Desperate Dane

I was always sort of curious about Tony Richardson’s HAMLET. And maybe the end result is more sort-of-interesting than truly compelling, but those kind of films are very attractive to blog about, I find…

Richardson made the film cheaply by shooting at the Roundhouse Theatre in London, using the backstage spaces, a lot of bare brick corridors, making for a dour and oppressive Elsinore… also, shooting practically the whole film in tight medium shots and close-up, so as to take the strain off the art department and put the emphasis on face and voice. But here’s where the artistry comes in, because while a film of HAMLET made up of close-ups sounds like a televisual thing, Richardson keeps his cast, and Gerry Fisher’s camera, in motion, continually cramming new faces into the frame in new compositions. It’s very, very inventive, and turns a budgetary consideration into a compelling artistic one. The way figures fall off into soft blurs as they recede; the way the ghost never appears on camera but impresses merely by his voice (uncredited — who?) and by a bright light on the astonished features of the onlookers; the way everyone is always just UP IN YOUR FACE…

The cast is pretty interesting: Nicol Williamson’s puffy, pallid face does not suggest that of a student, but name me a Hamlet who does. What he does have is the ability to speak his speeches like a normal human having a conversation (without trampling the pentameters), so that he’s at his very best in the more conversational scenes. Williamson is one of those actors who can get overexcited, so I’m slightly less enamoured of his Big Scenes, but once you get over the shock of a Hamlet who’s so physically unappealing (maybe this is my self-loathing Scots side talking) I think you’ll find him impressive.

Marianne Faithfull as Ophelia seems less naturalistic, but maybe because Marianne Faithfull does not have a naturalistic face, body or voice. She’s not like someone you’d expect to meet, though I warrant you’d count yourself lucky if you did. A bit like Fenella Fielding, her mouth assumes expressions impossible on a normal skull, but I don’t think it’s mere whimsy that compels her to do so. Her face just goes that way. It’s like she’s continually being called upon to say the words “stewed prunes.” So she’s more miraculous than credible, through no fault of her own. Unable to overcome her natural advantages. And I kind of question what she sees in the jowly Scotchman, but there it is.

Antony Hopkins and Judy Parfitt are both within a year of Williamson’s age, which makes their casting as his uncle and mother… questionable. But that’s practically a tradition too. Boost the Oedipal aspect by giving H a MILF of a mom. Of course, in terms of box office, and possibly in terms of artistic success, Richardson ought to have swapped his Hamlet with his Claudius, because a movie starring Hopkins as The Dane would still be shifting units today if he’d done so. But in fact, both Hopkins and Parfitt have been rendered less effective than they might be by some very odd direction. It’s clearly a decision Richardson made, something he wanted. They’re both amused by Hamlet’s grief and unconcerned when he goes mad. It’s quite hard to work out why they embark on subterfuges with Polonius to learn the cause of his derangement, because they really don’t seem bothered about it. Most peculiar.

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12 Responses to “Desperate Dane”

  1. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Nicol Williamson was bat-shit crazy, his career coming toa spectacular end when he attacked another actor on stage with a knife during a performance of Paul Rudnick’s comedy “I Hate Hamlet” Looking at his performances now you can see that craziness coming at you well in advance of its full flowering.

    Marianne Faithful was a special favorite of Patrice Chereau (the greatest director of literally everything) and is quite marvelous in his sole English language film “Intimacy”

  2. David Melville Wingrove Says:

    Marianne Faithfull as Ophelia was probably the one-and-only thing about this production I enjoyed. She is certainly the one-and-only thing about it I remember.

    I suspect she was zonked out of tree…but exquisitely so.

  3. Great description; first came across it in Time Out, and they also emphasized the close ups and focus on faces. Do you have a favourite film Hamlet? The Kozintsev one seems like a consensus pick. And any thoughts on the German one that played on MST3K?

    For what it’s worth, my dream version might be some sort of virtual reality infused one done by Dark City era Alex Proyas :P

    I also suspect this may be the first academically oriented film blog to feature the word MILF in an analysis of analysis

  4. I like the Olivier version a lot, as does Polanski. The Russian one is cinematically spectacular and gorgeous. I need to see the Max Schell version and the stage recording of the Burton, which I have somewhere.

    Stage version I’d love to have seen: Frances de la Tour as Hamlet, Roy Kinnear as Gravedigger. Mid-monologue, he steps forward and says to the audience, “I haven’t the faintest idea what this is all about.” Frances literally wets herself laughing and flees the stage.

    Film version that should be made: one with a very young Hamlet. But I do see the difficulty in finding someone both young and capable. If Polanski had done Hamlet with Jon Finch (which he wouldn’t because he admired the Olivier too much), that would have worked better than Macbeth. Finch was very man’s-man irl, apparently, but he seems too much the sophisticate as Macbeth.

  5. Asta Neilsen as Hamlet in the 1921 film gives an…interesting view. Unlike Frances de la Tour (I’m sorry to have missed it too), or Sarah Bernhardt, her Hamlet actually is a woman disguised as a man for complicated reasons derived from a book https://archive.org/details/mysteryhamletan00vinigoog/page/n7

  6. And why not? Shakespeare certainly wasn’t above that sort of thing…

  7. ehrenstein47 Says:

  8. Judy Dean Says:

    ‘NW’s puffy, pallid face does not suggest that of a student; but name me a Hamlet who does.’ Well, I would say both David Tennant and Andrew Scott appeared suitably youthful. And Ethan Hawke wasn’t bad in that respect either.

  9. Yeah, I might have to grant you that. But I absolutely hated, with a passion, every one of those Hamlets. I don’t know how serious Bruce Robinson and Richard E Grant were about making a black comedy version, but I would potentially have been down for that. By the early nineties, Grant was saying the thing was off because he was too old for the apron-strings/oedipal aspect to ring true,

    It would have been good if Daniel Day-Lewis had filmed his version, especially if he could have gotten his actual father’s ghost to appear on celluloid the way he did to the actor on stage…

  10. Hamlet absolutely is, among other things, a black comedy, and Hamlet is a comedian, which is why so many comedians want to play him. I remember NW doing a good job showing a man too distracted by his on cleverness, too pleased to win games only he’s playing. What else? have you seen the Plummer? Michael Caine is a surprisingly gorgeous Horatio in it, and it’s easy to infer he’s the real object of Hamlet’s desire. And… The Oedipal reading is tenable, I suppose, but a bit of a hat upon a hat, and given the story of Oedipus does nothing to explain why Claudius is spared for so long. Hamlet just hates women.

  11. Does Hamlet hate women normally, or is it because he’s so disgusted with his mother right now that he keeps finding reasons to be mean to Ophelia?

    i haven’t seen the Plummer but I imagine he’s great, and I’d love to see Caine do Shakespeare.

    My friend Colin McLaren did a memorably funny Dane on the Edinburgh Fringe. “I’ll lug the guts next door” seems like a sure laugh line.

  12. If Gertrude’s not sobbing on your laugh. But yes, he doesn’t always read the room.

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