Hamlet (1964)

aka Гамлет / Gamlet

2016 #96
Grigori Kozintsev | 142 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | Soviet Union / Russian | U

A black-and-white, two-and-a-half hour Shakespeare adaptation in subtitled Russian? No, wait, come back! Actually, don’t bother, because if you’re turned off by any or all of that description then, yeah, this isn’t for you. If you don’t object, however, then you’ll find a film that the likes of Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir John Gielgud, and Sir Kenneth Branagh have hailed as the greatest film adaptation of arguably the Bard’s most revered play.

I shan’t bother to summarise the plot, because if you don’t know the story already this isn’t a film for you. Even for those who have no problem with black-and-white, or Shakespeare, or subtitles, the latter occasionally race by at a rate of knots, making them hard to keep up with. Unless you fancy regularly pausing and/or rewinding, you’ll have to accept that you’re going to miss a line here or there. (If you do keep up with them throughout, well done, you’re better at quickly parsing Shakespearean dialogue than I am.)

For those in a position to appreciate it, however, this is a great version of the play. Based on Boris Pasternak’s translation, it moves through the narrative with reasonable speed, but without losing anything fundamental (as far as I was aware). Director Grigori Kozintsev expressed a particular interest in the political themes, in contrast to their de-emphasis in Olivier’s 1948 film (which I’ve not seen). He particularly highlights Elsinore’s role as a prison, framing characters through bars, constraining Ophelia in a metal corset, and staging Hamlet’s dismissal to England on a courtroom-like set. I felt like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had bigger roles here than in other versions I’ve seen, with Hamlet’s plot to have them dispatched also given focus. Ophelia’s storyline is more present than normal too, whereas the roles of Gertrude and Horatio felt consequently reduced. This is partly down to which sections of the text are used, but Kozintsev also features dialogue-free realisations of elements of the story, which build up these parts further.

In the famously complex lead role, Innokenty Smoktunovsky gives a Hamlet who you really feel is more intelligent than everyone else around him — like a student fresh home from his studies, who has surpassed his parents and old acquaintances in sheer learning and attentiveness to philosophical topics, but doesn’t yet have a firm handle on his swirling thoughts. It’s possible he’s going genuinely mad with it, too, rather than the playfulness some choose to interpret in the part. Anastasiya Vertinskaya embodies sweet innocence as Ophelia, who Hamlet seems to genuinely care for, but has a poor way of showing it. Conversely, Mikhail Nazvanov makes for a somewhat neutered Claudius — he’s almost bumbling, outwitted by Hamlet but with enough innate power (he’s King, after all) to mask it. I suppose that emphasises the “student who’s outstripped his parents” point, but it doesn’t exactly make for a powerful villain. Still, different interpretations are always interesting.

As a film it looks incredible, with Jonas Gritsius’ cinematography bestowing grandiosity on the striking castle set (built on location over six months), without losing sight of the characters who inhabit these spacious environments. Nighttime scenes are a visual standout — it’s a time of day that’s always set to look good in black-and-white, with light cutting out details from the pervading darkness, and Gritsius doesn’t waste the opportunity. The outdoor staging of the play-within-a-play, and the events around it, is a particularly memorable sequence. Whereas Branagh would use editing to guide us around the various observers in his film, Kozintsev more often achieves it with well-chosen pans and tilts. The visitation of Hamlet’s father’s ghost is another tour de force moment, the kind of visual impact that benefits not a jot from being described in text.

I don’t normally comment on my method of viewing when reviewing a film, but the UK R0 DVD of Hamlet has at least one aspect worthy of note: in an era when widescreen TVs are the norm, someone at Mr. Bongo had the bright idea to release this 2.35:1 film in fullscreen, and to let the subtitles fill the black bar underneath the picture to boot. Practically, this means you have to watch the film in a small box in the centre of your TV — and, at 2.35:1, that’s a very small box. It’s not as if Mr. Bongo do it with all their releases, so goodness knows what made them think it was a bright idea in 2011 to release a fullscreen DVD of a widescreen film. However, I was fortunate enough to catch BBC Four’s screening, in HD, as part of the current BBC Shakespeare Festival. If you missed it, it’s unfortunately not available in HD on iPlayer, but I’d wager the BBC’s SD version is at least the equal of the DVD in terms of resolution, and it doesn’t have the problem of stupidly-placed subtitles.

In many respects this is a 5-star adaptation — it brings vitality to the text, there are several strong performances, the staging is highly cinematic — but the language is something of a barrier to entry. This is most certainly not a neophyte’s Hamlet. But then, why should it need to be? That’s not a fault of the film, just a factor in deciding when to watch it. Even with the subtitle issue feeling like an obstacle to engagement, this was perhaps the most enjoyable Hamlet film I’ve seen. Maybe that’s because it has an advantage in that I’m now more familiar with the play (something which hindered Branagh’s version, as that was the first time I’d seen it), but it speaks to the film’s overall quality that it has more to offer than just Shakespeare’s words.

5 out of 5

Hamlet is available on BBC iPlayer for another seven days.

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