Sunday, February 28, 2010

Act I Scene 3 - Zeffirelli '90

Ophelia is played by Helena Bonham Carter, looking very young for her 24 years of age in this picture, an impression supported by the acting and costuming. Bonham Carter plays the character with a mercurial hold on her emotions. Tearing up readily, but also laughing childishly, moving in and out of each mood quite easily. It's a characterization that befits her later madness, but seems a product of her age at this point. Like a child, she looks down when chided, avoids looking at her father and brother directly when she doesn't want to hear what they're saying. There's a petulance to her attitude that tries to get away with the things she's been forbidden to do. As for the costume, the white symbolizes rather broadly her innocence, but also prefigures the nunnery speech. As Laertes speaks to her, she scratches at a leaf she's embroidered, playing on the plant motif associated with Ophelia (even without the "green girl" line).

Laertes, for his part, walks in and talks about Hamlet with a strong sense of urgency. In this version, we have a Laertes who seems desperate for his sister not to fall for Hamlet, although his lines are cut before there's talk of her virginity. It's less seedy that way, although Ophelia's apparent youth does a lot of the work to still get that point across. So it seems the House of Polonius is only really worried that Hamlet's enduring melancholy makes him a bad match for Ophelia. Not an unnatural thought. Is Hamlet only drawn to Ophelia because he's in pain and she offers comfort? When he wakes from the grief, will he then no longer need or want her? By removing the family's obession with her maidenhead, the scene seems more familiar and natural. Laertes is merely urgent because this is a matter he wishes to resolve before he leaves.

Ian Holm is Polonius
As the discussion moves outside, Polonius comes shouting and hits Laertes with his many pieces of advice. Laertes does not listen, moving towards his horse as his father runs behind, losing breath. He drones on an on, either ignored or chuckled at by his children. Polonius is more of a dotard here than in some other versions, which is too bad given Holm's acting ability. I chalk it down to the many cuts suffered by the play in this film, which in Polonius' case, tend to rob him of his dark side. We are left with an old fool few really listen to (or do at their own peril). And he isn't helped by the costume design. When he talks about "rich not gaudy" apparel, it's hard to understand why he would. Everything is so drab in this Elsinore that he seems to chide his son for wearing a single broach. And if the "apparely oft proclaims the man", what should we make of his black robes? He is far less sinister than such a thing should indicate.

As Laertes leaves, we have a shift for both remaining characters. Ophelia darkens. From her perspective, the play is about loss, and Laertes is the first to go (second if we count her mother, third if she knew Hamlet Sr. at all). Laertes' departure is the first step towards leaving her alone and vulnerable in Elsinore. Polonius becomes more manipulative here, capable of quiet study and parental outrage and anger. This is not a side to him Zeffirelli allows us to see very often, but of course, Holm plays it wonderfully. The question this asks if whether Polonius treats Laertes and Ophelia differently, which of course he must. A later scene in the play (but not in the film) shows him meddling in his son's affairs as well, but here we're left with the impression that it's the classic double-standard for male and female progeny. The son seems to have mastered the father and is in charge of his own destiny (has has convinced Polonius to let him leave), while the daughter must remain in her father's control.

There's a nice moment from Bonham Carter in this section: When Hamlet's love is put in doubt, a look flits across her face that says she really DOESN'T know what to think. She's never really thought about it, or never wanted to. She is simple-minded when it comes to affairs of love, though she defends her stake in the relationship. When she finally obeys, there is anger and revolt in her voice, not penitence. What is her unspoken threat? That she WILL see Hamlet after all? That she'll make life miserable for her father? None of this can really be explored within the text.

Hamlet the stalker
Speaking of the text, Zeffirelli abandons it for a complete invention: He has Hamlet overhear most of this scene. This isn't too far out of the play's reach, since people are constantly listening behind and arras in the play, but Shakespeare still did not mean him to be present. He comes in on "hoops of steal", ironically the "friend" Polonius refers to, and follows along from the high ground and hears both Laertes and Polonius warn Ophelia away from him, and he hears her say she will obey. What effect does this have on the story and the character? It perhaps speaks to the question of whether Hamlet is mad or not in the play. Knowing about this piece of family drama, Hamlet may in fact stage his mad farewell to Ophelia. Hamlet is less mad, though more ruthless, if he does so. No longer a scene occurring in private whose purpose is to cut ties with Ophelia lest she be mixed up in the vengeance plot, what Hamlet learns in this scene may turn it into a savage manipulation of Polonius through his weak point (Ophelia). Consider how he then consistently uses Ophelia against her father. We'll have to examine Mel Gibson's performance closely to see just how much he resents either Polonius or Ophelia for this abortion of his love life.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Act I Scene 3 - BBC '80

The BBC presentation sets Scene 3 on the docks, created simply but effectively with the white studio walls, a false horizon, a few sailor extras and seagull sound effects. Laertes' departure is more immediate, and consequently, emotions perhaps flare more hotly. This is our first introduction to Ophelia, played by Lalla Ward, which I find immensely distracting personally because of her connection to Doctor Who (in which she played the Time Lady Romana opposite Tom Baker's Doctor). At 29, Lalla is a bit old to play the part, something she shares with other leading ladies in the BBC's Shakespeare series (Penelope Wilton in Othello, for example). What you gain in acting experience, you lose in the character's necessary naivety. Necessary? That's the question here. Lalla's Ophelia seems wiser than others' - she doesn't try to play the "green girl" - so at this point at least, it is a legitimate performance choice. She is thoughtful to the point of making us wonder if she and Hamlet HAVE consummated their relationship. Her fleeting smiles seem designed to pacify her brother and father, deflect attention from her guilt. She looks away, or at her feet, often. She has something to hide.

Eric Porter's Polonius is younger and more robust than the usual actors cast in the role, which makes him seem less of a dotard. There's a kindness there, and between all three family members, that feels genuine even through remonstrances. As he gives Laertes advice, Ophelia is seen in the background. She is beaming at first, smiling at her father's ways, but soon turns dour at the mention of a quarrel. Does this remind her suddenly that she and her brother just had a disagreement? Not that she disagreed outwardly much, but inwardly, there's another story crossing her face.

As Laertes says his final goodbyes (accompanied by one of those awkward kisses on the lips), Polonius is listening. This is what sparks the next part of the scene and paints Polonius as an eavesdropper.
This is a trait that blooms later. Nice of the staging to include here, where so often, it just seems like Laertes is being careless, or else doesn't think it's a private matter. Polonius' kindness carries through to his talk with Ophelia. He knows he's hurting his daughter by preventing her from seeing Hamlet, but sincerely believes it's for her own good. Though he's a touch patronizing, he consoles rather than chides.
"I'm really sorry about this" is written on his face throughout. This wiser Ophelia still obeys, but there is a sense that Polonius must plead with her to do so. She obeys out of love and respect for him, not out of fear. This gives her more power than she is usually afforded in the play, and we'll see how that impacts the rest of her scenes. In keeping with this idea, Polonius does show surprise that she speaks "like a green girl", evidently expecting more rational thought from her. It remains to be seen of Lalla Ward is miscast or an attempt to put Ophelia closer to Hamlet's maturity level.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Act I Scene 3 - Olivier '48

The camera, mobile as ever, tracks through a corridor and finds Laertes seeking his sister out, as lyrical music plays. This is our first introduction to a lovely young Jean Simmons as Ophelia. Simmons plays her as a dreamer, slightly naive and child-like. Her family may well have cause to fear for her. Flower patterns on the walls and an open window (with a strange landscape if we're high up on a cliff) place her in nature. The association to flowers is well exploited in her madness and suicide, and for the first time, I note here there is a pun on that idea in the text - she is a "green girl".
Laertes catches her reading a note from Hamlet (perhaps the very note that Polonius later reads the the King and Queen), which gives him occasion to warn her off the moody prince. This is a departure from other representations. It makes Laertes less unnaturally obsessed with his sister's virginity. He doesn't broach the subject without provocation. This allows for a kinder and gentler relationship with Ophelia. She is not chided, but kindly advised, which fits her teasing manner later. Speaking of which, "Do not, [...] Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven" strikes me for the first time as foreshadowing. By warning her off Hamlet, he sows the seeds of her destruction. At least, that is how she may later interpret events. Her death, implied in the way to heaven, will be a difficult one.

She hides the note as her father arrives to gives his blessing and advice. To highlight her childishness, Olivier has Ophelia punctuate her father's advice with gestures. Pixie-like, she smiles and teases her brother through the whole speech. It's quite entertaining. It starts with "familiar not vulgar" as she puts her hand on her brother's shoulder as a sister would. On "hoops of steel", she hugs him tightly.
The talk of a quarrel has her pulling at his dagger. On "apparel", she tugs at his collar. And on the topic of lending and borrowing, she teasingly fishes into his purse. A very nice way to stage a scene that might otherwise be tedious (directors and actors must continually fight against Polonius' tediousness), making a point about Ophelia herself in the process.

After Laertes leaves, Polonius interrogates his daughter about Laertes' counsel and thus, about Hamlet. And again, it's much kinder than in other versions. When he tells her she speaks like a "green girl, Unsifted in such perilous circumstance", his tone is not that of surprise. That's what she IS. It's the answer he expected, and now he will tell her how things really are. Again, subtly different line readings and performances bring new interpretations to the fore, which I had not considered just looking at the text. Ophelia HAS to be "green" (or seen to be so), or else she would not need her family to protect her virginity. So there is no outrage at her naivety from Polonius, only statement of fact.

As previously mentioned, Olivier breaks Scene 2 up after the soliloquy to insert Scene 3. This is frequently done to get all the introductions out as early as possible, but in this case, there's more going on.
By overlapping the two scenes, Ophelia gets to glimpse the melancholy Hamlet from a distance (post-soliloquy but pre-meeting Horatio). It's a silent goodbye that creates a relationship between the two (as with Branagh's flashbacks). The play doesn't give us a happy moment between the lovers before things start to go wrong. Any happiness between them is only spoken of and not seen. Why is a question we might try to answer at some point.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Act I Scene 3 - Branagh '96

Though the scene is meant to take place in Polonius' house, this is very rarely done in the films. Branagh goes for the outside of the palace and in fact uses the entire scene to establish more of the world of Elsinore. We've seen the gates in Scene 1, and the throne room, study and secret doors in Scene 2. In Scene 3, we move outside and see castle exterior, as well as the chapel, where other scenes will later take place. Laertes and Ophelia have a tender and playful relationship, hugging as they walk, slapping each other with gloves, laughing, smiling and teasing (both each other and their father). One thing I notice from having Michael Maloney do the entire speech is that he's his father's son. Not only do the two have the same misgivings about Hamlet seeing Ophelia, but Laertes is perhaps just as tedious as his father. He makes his point, then makes it again, and Maloney is pitch perfect in his taking a breather only to jump on the same point again. On Branagh's end, when he has to change shots, he uses a dissolve instead of a cut, which makes it look like Laertes has been talking for hours.

At one point, the pair see Hamlet from afar, supervising fencers and in essence, setting up how the duel at the end will be fought.
Here and upon leaving at scene's end, Laertes seems overwhelmed with a sense of destiny. He is distracted at the sight of Hamlet and rapiers, and when he says goodbye, it's as if he might never see his family again. We know the story well, even its characters can't be too oblivious about it.

Polonius then arrives and another dissolve takes us into the chapel where Polonius delivers his famous advice. It's a jarring piece of editing that makes you wonder if it's a flashback, except that at the end, Laertes refers to his warning about Hamlet which took place in the previous section. Apparently, weather conditions forced the production into interiors, but the effect is still strange. I'll forgive a lot of things like this based on the line "Time is out of joint" however. Richard Briers puts just the right emphasis on "To thine own self be true", and the churchly surroundings lend the speech the sound of a sermon.

Though there is a "churlish priest" in Hamlet, he is not seen before Ophilia's burial. By then, Polonius is dead. Priests in Shakespeare are frequently advisers and councilors, so placing Polonius in a chapel gives him that role, even if he subverts it. He is councilor to an evil man. He advises his son with platitudes, and his daughter against love. This is something that subtly runs through this version of the play, and I'll mention it from time to time.

Before Laertes leaves, he kisses his sister once more. Does this look more romantic than it should?
If there is something off putting about brother and sister kissing, it's because it's not much seen in contemporary culture. I generally dislike the Freudian tendency to suggest incest in the play, but Laertes and Ophelia kissing does translate something modern audiences may not get from the words themselves. Visually, the kisses suggest that Laertes and Polonius' concerns about Ophelia's virginity are a bit unnatural. Whether that's a modern interpretation and not relevant to Shakespeare's day (when virginity was more highly prized) I'll leave to the reader. Branagh seems to suggest that something is off about these relationships and about their closeness.

When Laertes finally leaves, Polonius closes the gates behind him and addresses Ophelia about this Hamlet business. That shot creates a much darker Polonius than we're used to.
As written, Polonius IS a much darker character, but cuts to the text remove much of this from the character. Here, he is a foreboding figure, one to be feared by Ophelia, who after all, is vulnerable in this world of men and politics. He soon throws her into the confessional (used by Claudius later) and, again the perverse priest, forces a confession out of her.
This small act of violence harks to such as lines as "to cut his throat i' the church". The confession isn't really one since Ophelia says nothing's going on. And as written, that may be true. Branagh intercuts the scene with a flashback to a sex scene, showing that Ophelia is lying to her father. Flashes of this are seen on words such as "tenders" (visualizing the double entendre), "blood burns" and "tongue", all eroticized in Ophelia's mind. And while at first it might seem ambiguous - is it Polonius' imagination or Ophelia's memory? - Ophelia is eventually left alone with those thoughts, so they are hers. Interestingly, "I shall obey" is said in voice-over after Polonius leaves. So while she may have been lying when she said nothing was going on, she ISN'T lying about obeying her father.