Sunday, February 28, 2010

Act I Scene 3 - Zeffirelli '90

Ophelia is played by Helena Bonham Carter, looking very young for her 24 years of age in this picture, an impression supported by the acting and costuming. Bonham Carter plays the character with a mercurial hold on her emotions. Tearing up readily, but also laughing childishly, moving in and out of each mood quite easily. It's a characterization that befits her later madness, but seems a product of her age at this point. Like a child, she looks down when chided, avoids looking at her father and brother directly when she doesn't want to hear what they're saying. There's a petulance to her attitude that tries to get away with the things she's been forbidden to do. As for the costume, the white symbolizes rather broadly her innocence, but also prefigures the nunnery speech. As Laertes speaks to her, she scratches at a leaf she's embroidered, playing on the plant motif associated with Ophelia (even without the "green girl" line).

Laertes, for his part, walks in and talks about Hamlet with a strong sense of urgency. In this version, we have a Laertes who seems desperate for his sister not to fall for Hamlet, although his lines are cut before there's talk of her virginity. It's less seedy that way, although Ophelia's apparent youth does a lot of the work to still get that point across. So it seems the House of Polonius is only really worried that Hamlet's enduring melancholy makes him a bad match for Ophelia. Not an unnatural thought. Is Hamlet only drawn to Ophelia because he's in pain and she offers comfort? When he wakes from the grief, will he then no longer need or want her? By removing the family's obession with her maidenhead, the scene seems more familiar and natural. Laertes is merely urgent because this is a matter he wishes to resolve before he leaves.

Ian Holm is Polonius
As the discussion moves outside, Polonius comes shouting and hits Laertes with his many pieces of advice. Laertes does not listen, moving towards his horse as his father runs behind, losing breath. He drones on an on, either ignored or chuckled at by his children. Polonius is more of a dotard here than in some other versions, which is too bad given Holm's acting ability. I chalk it down to the many cuts suffered by the play in this film, which in Polonius' case, tend to rob him of his dark side. We are left with an old fool few really listen to (or do at their own peril). And he isn't helped by the costume design. When he talks about "rich not gaudy" apparel, it's hard to understand why he would. Everything is so drab in this Elsinore that he seems to chide his son for wearing a single broach. And if the "apparely oft proclaims the man", what should we make of his black robes? He is far less sinister than such a thing should indicate.

As Laertes leaves, we have a shift for both remaining characters. Ophelia darkens. From her perspective, the play is about loss, and Laertes is the first to go (second if we count her mother, third if she knew Hamlet Sr. at all). Laertes' departure is the first step towards leaving her alone and vulnerable in Elsinore. Polonius becomes more manipulative here, capable of quiet study and parental outrage and anger. This is not a side to him Zeffirelli allows us to see very often, but of course, Holm plays it wonderfully. The question this asks if whether Polonius treats Laertes and Ophelia differently, which of course he must. A later scene in the play (but not in the film) shows him meddling in his son's affairs as well, but here we're left with the impression that it's the classic double-standard for male and female progeny. The son seems to have mastered the father and is in charge of his own destiny (has has convinced Polonius to let him leave), while the daughter must remain in her father's control.

There's a nice moment from Bonham Carter in this section: When Hamlet's love is put in doubt, a look flits across her face that says she really DOESN'T know what to think. She's never really thought about it, or never wanted to. She is simple-minded when it comes to affairs of love, though she defends her stake in the relationship. When she finally obeys, there is anger and revolt in her voice, not penitence. What is her unspoken threat? That she WILL see Hamlet after all? That she'll make life miserable for her father? None of this can really be explored within the text.

Hamlet the stalker
Speaking of the text, Zeffirelli abandons it for a complete invention: He has Hamlet overhear most of this scene. This isn't too far out of the play's reach, since people are constantly listening behind and arras in the play, but Shakespeare still did not mean him to be present. He comes in on "hoops of steal", ironically the "friend" Polonius refers to, and follows along from the high ground and hears both Laertes and Polonius warn Ophelia away from him, and he hears her say she will obey. What effect does this have on the story and the character? It perhaps speaks to the question of whether Hamlet is mad or not in the play. Knowing about this piece of family drama, Hamlet may in fact stage his mad farewell to Ophelia. Hamlet is less mad, though more ruthless, if he does so. No longer a scene occurring in private whose purpose is to cut ties with Ophelia lest she be mixed up in the vengeance plot, what Hamlet learns in this scene may turn it into a savage manipulation of Polonius through his weak point (Ophelia). Consider how he then consistently uses Ophelia against her father. We'll have to examine Mel Gibson's performance closely to see just how much he resents either Polonius or Ophelia for this abortion of his love life.

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