Saturday, February 25, 2012

III.ii. The Mouse-Trap - Branagh '96

We enter the scene on a kiss between Claudius and Gertrude before the camera pans down to the stage even as a chandelier rises and the audience applauds. It doesn't applaud in the stage's direction, however, but in the royal couple's. What is actually the show, here? Even to the audience within the film, Hamlet's play is probably less important than the Courtly soap opera of the couple so quickly nuptialed after the death of the old King and the mad ravings of the Prince. Like Horatio, they'll be watching Claudius and Gertrude. In fact, Branagh cuts to Horatio and the gossiping Court often, reminding us of this public scrutiny. When Hamlet appears on stage, a spotlight is immediately lit. He is the country's beloved Prince - as Claudius mentions elsewhere in the context of not being able to easily dispose of him - and the audience laughs at all his jokes. At least until they become too cruel. Claudius' voice is strained when addressing Hamlet, while Gertrude is happy to see him in good spirits. It seems likely Claudius has not shared what he heard Hamlet say in the previous act. Ophelia, for her part, seems quietly sad, even embarrassed. She was no doubt the object of gossip even before this night, and Hamlet's public cruelties would make this a very difficult evening to bear. And then there's Polonius, who grits his teeth and takes Hamlet's humiliating him by dragging him on stage. Here, Branagh shows how showing the audience's reactions can influence our understanding of the play. The way people roll their eyes and smile when Polonius says he once played Julius Caesar resonates with them. The King's chief courtier playing an emperor? Perfect casting for someone the Court probably sees as a brown-nosing opportunist with too-elevated ambitions.

As Hamlet plonks himself down next to Ophelia, he mocks her and his mother openly, shouting his lines so that everyone can hear, letting his rising anger drive the scene. The Court actively ignores him, though he does set them to whispering. Hamlet even manages to make his mother blush at the shortness of her grieving period. Though Claudius may be guilty of murder, Gertrude is guilty of not loving her first husband enough, and she is just as caught in the "Mouse-Trap". Branagh continues to mix the play on stage and the play in the audience together, having these early mockeries end on applause. It sounds like they're applauding Hamlet's bit, but they're really cheering for the Players who have just come on stage. Eventually, Hamlet will be on stage too and it won't matter what's in or out of the play.

Hamlet's mischief gives way to the dumb show's, which is played so broadly and quickly that it doesn't give away the plot of the play. That's the advantage with doing the whole play - many versions will use the dumb show and nothing else to save time - as it allows for a more mysterious dumb show. Here, Ophelia doesn't seem stupid for asking whether the show contains the argument of the play, just as it's reasonable for Claudius not to see the image of his murder in the action as yet.
The Players' costumes set the play in the Middle Ages, contrasting well with the more Napoleonic look of the film's events while winking at the period in which Hamlet is actually set. The Players give an intimate and very emotional performance, in keeping with Hamlet's instructions and the First Player's qualities from his earlier monologue. It's powerful stuff that should connect with the Royals. But Hamlet is anxious because the King and Queen aren't always watching the play, instead feeding each other bits of Turkish Delight, kissing, or drinking (we're often reminded that it is Claudius' vice). Will Hamlet miss his chance to show the King's guilt? It helps explain why he later jumps on stage to draw their attention. When they do watch the play, they empathize with the wrong things. The love between the Player King and Player Queen, for example, makes Claudius and Gertrude get closer and publicly cuddle. Their reaction tells us they really are in love, no matter what has happened before. At the mention of the "second husband", however, the Court starts looking back at them. The play is suddenly quite scandalous, and the Royals' point of view heightens the paranoia.

The Player King is so kind and loving - an idealized Hamlet Sr. - that he gives the Player Queen permission to wed again, but it's her that swears she won't. It is in moments like these that Hamlet seems more intent to show his mother as an unfaithful whore, than his stepfather as a murderer. Or perhaps it's a feint, letting the Court (and the King) think he's going after his mother, to hit them with a surprising revelation about Claudius. In the play, the Player Queen does not betray the Player King, she betrays HERSELF. Is this at cross-purposes with Hamlet's intent and opinion? Or is betraying oneself worse than betraying others? Let's not forget the theme of the play can be found in the line "To thine own self be true". Hamlet's true self is not a murderer-avenger, which is what delays the action of the play and causes the tragedy. Here, he accuses Gertrude of not being true to herself, or to the image he has of her (the wife of his father). During all this, Ophelia seems quite taken by the play. Again, Branagh makes a lot of inferences through reaction shots. Is Ophelia seeing there the image of the relationship she wishes she had with Hamlet? Does she idealize, perhaps, the unseen relationship between her father and dead mother? Polonius may well tell his stories of suffering much for love around the house. As the scene runs its course, Hamlet slowly creeps down to the stage...
He gets the Royals' reactions to the play and starts to play the chorus. In another cruel exchange with Ophelia, he plays on her "better/worse" remark, linking it to wedding vows (for better or for worse). Does Branagh's pronunciation create an additional layer of pun? The line is "So you must take your husbands", but I hear "So you mistake your husbands", a potential dig at his mother's swinging allegiances. Savage with his own potential wife and with his parents, Hamlet, by osmosis, is the same with the Player Murderer on stage, an image of his stepfather. The accusation is not so much in the play as it is in Hamlet staring up at Claudius from the stage. It is implicit, verging on explicit, and people start to squirm in their seats. Slow zoom on Hamlet and the King as the editor cuts in with scenes from Hamlet Sr.'s murder. Are we seeing Hamlet's imagination, or Claudius' memory? The edit seems to infer the latter. If the King is moved to stand, it is likely not because the play holds a mirror to his own actions, but rather that Hamlet seems to know what happened. Claudius shows restraint however. "Give me some light" and his bitter "Away" are said in a low, menacing voice that communicate that he has been insulted, but not that he's been rumbled.

The Court leaves in a hurry, probably fearing for their lives if the King catches them in the wrong expression. Will the events of this evening spread like wild fire and cause the almost-revolution during which the rabble at the gates proclaim Laertes king? Quite possibly. Gertrude's reaction is of interest as well. She keeps her eyes on Claudius all the way through... in anger? Outrage? Hard to say. Later, she'll blame Hamlet for offending the King, but in this moment, she wonders if it's all true, and if the man she loves today killed the man she loved the day before. Ophelia holds her head, ever closer to a breakdown. Ophelia's story is one of disillusionment, of a young girl who probably saw the best in everyone finding out reality is a much more cynical and corrupt place.

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