plain and all too justified in his outrage. Gibson's performance is robust and exuberant; he's fun to watch, and there's never a moment when he seems less than adequate to the task he's undertaken.
In other words, he almost pulls it off. Where Gibson fails is in making the part his own. Never once do we sense the actor feeling his way through the role, taking it inside and re-imagining it for himself. Gibson reads the part well, but in his hands the verse never comes to life. He doesn't think his way through his big soliloquies, discovering them as he goes along; he recites them, like an A student who's done his homework. As a result, there aren't many dark corners in this Hamlet's psyche. Others in the cast make up somewhat for this deficiency. There's genuine frailty and madness, for example, in Helena Bonham-Carter's unraveled Ophelia; she's like a rag doll losing its stuffings. And Paul Scofield's brief appearance as the king has a horrible gravity.
Gibson has at least one bravura moment, though. It comes when he pounces on his mother (Glenn Close) in her bed after he's stabbed Polonius (the divinely addled Ian Holm), and there's such naked sexual aggression in the attack -- and it's met with such open passion from Close's Gertrude -- that for an instant the relationship seems laden with heretofore undreamed-of possibilities. It's a stirring, audacious confrontation.
This is Close's best moment too. But if the roots of Gibson's performance are in the 20th century, Close's are in the 19th. For the most part she seems corseted and artificial, like a theatrical grande dame unable to let her hair down. (Her death scene, though, is a real corker.) Bates fares better as Claudius, particularly in the final scene when, by accident, Gertrude drinks the poison that he'd planted for Hamlet, and the look on his face becomes that of a very bad doggy waiting for its punishment.
As a director, Zeffirelli is better with furniture than he is with the camera, but in this final scene he does rouse himself to a swashbuckling flourish. In staging his "Hamlet," Zeffirelli hasn't overreached himself or made taxing demands on the members of his audience that might be bigger fans of Mel Gibson than they are of Shakespeare. What he's done, essentially, is strap a pair of skates on its feet and point it downhill. He's made a populist, middlebrow "Hamlet" -- swift, respectable and decidedly not for the ages.
Hamlet, at area theaters, is rated PG.