Wednesday, July 14, 2010

I.v.The Ghost's Tale - Zeffirelli (1990)

Hamlet runs up to the highest platform in Elsinore, and there he finds the Ghost skulking in a dark corner. The opening dialog is one of the many cuts made to this scene, so Hamlet does not here stop the Ghost in its tracks. There is no ambiguity about the spirit's intentions, he's not bringing him towards the edge. In fact, Paul Scofield may just be the most sympathetic Ghost ever committed to film. He does not appear in armor (lines relating to this were all cut), but as a sad and weak old man (not unlike his portrayal of the French King in Branagh's Henry V). There is anguish in his voice and defeat in his posture. Hamlet is visibly moved by all this, Mel Gibson keeping the Danish prince's emotions always very close to the surface.

The Ghost's speech is very much cut down, and being as long as it is, it was a natural place for the director to do so. Of course, anytime you cut text, you might hurt the play's meaning. In this case, "Brief let me be" is the order of business from the start, as the Ghost gets right down to the business of recounting his murder. One of the things that changes is the relationship between father and son. In the text, the Ghost is much more severe. He tests and judges his son ("I find thee apt") and in many ways, manipulates him into avenging his murder. He repeatedly forbids Hamlet from forgetting him, perhaps sensing that his son is not the most proactive of people. Most of that is lost in this version, leaving us with a more trustworthy and less ambiguous Ghost. He doesn't flaunt his own virtues at the expense of Claudius'. He doesn't overegg the vile details of his murder.

The text has been slashed, but Scofield takes it and creates a memorable performance with it. You feel for this Ghost in a way you usually don't. At the end, he reaches with both hands towards Hamlet, and one tear drops off his face.
Hamlet closes his eyes, and the touch never comes. The Ghost is gone by the time he opens them again. Gibson's Hamlet feels everything viscerally, and is enraged by this revelation. He runs down to look once upon on his uncle's party, where he raves and rants, out of earshot. Zeffirelli uses the castle's geography to create strong staging for this part of the scene. When Hamlet goes on about that "pernicious woman", he's looking down on her. "So, uncle, there you are" likewise sets Hamlet's eyes on the object of his rage. On "meet it is I set it down", Hamlet physically writes his thought in the stones with his sword.
Writing that turns into violent, but ineffectual, slashing. Seeing Hamlet in such a rage begs a question. Why does he later have so much difficulty carrying out his revenge? It seems that had Claudius been just a little closer, he might have died right then and there. This might be an important chink in this version's armor. While effective movie-making, the performance may not make sense according to the text. Did Hamlet want the revenge to fit the crime better? Did he want to see Claudius suffer more? Are there political reasons for not doing it "pat"? (Zeffirelli removes most of the political context from the play, so that's a hard sell.) Whatever the reason for the delay (and we'll have a chance to discuss the possibilities in the coming weeks), it allows doubt to creep into Hamlet's mind, leading to tragedy. But the director will have to justify his vision of a Hamlet with far less self-control.

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