Saturday, August 10, 2013

IV.v. Laertes Returns - Branagh '96

The gentleman's story (here, a female attendant's) is intercut with the racing feet of the rebels through the halls until the break down the doors and an angry Laertes confronts the king he thinks responsible for his father's death. From there, a long run up, sword drawn, to the throne, and only Gertrude's hold on the boy's arm stays his hand. The sequence starts with a flurry of energy, and for the actor playing Laertes, it's like returning from a very long tea break and still having to crank the performance up to eleven. A red-faced Claudius, perhaps holding back on the outrage he feels, stands up to the would-be deposer, his throat close to the sword's point, but not in back to the wall by any means. This is how he puts on a show of innocence. Through his dialog with Laertes, it's at Claudius that Gertrude looks at. Her worried, even fearful look, is aimed at her husband, not at the one holding a sword. And sure enough, the manipulation Claudius uses could refer to Hamlet Sr.'s death just as well as Polonius'. A good actress - and Julie Christie is one - will make the Queen notice the similarities here and wonder how much of his brotherly grief, referred to all the way back in Act I Scene 2, was real. In a sense, she's experiencing the confrontation her son never had with his stepfather.

And then Ophelia runs in and saps the rage out of Laertes.
Perhaps because she sees her brother there, Ophelia is giddy, giggling through her songs and playing with imaginary flowers. Note the staging. Not since "To be or not to be" have characters been reflected in a mirror for this long, linking Hamlet's suicidal thoughts to what could be called Ophelia's suicide note. Unlike Hamlet, the characters do not look at their reflections, however. There is a disconnect between their emotional and rational selves that prevents them from looking at themselves and adjusting their behavior. Ophelia in the throes of madness; Laertes in his rage and then sadness. Neither can make informed or reasoned decisions, such as the one Hamlet made after deconstructing the concept of suicide. During the last song, the reflections will disappear entirely due to body position and camera angle.

The gift of flowers seems not to follow the Elizabethan symbolism. She gives remembrance and thoughtfulness to Laertes, which is standard, and similarly, flattery, male adultery and ingratitude to the Royals. However, "adultery and genuine repentance of all transgressions for women and everlasting suffering" (rue), she gives to Laertes. In her songs, "stole the master's daughter" takes on a special meaning, because she looks towards the Royals and acts like it's a secret not to be repeated, but I'm unable to decipher that meaning, if any. The master can only be the King, and he has no daughter unless Claudius somehow bedded Ophelia's mother. If so, it gives the accusations of adultery a whole other bent, and makes Ophelia Hamlet's cousin. But while you could stage the play with this over-complication, Branagh's doesn't do attempt it. But it's a thought.

Ophelia's last song is heart-breaking, devastatingly beautiful, and imbued with a finality that's absent from the rest of her performance. Before this, there's rebellion in Ophelia. She's stubborn, inappropriately disrespectful to the Royals, and seeking escape. But in this last and prettiest of melodies, she seems more at peace, more accepting of her father's death. She accepts her fate, perhaps having transferred the responsibilities of her grief to Laertes, and emotionally spent (the energy at the top of the sequence moves from Laertes to her and runs itself out there), walks into her padded cell and just stands there, a figure haunting her brother through the rest of the scene.
Before she goes, she prays for her father's soul, but also all Christian souls, foreshadowing more sin and death. And once she walks off, that's it. She will never speak again. That's why this is akin to a suicide note, if only the other characters could understand it.

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