Saturday, January 3, 2015

V.ii. Duel and Deaths - Branagh '96

The duel is staged, as most things are in Branagh's version, in the great hall of mirrors. A long thin red carpet has been set up where the fencing action must occur. The color of blood, and the color of Hamlet's robe. Claudius usually wears red, but is here in green, as are all his attendants (not the fullest Court, but then, the country is in political upheaval), as a visual contrast. The most striking thing about the opening moments of this scene is that it is intercut with action outside Elsinore as Fortinbras' army sneaks into the palace and captures it. Poor Francisco is at the gate and is killed. Norway's army is coming. This is Branagh's device to justify Fortinbras' sudden and fortuitous arrival at the end of the play, and because it is the most ironic reading of the play (Claudius' diplomatic overtures to Norway failing and his never noticing), I've always accepted is as Shakespeare's intent, though it's not, I realize now, in the text per se.

But the way the editing underscores the invasion under Hamlet's lines of reconciliation with Laertes creates yet another irony - the arrow over his brother's house, and so on - to the point where one might get the feeling Hamlet made a deal with Fortinbras for the keys to the kingdom. Think about it. When we left him in exile, he was last seen in the company of Fortinbras' army. Fortinbras invades (why else send some war-like volleys at the English ambassador if he wasn't on a war footing), but is shocked and saddened by the royal massacre. He already knows his rights to Denmark, as does Hamlet because his final speech predicts his ascension to the throne. Did Hamlet, in fact, make Fortinbras his heir in exchange for liberating Denmark from Claudius the usurper? Is all the talk of inevitability more about Fortinbras' arrival than the English messenger's?

But returning to the duel... In any production, but in film especially, it may be important to make each of the three exchanges look and feel different. In Branagh's case, the participants, getting hot and sweaty, remove more and more protection, going from full fencing armor, then losing the mask, then the breastplate. The danger is heightened each time, while also affording us a look at the actors' faces as things get out of control. The last exchange isn't just protectionless, but gets off the carpet and uses the entire room. But this is also a skirmish of words. Hamlet in public is cocky and always trying to get laughs, no doubt part of why he's also been so popular with the people. Single-minded Laertes finds none of it funny of course, and takes everything as mockery and personal insult. And because it's all too personal for him, he's more reckless and aggressive in the fight, less strategic, and gets hit twice, then indeed, three times, and fatally. Osric, the nominal judge, takes delight in his duty - he really is just a foolish pawn, because the fact Hamlet is winning doesn't diminish his excitement - and continues even once the sword play goes out of bounds, craning his neck to get the results out to the Court.

After the second exchange, the Queen drinks the poison cup, grabbing it from Claudius who tries to tell her not to drink it, but can't reveal his treachery. She can't intuit his deceit because she offers a drink to Hamlet. She'll go back to her seat unaware, if a bit woozy. Laertes and Claudius are shocked, almost to the point of abandoning their scheme. They now share in the doubt Hamlet's been broadcasting for most of the play. By now, the army is inside the Elsinore, and the alarm cannot be given. Both outside and inside the hall, there is a sense that all is lost, but the concerned parties just don't know it. From the chaos of the last exchange, more chaos erupts. Laertes falls from the second level, the Queen swoons on the other side. Both know they have been poisoned. As attendants scurry, Osric sees the wind's direction turn, tries to take a secret door out of the hall, and is stabbed by a Norwegian soldier. His last line, spoken only a short while later, uses Robin Williams' talent for pathos, as the ridiculous man shows the "war-like volley" as blood on his hand, he too a victim of the tragedy, if not one killed by Shakespeare's own pen.
The climax's swashbuckling action is a little over the top. Hamlet throws the poisoned foil at the King and pins him to his throne, drops down from a rope while a massive chandelier swings down and smashes into Claudius. Hamlet then force-feeds him the last of the poison wine. It is important to the Prince that Claudius be killed by both his treacheries, and poison was always going to be the best poetic justice for him. It's how he killed Hamlet's father.

The usual staging for Hamlet's own death is to have Horatio holding him in his arms. Branagh's staging is a departure from that tradition. Hamlet dies alone on the floor, while Horatio stands shocked at a short distance. He can't help his friend now, and he can't share his fate. Hamlet won't let him. Because Hamlet's death, while something he expected and embraces, cannot mean the voiding of his existence. One of the things that made him delay his revenge was that he relished in his own intellect too much to risk it. So he must die, but someone must relate his story, and Horatio has been groomed to be that person. All is almost lost when he talks to sharing Hamlet's fate, and he must be shocked into dropping the cup. Hamlet will survive as a story, and in that final moment when he speaks his last through a strangled, cramped voice, it's Horatio who is the touching one, no small thanks to Nicholas Farrell's sympathetic performance.

Suddenly, Norway's soldiers crash through the glass on the second level and have the room surrounded. A cold, disaffected Fortinbras walks in, a strange performance from Rufus Sewell, rather ambiguous and unemotional. We saw him like this before, hugging his uncle Norway in a flash-sideways, where we just knew he wouldn't let Denmark go, no matter what he said. So are his words here simply platitudes, things he is expected to say in such circumstances? The English Ambassador, a cameo by Richard Attenborrough, may seem like a bit of over-casting, but the great actor lends the role weight and pathos. He seems genuinely sad that the King isn't alive to hear his macabre news. As Fortinbras takes the throne, England skulks away, lest he become the tragedy's next victim.
In the end, who rules in Denmark isn't really important. The "natural" order has already been upended (as perhaps heralded by the rise of the peasantry behind Laertes), and the last "unnatural act" of the play, as Horatio would put it, is Horatio himself taking center stage, essentially telling the new King what to do. And Fortinbras lets him command such attention. Horatio, the reluctant star, is pushed on stage by the promise he made to his friend, and that friend is carried out in a Messianic, crossed position, evoking his ascension to literary immortality.

In the film's final moments, Hamlet is given a state funeral - there was talk of also burying Gertrude and Claudius here, but the actors weren't available for it, so we get a celebrated Hamlet whose version of the story reigns victorious over the calumniated King and Queen instead - exposed and holding a sword, the action hero he never truly was. The statue of old Hamlet is taken down, shades of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, to be replaced either by Fortinbras, or by Hamlet himself, Denmark's new fallen hero. The ghost is symbolically destroyed without having to reappear to look on his works.

The credits roll under Placido Domingo singing from the Book of Proverbs, lines about the righteous man lying in peace, funereal but hopeful. This Hamlet will not walk the earth as a disturbed spirit.

1 comment:

snell said...

I've got to say, no matter how incompetent Claudius' leadership, that's got to be the easiest time one country has ever had taking over another.