Monday, August 24, 2009

I.ii. The Wedding Banquet - Branagh 96

Branagh sets the banquet in the most important set of the film, the Hall of Mirrors. This long ballroom is bright where Elsinore is often dank and each of its mirrors is a door, lending a reflective quality to spying scenes, as we'll eventually see. Claudius, played by the always excellent Derek Jacobi, fits into this world seamlessly. His bright red military uniform and bristly bleached hair allow him to revel in this kind of opulence. Not only is his red the color of blood, the blood that is on his hands, but it also identifies him as a preening peacock, full of self-love. His red contrasts Hamlet's black. He is most definitely not in mourning, but rather celebrating his brother's death.

An important bit of staging here: Claudius' opening speech is made in front of a large audience. This is his first speech as King, having taken the previous king's queen as his own. A political move that requires a certain measure of justification. Claudius excels at what today we would call "spin", as he is a creature of appearances. A false king, in power under false pretenses. Everything looks gorgeous although we know Denmark to be diseased. That is how he uses his charisma, and Jacobi's performance is a sympathetic one. The villain does not reveal himself for quite some time and you want to believe him in this early scene. Jacobi has also chosen to make his Claudius truly be in love with Gertrude, which the full text supports.
Pretty easy, you might say, since Gertrude is played by Julie Christie, a still striking woman (she certainly doesn't look 55) whose blood may not be as tame as Hamlet would have it.

Of course, he makes it plain that this would never have happened if the Court had not "freely gone with this affair along". So the whole State is complicit in this usurped throne/incestuous bond, and so it is doomed along with Claudius himself (cue Fortinbras later).

Speaking of Fortinbras, in an often cut bit, Claudius deals with him in his particular idiom, i.e. with dramatic flair and arrogance.
The Court eats it up. Claudius is media savvy, but as everyone else's unease has taught us, he may not actually be up to the challenge of defending Denmark. Here, he dismisses the threat posed by Fortinbras, misjudging the entire situation. I've noted Claudius' military dress, but all the men in the Court also wear military uniforms. In this version of the play, war is very much on everyone's minds. Denmark is a military state, and Fortinbras' movements are part of the larger campaign Hamlet Sr. took part in.

Then comes Laertes (remember, Hamlet is last and least on Claudius' agenda) played by Branagh regular, Michael Maloney.
Maloney always gives a competent performance, though I've always thought of his Laertes as a bit wishy-washy. Maybe it's the haircut. In any case, we don't get a great sense of his character here, nor of Richard Briers' Polonius or Kate Winslet's Ophelia, except that they seem to be very nice people.
If we didn't know any better, this Denmark would seem to be a nice enough place. The new King has well judged the mood of the country and appears both sympathetic to their loss and aware of what needs to be done for political stability. The presence of civilians on the balcony and way everything is handled publicly speaks to an open government, not a tyranny. How will people react when Hamlet starts acting up? This sets up a Denmark decidedly on the side of Claudius. Does it contribute to Hamlet's doubts and delays?


snell said...

Be afraid, my friend. Be very afraid.

Siskoid said...

I saw. I'll keep an open mind (and this could just be an actor saying how HE would make the movie he thankfully isn't) but it looks like a Romeo+Juliet where all the secondary characters are excellent, and the regular(s) terrible.