Saturday, October 10, 2009

I.ii. Enter Hamlet - Branagh '96

As Claudius finally turns to Hamlet, the camera pans through the audience, a metaphorical wall, to Hamlet very much waiting in the wings. The camera, in a sense, reveals the actor backstage waiting for his cue. In this staging, Hamlet is not in full view of everyone, he enters when called. This works hand in hand with other elements to soften Claudius. He doesn't appear to purposefully ignore Hamlet here.

With his first pun ("A little more than kin and less than kind"), the device of hearing asides spoken in thought/voice-over is introduced. Branagh alternates between this and spoken word, mostly in spots where he doesn't want the character to be overheard, but sometimes just for variety or to keep a physical performance free of vocal affectation. Here, it keeps the pan intact, obviating the need for a close-up that might break from it, and it also makes plain that no one hears that bit of disrespect. Disrespect is conveyed more subtly by body language, in this case sitting forcefully in the presence of his royal parents.
Though there are people sitting in the crowd, anyone near the royal couple stands, so his statement isn't lost on the assembly. In fact, the camera cuts to their sour expressions. Though the play tells us the people love Hamlet (which is why Claudius stalls when it comes to killing him), here it seems like they disapprove of him. We've just been told they approve of Claudius' ascension, so Hamlet's disrespect may not sit well with them, though you could also read their expressions as concert for the grieving prince. In any case, he is "too much i' the sun" by being the object of public scrutiny, easy to spot in such a bright environment in his black clothes. The pun is that Claudius has already called him "son" enough already, a dubious honor he does not want.

Julie Christie's Gertrude finally speaks and it's to show motherly concern, and it brings us to one of my favorite line readings.
She says "Thou know'st 'tis common; all that lives must die", to which he answers "Ay, madam, it is common." Branagh bites on the last word making us aware of yet another double meaning. It's not that he agrees with his mother's claim, it's that he finds her comment and attitude vulgar (common as root word of commoner). His entire demeanor during this part of the scene may be sadness, but there is a liberal dose of barely contained outrage as well.

What he is saying in the "trappings of woe" speech is that they're inadequate. They SEEM, but he wants them to do MORE than seem. Hamlet isn't just expressing his own emotion, but trying to stir it in his mother, to shame her. To his eyes, she doesn't even SEEM to grief, and in fact appears quite happy and in love with Claudius. Hamlet cannot reconcile how she SHOULD feel and how she appears to feel. He will inquire about her blush later in the play, but it certainly isn't here either.

As for King Claudius, it's hard to take Hamlet's side against him. He's sweet and kind, and unlike a lot of other Claudiuses, embraces Hamlet. His arguments against prolonged grief are reasonable and meant to comfort. Jacobi is careful not to chide with his delivery. He even makes the moment a private one, talking softly and closely with Hamlet, close-ups and sound doing a good job of isolating the family from the Court. He doesn't make it public until the very end, when he tells everyone the results of the discussion, and probably doesn't want rumors to go flying. And yet, just telling Hamlet that he's his father now is painful to his nephew.
Of course, Hamlet's parents are missing the point. Hamlet's grief isn't just for a father dead, but for a father replaced. A lot of this conversation is played on reactions, and Gertrude's are especially interesting. On "a fault against the dead", she has a momentary look to the left (memory). It is the smallest of regrets for her betrayal and highlights for the viewer/reader the hypocrisy of Claudius' well-turned phrases. His attacks on will incorrect to heaven and minds impatient might as well be directed at him.

When Claudius is happy with the result, there's the film's iconic confetti scene.
Flying in the face of Hamlet's sadness, it's a huge celebration. Branagh uses this moment to have Ophelia go to Hamlet and Laertes gently pull her away, setting up their relationships for later. It's the same thing we saw in Hamlet 2000, but less on the nose. Hamlet is left alone and as in his the opening line of his next speech, he physically melts.
The great weight of APPEARANCES, whether we're talking about the public eye or a son's attitude towards his mother, is lifted and relief takes it place. He's free to speak his mind, if only to himself. Throughout the speech, Hamlet is emotionally unstable, moving from anger to sorrow and back again, full of asides and parentheses. It all comes flowing out of him in a great torrent once the floodgates have been opened.

His speech turns this beautiful, glittering Denmark into an unweeded garden, where the confetti might as well be the ashes of the previous world. Hamlet's point of view is post-apocalyptic. With the death of the True King comes the death of the Nation and being left to survive in the ensuing wasteland is unbearable. And yet he holds his tongue, for both political reasons and a son's duty to his mother.

This speech was all done in a single take, a take that continues through the next bit of scene as well. Branagh gives us what we might get in a theater while also keeping the the camera dynamic and close to the actors. It helps sell his mercurial Hamlet as we're not watching edited takes from different performances. Hamlet's changeability is part of who he is.


Craig D. said...

One of the best scenes in the film, maybe the best... not just because of the iconic confetti shots and the terrific acting on Jacobi's part, but because Branagh absolutely KILLS the "solid flesh" soliloquy, going from relief to sorrow and building to a crescendo of anger that's just a pleasure to experience. Every version I see in the future will be a disappointment in comparison.

Siskoid said...

While dealing with stray confetti falling off his head or shoulders!