Sunday, June 9, 2013

IV.v. Ophelia's Madness - Branagh '96

In one of Branagh's few changes to the text, he reorders Claudius' end speech (starting with "When sorrows come") in this sequence to serve as a recap of the action to date as we return from intermission. It's a clever change that, using voice-over and a montage of previously seen (and some repurposed) images, gives urgency to what would normally be repeated information. The voice-over starts on the gates of Elsinore, which foreshadows, along with the lines about single spies and battalions, Laertes' revolutionaries, Hamlet's skulking back into the country, and Fortinbras' invasion. The montage also reminds us of who Laertes is - we haven't seen him since the first Act - reveals how all of this is weighing on Claudius, here seen pacing in the chapel, and reveals slightly ahead of time that Ophelia has gone mad, reusing the shot of her screaming after her father's corpse.

The better to prepare us for the next shot: Ophelia in a padded cell, being observed through a grate from above, straight-jacketed and wearing a gray cap, a creature more like the Tempest's Caliban than the lovely girl we met earlier in the play. She's ramming into each wall like a trapped animal. Gertrude's attitude then isn't annoyance, but fear. Caught between Horatio and the doctor (a black, female doctor, in line with Branagh's other anachronistic casting choices) who share the unnamed Gentleman's lines, she eventually relents and agrees to see Ophelia. Cut to the shot above, Ophelia all trussed up on her stomach, an inch worm asking to see the Queen. It's at once funny and pathetic, but also harks back to Hamlet's worm metaphor and to the abuse historically suffered by the mentally ill. In other versions and other Shakespeare plays, mad characters seem to have free reign of the locations, enjoying a sort of immunity to reprisal, perhaps through the mystical notion that madmen speak poetic truth. Often, these characters are allowed to rant and speak to power with insolence, without interruption (the mad queen in Richard III is another example). Madness makes people uncomfortable, unsure of what to say. We should note how differently mad Ophelia is being treated compared to mad Hamlet. Is this the effect of class or gender? Probably both.

The cell, you'll notice, is right adjacent to the throne room. As it's unlikely this is a normal feature of Elsinore, we might see it as a sign of changing times. Used to be the King and Queen were constantly attended, the Hall of Mirrors full of courtiers, but with Hamlet in exile, rumors abound and revolution brews. Claudius' Elsinore, like his Denmark, is changing. It's probably not safe to let the Prime Minister's mad daughter leave the castle, or even let it be known she's gone insane (it's a surprise to Laertes later). So a makeshift padded cell has been built into one of the secret compartments so she can be treated at home. This is an isolated Elsinore where visitors are no longer welcome. Halls made to look big and empty in wide shots. The Royals are small and vulnerable in their marble cocoon.

Before Ophelia can rant, she must be free, and Gertrude does her this kindness, untying her sleeves in an effort to comfort her. The rant takes the form of songs (many of them ribald), but that's probably the only things she knows. A young girl in a royal court wouldn't be trained in any useful skill. Her life would be songs and the meaning of flowers, skills to charm and impress a father and husband. That's all she has to try and express the inexpressible. Claudius comes in during one of the songs and tries to help her up, and the dynamic changes. Not that Ophelia can tell he's responsible (though she does throw the owl line at him), but he's a man, and men have been her undoing. At the mention of her father, she screams and stumbles off, and even the camera is kept at bay, suddenly uncertain and shaky. From Ophelia's point of view too, other characters seem far away. A distance in understanding. When she approaches them again, it's to rudely bump Claudius on the word "cock", and to disturbingly reenact her "tumbling" on the floor (with unnecessary but pointed flashbacks of Hamlet in bed with her).

In the middle of this, a moment of lucidity (from "I hope all will be well") and a realization that her brother will be coming. This moment is covered in a close-up of Ophelia, for the moment coming into focus, her cheeks and eyes ruined by too many tears. Her mind is broken, but she's still in there, and through those lines that are not "nonsense songs", we discover a certain self-awareness, one that she's trying to escape from. The metaphor echoes into reality as she struggles not to be tied up again, refusing Claudius' touch, avoiding him as she defiantly calls for her coach and runs off with Horatio and the doctor after her.

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