Saturday, November 27, 2010

II.ii. New Arrivals - Branagh '96

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern's section is played in one take, ending on a walk-and-talk, an evocation of the "corridors of power" as later seen in The West Wing (according to Branagh). Though the start of this very long scene can and often is cut for time, Branagh creates a lot of movement in the shot, keeping things moving and presenting us with a living, breathing Elsinore. During the scene, Gertrude is getting dressed, Claudius is drinking tea and tonic and getting his boots shined, maids are making the bed. Aside from painting a believable environment, this also creates a number of effects. First, there's the sense that Claudius is juggling way too many things. He's multi-tasking, but something could fall through the cracks, i.e. the Norway situation. His focus is on Hamlet's distemper, but he's contracting that out as well, and doing so in a hurry (which appropriately diminishes R&G as characters). Second, we're presented R&G in a scene filled with servants. This underscores their own relationship to the King and Queen as subservient to them, and not to Hamlet's friendship. Third, Branagh treats the scene ironically by staging it in the bedroom. Not only are R&G getting into bed with the villain of the play, but it also means Claudius is missing the obvious when he says "What it should be, More than his father's death [...] I cannot dream of."
R&G are played by Timothy Spall (Rosencrantz, above left) and Reece Dinsdale (Guildenstern, on the right). They don't make the characters interchangeable as far as performance goes, but since neither ever gets "his" moment, it remains confusing as to which is which. I don't know if Branagh did a little anti-casting here, because Spall looks more like a Guildenstern to me. They do have character traits in common inspired by the text. The way Spall and Dinsdale play it, it's like they don't trust each other and feel they must always cover for the other, or complete/clarify the other's thoughts to get into the best possible graces with the King and Queen. Their furtive looks add to the sense of this from the dialog. The classic reversed repetition by King and Queen here is played as if Gertrude is correcting Claudius, and the body language bears out that the Queen knows them better than the King does. She can at least tell them apart, which lends more weight to her description of them as Hamlet's best friends. It's at least her perception of the relationship, and as is often the case, the parent may not have been updated on her child's evolving relationships.
Claudius receives a message that his ambassadors have returned from Norway and continues his walk and talk with Polonius this time. They enter the throne room filled with drilling fencers, keeping up with the theme of a living Elsinore and also prefiguring both the warlike entreaty we're about to see and the final scene of the play. Though important affairs of state are about to be discussed, it's Polonius' contention that he's found the cause of Hamlet's madness that actually captivates the King, and Polonius must actually redirect Claudius to the ambassadors. Claudius may well be rushing through the next conversation, which is why he misses the clues to the danger Denmark faces (given his own political treacheries, he should have been sensitive to them).
Voltimand's story is shown in flashbacks, which actually do show more clues to Fortinbras' treachery, with Rufus Sewell looking especially sinister and insincere. Don Warrington was well cast as Voltimand because his rich voice is perfect for narration. Of course, that narration is flawed because it is so upbeat. It paints a rosy picture where none exists, contributing to Claudius' blindness to what's really happening.


James K. said...

"freely pillaged from The West Wing (according to Branagh)."

That can't be right chronologically; The West Wing didn't start until 1999. Were there similar scenes in Sorkin's 1995 film The American President?

Siskoid said...

That's a good point! He evidently recorded the commentary much later and perhaps confused the timeline himself!