Canon Entry - Hamlet (1964)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
Shakespeare has always been a tricky bastard to adapt. His works are so ingrained in Western culture that artists often treat his work with too much reverence, or they completely miss the point of his works entirely. I have seen too many adaptations of Shakespeare’s works, and my favorites, by far tend to be works that take the plays to new and brilliant extremes: Kurosawa’s Ran (King Lear), My Own Private Idaho (the Henriad). I’ve come to appreciate Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet in which, while the actors definitely do not get the language right, Luhrmann at least understands what a dirty, sexy and extremely violent reckless story it is, and he reflects it in his style.
The kind of adaptation I despise is the too literal one that preserves too many elements of the stage such as Laurence Olivier’s or Kenneth Branagh’s. These movies tend to revere Shakespeare so much that they forget the tenuous origins of the printed editions of his plays. Shakespeare saw his plays as disposable, which is why he never bothered publishing them himself. It’s probably the equivalent of a screenwriter thinking of his screenplays as mostly what is depicted in the movie. Few people bother to buy screenplays. Shakespeare’s works are a mixture of some manuscripts, but mostly actors trying to remember lines from productions they were in, which is why there are so many different version of certain plays since human memory is so fickle. All of this is to say is that Shakespeare’s works invite invention and reimagining rather than prevent it.
Grigori Kozintsev’s Hamlet is easily the best film version I have ever seen of this “poem unlimited.” It is a revenge tale, a spy thriller, a meditation on mortality, and philosophical examination of the nature of reality. In other words, it’s a trainwreck, but perhaps the most glorious trainwreck in the English language. This is not to say that this is the definitive movie version of the play. Kozintsev’s version makes Hamlet very political. By cutting out the opening scene in which the guards first behold the ghost of Hamlet’s father and instead giving us an extended montage of the castle and the people who make it run, Kozintsev sets a much larger stage for the events of the play to unfold.
For example, all of Hamlet and his mother’s seemingly intimate conversations are definitely not that. Kozintsev has Hamlet (Innokenty Smoktunovsky) and Gertrude (Elza Rodzina) walk in a room chock-full of courtiers. It immediately makes this conversation much more performative (and insincere). We could easily interpret this as Gertrude trying to cover her ass for marrying so quickly by appearing as a caring mother. Or at least this is what Hamlet would think. All of Hamlet’s speeches about performance and sincerity (O that this too too sullied flesh would melt and What a rogue and peasant slave am I) make so much more sense when you realize that a member of royalty has to perform literally every second of his or her existence. I think this film version made this abundantly clear in a way that every other version of Hamlet I have seen has failed to do so.
Kozintsev also realizes that he is making a film and not a filmed version of a play. The film is visually dynamic in some of the most obvious ways. When Hamlet first sees the ghost of his father, it is a scene straight out of an action movie, maybe even an anime. His father is standing against the stormy night sky in full armor, cape billowing on an unearthly wind from Hell. It’s the only film depiction of the ghost that actually filled me with excitement, if maybe not fear. Yet Kozintsev also uses this basic cinematic language in very effective, efficient ways. Such as when Ophelia (Anastasiya Vertinskaya) is talking to her father Polonius about Hamlet’s advances on her. Polonius is in a ridiculously high chair, emphasizing his sense of self-importance, and Ophelia is literally at his knees looking up to him, emphasizing her naturally subservient nature. Even simple choices like this are excellent visual storytelling. I would wager that if you had to watch a Shakespearean film adaptation with the sound off and no subtitles, this version would best convey the story. Hell, the fact that it’s in Russian, to some people that’s just as bad as having the sound off.
Considering the visual majesty of the film, it seems as if the actors are in danger of getting lost in the spectacle. Yet Smoktunovsky plays Hamlet as a cautious philosopher with a mixture of strange naivete. Hamlet, like his play, is a character of contradictions. He is clearly too smart and canny to be in this base genre play, and there are hints in the play itself about Hamlet’s meta awareness of how he is part of a narrative that he doesn’t want to be involved in. Smoktunovsky manages to capture these contradictions into a fascinating and complex performance, one that does not necessarily have the benefit of language to a non-Russian speaker. In fact, the main quibble I have with this version is with the subtitles, since it is content to lift lines straight from the English play when in fact it was working from a translation by Boris Pasternak, in which I would imagine he would have taken liberties with the text. Yet, in the end, it doesn’t really matter since Kozintsev and the actors and his other collaborators, created a work that transcends language and time. After having seen so many boring and literal (and misinformed) adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, this is the one that renewed my appreciation for the master’s work.