Thursday, February 4, 2010

Act I Scene 3 - Branagh '96

Though the scene is meant to take place in Polonius' house, this is very rarely done in the films. Branagh goes for the outside of the palace and in fact uses the entire scene to establish more of the world of Elsinore. We've seen the gates in Scene 1, and the throne room, study and secret doors in Scene 2. In Scene 3, we move outside and see castle exterior, as well as the chapel, where other scenes will later take place. Laertes and Ophelia have a tender and playful relationship, hugging as they walk, slapping each other with gloves, laughing, smiling and teasing (both each other and their father). One thing I notice from having Michael Maloney do the entire speech is that he's his father's son. Not only do the two have the same misgivings about Hamlet seeing Ophelia, but Laertes is perhaps just as tedious as his father. He makes his point, then makes it again, and Maloney is pitch perfect in his taking a breather only to jump on the same point again. On Branagh's end, when he has to change shots, he uses a dissolve instead of a cut, which makes it look like Laertes has been talking for hours.

At one point, the pair see Hamlet from afar, supervising fencers and in essence, setting up how the duel at the end will be fought.
Here and upon leaving at scene's end, Laertes seems overwhelmed with a sense of destiny. He is distracted at the sight of Hamlet and rapiers, and when he says goodbye, it's as if he might never see his family again. We know the story well, even its characters can't be too oblivious about it.

Polonius then arrives and another dissolve takes us into the chapel where Polonius delivers his famous advice. It's a jarring piece of editing that makes you wonder if it's a flashback, except that at the end, Laertes refers to his warning about Hamlet which took place in the previous section. Apparently, weather conditions forced the production into interiors, but the effect is still strange. I'll forgive a lot of things like this based on the line "Time is out of joint" however. Richard Briers puts just the right emphasis on "To thine own self be true", and the churchly surroundings lend the speech the sound of a sermon.

Though there is a "churlish priest" in Hamlet, he is not seen before Ophilia's burial. By then, Polonius is dead. Priests in Shakespeare are frequently advisers and councilors, so placing Polonius in a chapel gives him that role, even if he subverts it. He is councilor to an evil man. He advises his son with platitudes, and his daughter against love. This is something that subtly runs through this version of the play, and I'll mention it from time to time.

Before Laertes leaves, he kisses his sister once more. Does this look more romantic than it should?
If there is something off putting about brother and sister kissing, it's because it's not much seen in contemporary culture. I generally dislike the Freudian tendency to suggest incest in the play, but Laertes and Ophelia kissing does translate something modern audiences may not get from the words themselves. Visually, the kisses suggest that Laertes and Polonius' concerns about Ophelia's virginity are a bit unnatural. Whether that's a modern interpretation and not relevant to Shakespeare's day (when virginity was more highly prized) I'll leave to the reader. Branagh seems to suggest that something is off about these relationships and about their closeness.

When Laertes finally leaves, Polonius closes the gates behind him and addresses Ophelia about this Hamlet business. That shot creates a much darker Polonius than we're used to.
As written, Polonius IS a much darker character, but cuts to the text remove much of this from the character. Here, he is a foreboding figure, one to be feared by Ophelia, who after all, is vulnerable in this world of men and politics. He soon throws her into the confessional (used by Claudius later) and, again the perverse priest, forces a confession out of her.
This small act of violence harks to such as lines as "to cut his throat i' the church". The confession isn't really one since Ophelia says nothing's going on. And as written, that may be true. Branagh intercuts the scene with a flashback to a sex scene, showing that Ophelia is lying to her father. Flashes of this are seen on words such as "tenders" (visualizing the double entendre), "blood burns" and "tongue", all eroticized in Ophelia's mind. And while at first it might seem ambiguous - is it Polonius' imagination or Ophelia's memory? - Ophelia is eventually left alone with those thoughts, so they are hers. Interestingly, "I shall obey" is said in voice-over after Polonius leaves. So while she may have been lying when she said nothing was going on, she ISN'T lying about obeying her father.

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