Saturday, December 18, 2010

II.ii. Brevity - Branagh '96

As Polonius starts on his "brief" speech, the King and Queen are signing papers (presumably the Norwegian treaty), which is an interesting touch. The Queen in Branagh's version is most definitely involved in governing the kingdom, partnering with Claudius in affairs of state. She is not an "object" to be lusted after, but necessary to the stability of Denmark. This small detail gives her character greater power, and stands in opposition to Ophelia's servile role.

Richard Briars' performance as Polonius is likewise noteworthy. His take on the character is more sinister and less bumbling. He speaks the words with a quick rhythm and in definite earnest. Yes, Gertrude finds him pedantic and tries to rush him, but he's not so long-winded as to be comical. There is no hesitation, no distractedness, no sense that he is reveling in his own wit. This is just how he speaks and thinks, and he will take you through his thought process because he feels it is necessary to your understanding (there's that hubris). And in fact, Gertrude is convinced by the argument. Of course, that may also have something to do with the use of Ophelia in this scene.
Branagh creates a moment that isn't in the text by having Polonius bring in his daughter to read Hamlet's letter (so there is no question she spilled the beans). She does so only haltingly, breaking up after almost every word. Between her reading and the reactions of the listeners, the overwhelming feeling is that of embarrassment. Ophelia is being exposed here, and her father's voice touchingly quivers in sympathy (though he is the monster who forces her to metaphorically disrobe before the Royals), his gorge rising at the vile words. By the time she hits "white bosom", she runs off humiliated. Polonius continues, but we're sent into a flashback that features post-coital Hamlet and Ophelia in bed, when the letter was composed.
The voice-over gives way to Hamlet's own voice, until we return to Polonius for the signature. This flashback has a number of implications. First, Branagh chooses to make the letter genuine. It is an artifact from happier days and is not part of a ploy to deceive Claudius. Second is the rather libidinous turn the word "groans" takes. Hamlet is no stranger to vulgar double-entendres (as per the prelude to the play within a play, for example) and at the end of love-making, is naughty in his word play. Gertrude may be convinced more by Ophelia's behavior than Polonius' words. After all, she too has recently done things in the name of love, and would believe in such a force.

A final note on the text itself, something I've only just now noticed: Ophelia is Polonius' daughter "while she is "his", but Hamlet is hers while his machine (body) is his own. Shakespeare plays with the possessive in this section in a way that begs to be examined. Polonius may think that Hamlet is "his" because he claims to belong to his daughter/property. He'll get him, get at his mystery. However, the question of the play is whether Hamlet is still in control of his faculties. Is his machine still his? If not, then his heart no longer belongs to Ophelia, but rather to his madness/revenge/father. Polonius assumes wrongly once again.


Cross said...

Aw, Hamlet and Ophelia flashbacks :(. I have trouble getting my head around the idea of them as a couple, but the idea of Hamlet in happier times always makes me a bit sad.

What do you think of Branagh's Gertrude? I discussed her once with someone who thought she wasn't sexual enough. I actually think she's plenty sexual, as evidenced by certain flashbacks and Hamlet's imagined (or real) debauchery shown during I.5. There just isn't any Oedipal tension at play, which pleases me. Anyway, even if she isn't terribly sexual, she's a much stronger character than Gertrude often is, as evidenced by this scene.

Siskoid said...

Yes, Julie Christie is excellent in this. I hate it when directors go the Oedipal route, so it's not a matter of Gertrude being sexual enough or not for me either. The trick with Gertrude, I think, is that the actress must fill out the role with what HASN'T been written. She's an underwritten character, so her characterization lies in her reactions more than what she actually says.