Monday, July 5, 2010

I.v.The Ghost's Tale - Branagh (1996)

Branagh creates a small patch of hell/purgatory in Denmark for the encounter between Hamlet and the Ghost: blasted trees and smoke coming out of cracks in the earth. The look is extreme enough that you'd believe Hamlet to be transported to this halfway place so that his friends, who are supposed to be following close behind, cannot find him until the Ghost finishes its speech. At first, the Ghost is just a disembodied voice, but soon appears, armored and floating above ground, eyes so blue they are a supernatural white.

The often over the top Brian Blessed plays the Ghost, but is suitably transformed by the performance. First, there's the make-up that makes him paler than his usual self, and the distinctive angles of the "beaver", following those of his own face. But beyond that is the way he delivers the speech. Where Blessed excels at boisterousness, here he only whispers. This reigns in his great ego and plays on the intimacy of the scene. A secret (and an equally secret mission) is imparted. That intimacy carried through in the visuals, with tight close-ups dominating. As the murder is revealed, we get tighter than is comfortable, on the characters' mouths.
It's part of a visual triptych, getting very close to their mouths and eyes, and on the bleeding ear of the murdered king. They are visuals emblematic of what is "foul, strange and unnatural". This is an ugly murder and the film uses flashbacks to show it - gory, painful and distressing. Even Claudius is shaken by how violent it all is. The flashbacks show us the snowbound orchard in which Hamlet Sr. sleeps, and it has a fairy tale quality.
The beauty of the environment is in deep contrast with what happens there, and with the blasted wasteland of the present-day scene. Denmark will soon go from this to the "unweeded garden" of Hamlet's first soliloquy. The flashbacks also give us a glimpse into Hamlet's family life as he puts the pieces together. Things that used to perhaps only rankle now seem to him entirely sinister. In particular, there's a scene in which the whole family, uncle and all, play some version of shuffleboard.
Hamlet's father, in these shots, appears as an entirely positive figure, noble and loving. Of course, Hamlet's memory may be rose-tinted. We see that father and son have a particular bond, but also that they leave Gertrude behind to have fun with Claudius. What used to be innocent and friendly hugging now appears to be an adulterous seduction. These were the privileged relationships before the play's action. Again, this is all in Hamlet's imagination, which doesn't confirm the Ghost's honesty. The flashes to the murder do imply it, but it remains a matter of interpretation.

As the Ghost departs, Hamlet reaches for his hand, but it fades away. He falls to the ground ("coupling hell") and the music swells. This is a moment of decision. Branagh drools a lot in the next speech, which is rife for interpretation. If he's clearing his mental table to leave only his father's revenge, we might see this as Hamlet leaving behind the niceties of courtly politeness. Or he may be losing his mind, becoming more animalistic and less self-aware. This would go against his father's edict that he "taint not [his] mind", but then, the whole play is about Hamlet tainting his mind with madness and/or doubt.
He swears on his sword, kissing it, something he will ask his friends to do in the next section. The kiss is part of the overall intimacy of the scene and there is no doubt sexual allegory to be found in his coupling the earth, kissing a sword, and then apparently starting the next act by renouncing Ophelia. The "baser matter" that he rejects includes the pleasures of the body (something his puritan ideals weren't far from already), embracing his revenge (sword), calamitous situation (hell) and his nation (earth) instead.

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