Friday, July 10, 2009

Act 1 Scene 1 - Branagh 96

Branagh's version of the play uses the complete text and so is where I shall always start. As this is my first chance to talk about this version, let's get a couple things out of the way:

Avoiding the usual Medieval Gothic, Branagh sets the action much closer to us, in a 19th-century Viennese-style palace. This will allow for some interesting mise en scène (via the Hall of Mirrors) later, but more than that, the palace looks less like a grungy old castle, and more like what could today still be the seat of government. And when we look at this era, we think more readily of political machinations, adding that layer to the play.

It's nice to see a snowy Denmark as well. We know from the play it's supposed to be "bitter cold", but too rarely are we allowed to see it. Freezing the country over gives us one of those Shakespearean "stolen seasons" that allows the action of the play to unfold when we know real life would normally intrude. Symbolically, we have the death of nature following the death of the land's king (Hamlet Sr.).

More superficially, the oft-used concept of changing the play's time period proves the story is "universal".

So does casting, in this instance. Branagh does the same thing he did in Much Ado About Nothing and casts non-British and non-white actors. Where there many black men and women in Denmark in the time period depicted? I wouldn't know, but then let me ask you this: Were there many people called Francisco and Bernardo in Denmark at ANY time? Shakespeare has already created a universe that is multi-cultural and has little respect for historical details. It's not about recreating medieval Denmark, it's about so much more than that.

Of course, a lot of people took exception to the use of high profile actors (especially Americans) in various bit parts, but there are two very good reasons why this is a good thing. First, when the play is this long and you're not going to make any cuts, you have to give the public some spectacle. Second, putting a big actor in a small part gives that part more importance. The much maligned Jack Lemmon, for example...
Sure, he doesn't try to approximate even a "period" English accent, but Marcellus can so often be "second guard from the right". The character deserves more. He is the soldier to Horatio's scholar and has that wonderful speech at the end that also contrasts his beliefs to those of Nicholas Farrell's unbelieving Horatio. (And accent or no, Lemmon offers a great, soulful performance there.)

A Scary Movie
This version of the play turns the first words into a proper fright for the audience. "Who's there?" is shouted as the older Bernardo jumps the younger Francisco (a test? paranoia?).
The soldiers are definitely edgy about something. One the one hand, there's a ghost haunting these parts, scarier for what it might portend, but on the other, there are preparations being made for war and the guards are completely out of the loop - they need to ask Horatio. So while the soldiers are simple men who don't know what's happening in the Court they guard, they can still feel something is wrong in the land, and in the play's world view, that something is wrong with their new king.

A line that jumped out at me on this particular viewing is:

Why such impress of shipwrights, whose sore task
Does not divide the Sunday from the week;

Another indication that the new leader has adopted "unnatural" policies that could raise God's ire, a point that culminates with Horatio's pagan comparison of Denmark with a zombie-filled, perpetually eclipsed Rome.

The Ghost
There are so many descriptions in the play that it's hard to do anything more than follow them. I do like the idea of matching Hamlet's statue with the appearance of the Ghost, with the statue pulling at its sword to underscore the first line. Is it the soldier's imagination? In the full text, it can't remain so, however. It must appear to three people here. While the floating figure effect is fine, what sells the scene is the three men's terrorized reaction. Their fear sends them immediately running, giving the play its first taste of momentum, momentum that helps drive Horatio's long speech. These guys have just seen a ghost and will see one again in a minute, and they never forget that. Horatio, who's seeing it for the first time, even needs a little liquid courage.
This is a man who thought he had it all figured out. The learned man more comfortable with mythology than faith. These things happen in books, not in life. It shakes him to his very core. He's finding out he's a literary character, in a sense. Hamlet is quite self-conscious about its own status as a play, especially to modern ears. The ghostly dramatic device, the night that passes in the space of a scene, and of course, the heightened language all contribute.

To make Horatio's long speech more interesting, Branagh throws some visuals at us. There's the cannon-building (not to be confused with canon-building, something this play has done so much of) and the flashes to young Fortinbras' military campaign.
Showing us Rufus Sewell at this point gives Fortinbras a lot more power. In the play, though he's mentioned on at least three more occasions, he isn't seen until the very end. Here, not only do we get a quick early glimpse of him, he's immediately recognizable. He's a fully realized character. It becomes a lot easier for an audience to now register the information about Fortinbras and contrast him and Hamlet. Just like the title character, he's had a father slain, though perhaps not in such an ignoble way. Like Hamlet, he is a charismatic that surrounds himself with followers, his "landless resolutes" not necessarily any more disreputable than some of Hamlet's friends (he is "most dreadfully attended"). However, unlike Hamlet, Fortinbras is a man of action, what Hamlet might have become had he not been plagued by the author's incredible intellect.


Craig D. said...

The opening with the shot of HAMLET chiseled into stone in front of the palace reminded me of the opening of Horror of Dracula, with the shot of DRACULA chiseled into the coffin. I wonder if it was intentional; I refuse to believe that Branagh wasn't familiar with the earlier film.

I agree that Lemmon is underrated (though I question the use of geriatric palace guards, especially if they're paranoid about imminent war) but the way the ghost is portrayed in this scene is a total waste for me. (Except for the moving statue. That was a nice touch.) The editing is so choppy and we barely get a glimpse of his face. Horatio's description of the ghost to Hamlet a few scenes later makes no sense; when he describes the ghost's face looking at him "most constantly" and "more in sorrow than in anger," he's describing something we didn't actually see. In the few seconds we actually see the ghost, he's just sort of standing there, staring off into space like a zombie.

Fortunately it soon gets better; when the ghost appears to Hamlet with the earth opening up under his feet, it's a pretty well-done scene. Still, even there, I feel the Ethan Hawke version was more effective; if only for the fact that the ghost turns back to hug his son before leaving, which drives home the bond between them in a way that the Branagh version doesn't in its version of the scene.

Siskoid said...

Geriatric guards adds even more "out-of-jointedness" to the timeline. Hamlet is too old to be a student as well.

As for comparing ghosts, bombastic Brian Blessed is far from my favorite iteration.