Friday, September 24, 2010

II.i. Reynaldo - Branagh '96

In Branagh's Hamlet, the small roles are played by major stars, and in this case, Polonius' spy Reynaldo is played by Gérard Depardieu. Unlike Jack Lemon's casting as Marcellus, Depardieu does he have anything resembling a substantial speech, but also unlike Lemon, he doesn't seem an ill fit for his character. Reynaldo is very much a "yes man" who smiles along at Polonius' instructions and is never seen beyond this one scene. Stunt casting like this serves a purpose, and that purpose is to give the part a lot more weight, by extension doing the same for the scene. Giving the role to such an iconic actor lends Reynaldo a richness he would not have had if played by an unknown. With Depardieu in charge of Polonius' mission, we might more easily imagine the Adventures of Reynaldo in Debauched France. There's also an implication here that he's the one who brought the whore in Polonius' bed with him, though only Depardieu's "importance" truly makes this inference possible. He's an important actor, so his character must be an important man. And how does that increase Polonius' own power that he is ordering Reynaldo around? Using a French actor here also adds something, since Laertes is in France. Polonius seems to have access to an international ring of spies, again, increasing his character's power.
We're so used to seeing Richard Briers play kindly old men that Polonius' sinister turn is shocking. We saw a dark side to him when he got angry at Ophelia, but there's a big difference between anger and the deliberate machiavellianism of this scene. Even his eyebrows are shaped for evil. Polonius is in his element here, so confident he barely comes across as tedious. He's proud of himself and is definitely testing Reynaldo when he appears to have lost his train of thought. There's no pause there to indicate a real loss of focus, and Reynaldo is mystified at the question. Polonius is sure his little trap is clever, but it just seems off to Reynaldo. Reynaldo feigns amusement at the older man's wit, but shows his true attitude - a sort of impatient weariness at Polonius' condescending instructions - when Polonius can't see him. Polonius remains a powerful and/or rich man it is worth making smiles at. Depardieu's performance truly infuses Reynaldo with a character that really doesn't appear on the page.
And what of the whore in Polonius' bed? From the look on her face, Polonius may be more dangerous than he seems. There is a huge contrast here between his (unseen but inferred) treatment of the prostitute and his fatherly kindness towards his daughter in the next sequence. But inferences aside, this addition to the scene shows Polonius to be a hypocrite. The text already tells us this (he takes a long time to tell us he'll be brief, for example), but it's easy to interpret such words not as hypocrisy, but as a lack of self-awareness. In painting Polonius as a villain perhaps worthy of his fate, Branagh goes farther. There's a nice visual punch when Polonius mentions drabbing (i.e. visiting brothels) as one of the "sullies" Reynaldo may lay on his son, and he sends the prostitute away through one of his room's secret doors (Ophelia will come in from another, completing the mirror image). He doesn't want his son to partake in various forms of vice, but here he is drabbing, smoking and drinking. Polonius doesn't listen to his own advice, nor does he hold himself to the same standard expected of his children, and this is a conscious thing in Branagh's Hamlet.

A fascinating scene between two great actors. I miss it every time it's cut and I know it's because of this version's power.

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