Saturday, January 17, 2015

V.ii. Duel and Deaths - Olivier '48

The duel Olivier offers us is framed in two traditions. The first is stagecraft, as these are extremely well choreographed set pieces of stage fighting, done in camera by the actors, fierce and dangerous-looking exchanges. The second is the Danish tradition of the world of the play, with highly ritualistic posing before the fight begins, the cannons sounding as Claudius beckons them to, and the courtiers repeating the King's lines during the toast. The weapons are, just as the text indicates, both rapier and dagger, and it's not until the camera zooms in on the sword points, one of them unbaited, that we truly leave the framework of what's expected to enter the more dangerous and unpredictable world of the fight. Almost certainly, if the courtiers could see what we see, they wouldn't be standing so close.

It's unfortunate then that Olivier cuts out so much of Laertes' character, reducing Hamlet's opponent to a near non-entity. During Hamlet's just-as-ritualistic apology, the camera doesn't care to look at Laertes' reaction, nor does he have lines with which to respond. He and Osric look sinister as they shuffle the swords, but that is the whole of it. The speech does make his mother happy, but Claudius and Laertes are presumably so invested in their murder plot, they cannot have an honest reaction to it themselves. Fair enough. If we're talking cuts and changes, note the translation of "union" to "jewel", even though we see what Claudius drops into the cup.
Though each exchange is well done, the second fight is mostly played off camera. There is ANOTHER duel, you see, between Gertrude and Claudius, or perhaps inside Gertrude herself, between self-preservation and a mother's love. It's made clear that she figures out the cup is poisoned, her eyes (and the camera) keep going to the cup, and a sadness overwhelms her. A decision is made. She takes the cup herself, exchanging it for a handkerchief so Hamlet can wipe his brow, and drinks deep. When told not to, she smiles a fatalistic smile. The courtiers cluelessly laugh at her small act of disobedience. She has sacrificed herself for him quite consciously (small cuts allow this to happen more believably).

Before the last exchange, Laertes scratches Hamlet, which shocks everyone, and he immediately starts to back away, as if shocked himself. He is caught cheating, and judged by the assembly, and is suddenly afraid of Hamlet's reaction. Playing up the tension, Hamlet's slow dawning realization gives way to a quick disarming maneuver. No more games, no toying with the opponent, the show is over. The disarm means he can look at the tip of the sword and confirm Laertes' cheating, and when Osric calls out that the two duelists are incensed, it's all in their eyes because nothing has happened yet. The line is like a starter's pistol, and they go at it - again, a strong fight.
Laertes is defeated, the Queen dies and Claudius is revealed as the villain. At this point, the guard and Court, a fickle lot, rally behind Hamlet. Claudius has lost all power, a situation that has been growing since Hamlet went into exile, and is surrounded, trapped. Hamlet stabs him fiercely, and in his last moments, he reaches for the crown he lost in the scuffle, as if that badge of office could protect him. He dies, and the assembly is strangely frozen in space. The shock, but also a sort of fixed moment in time, speaking to the power of History, perhaps, or a skip of the clock as "time out of joint" resets to its proper rhythm. Hamlet uses that short time to sit on the throne, and the Court offers him the crown. He'll be king, finally, for all of three minutes.

His last speech is spoken from that throne, Horatio attending him. Like Laertes, the latter's part has also been shredded. This Horatio doesn't try to commit suicide and follow Hamlet. In fact, for a second, it looks like he won't even get to eulogize Hamlet properly. What actually happens is that he first gives Fortinbras' command to put the bodies on a stage, etc. - there is no Fortinbras in the film - and then comes his eulogy, and a kiss. The ever-mobile camera tracks into blackness, then follows the guards bringing Hamlet up to the top of Elsinore, lingering in each room as it does. Cannons fire, we see one or two smoking. The chapel. The Queen's closet. And finally, silhouettes going up the tower, Hamlet's final stage. Ending as it does outside Elsinore, we may understand the Ghost to be finally exorcised, if indeed it was the camera's point of view, as it often seemed.

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