Saturday, February 21, 2015

V.ii. Duel and Deaths - Hamlet 2000

The setting for the duel is the Elsinore building's rooftop, the duelists dressed in fencing uniforms wired for electronic detection of hits. It looks windy and precarious, but there's still an assembly of courtiers and news photographers to witness the event. Hamlet is sincere and teary-eyed as he gives his apology, but Laertes cannot be thawed. He doesn't even answer, just goes for the foils. Interestingly, when Laertes says his foil is too heavy and he wants another, he's actually refusing the poisoned one. Claudius looks dismayed, wondering if his plan is already going awry. The audience may well think Laertes wants to try his hand at actually defeating the Prince without the poison, though the truth, as we will see, is something else entirely.

As the fighting begins - and Hamlet 2000 doesn't really do anything too impressive with the swordplay - the King looks uncommonly haggard, his kingdom slipping away. Gertrude has a certain smug pride in her son, and then decides Claudius is acting strangely. This is a Queen who knows her husband well, and his nervousness coupled with the perhaps unusual tradition of offering a cup of wine to the victor (an anachronism, surely), makes her suspect the worst. She runs to Hamlet to wipe his brow, pushing Claudius and his poison cup aside, and turning, grabs the cup herself and on impulse, drinks deep from it.
"I pray you pardon me" takes a different bent, a sarcastic acknowledgment that she's just spoiled Claudius' plans on several levels. Wiping her son's face becomes her last act, a motherly one.

Laertes' own plan is revealed when he pulls a gun - likely the one Hamlet used to kill his father Polonius - at "Say you so? come on". A major difference, it adds a layer of ironic mirroring to the situation, and since guns have been equated with swords throughout the whole film, except for the duel, it makes sense it would return as the murder weapon at the very end. Laertes doesn't shoot from a distance, however, he and Hamlet struggle corps-à-corps, the gun firing twice to produce the same effect as the twin poisoning. Here we might see another irony in Laertes and his father both being shot in mirrored circumstances, Polonius through a mirror and Laertes facing his "mirror" in the play. He does not ask for forgiveness, nor does he show regret (the cuts do pile up). Instead he whispers the truth in Hamlet's ears, revealing the Claudius as the villain only as a final blow, telling Hamlet he's been played and has lost.

One victim of all the cuts is Claudius' death, which is abrupt and lacks poetry. He's shot several times, an act not accompanied by Shakespeare's lines, nor even the use of the poison cup. Hamlet's own death is more complete, and accompanied by a montage of memories, treated like the artistic video he was wont to make, of all the characters in the play. A kind of fuzzy curtain call. It may hark back to silent film, if one would like to connect to his famous last words. Before we get to the coda, a shot of the blue sky, a plane trailing exhaust is used to show Hamlet's symbolic ascension to Heaven, but since the angle has the plane going downward from our point of view, it's ambiguous. He may be bound for Hell instead. Regardless, the use of a plane creates a visual travel pun relating to that "undiscovered country".
Though Horatio is left to tell the tale, there's no hint of him appearing on the news. A missed opportunity. Taking a page (or a shot, really) from Romeo + Juliet's Chorus, Fortinbras' lines have been put in a newscaster's mouth to close out the film. In addition to the Norwegian CEO/prince's lines, the anchor also uses the Player King's from earlier in the play:

Our wills and fates do so contrary run
That our devices still are overthrown;
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own

It's not uncommon for a Shakespeare play to hold the key to its themes somewhere in the middle (or several possible keys, open to interpretation). Highlighting those lines can be a useful directorial trick. Moving those lines to a meaningful position may be cheating, but that's what they've done here. Hamlet 2000's choice is in line with its protagonist's existential outlook, though I still prefer "to thine own self be true" as the key to the play. The final shot of the film is the anchor's teleprompter showing the above speech, as film returns to words.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

V.ii. Duel and Deaths - Kline '90

I've had my issues with Kline's adaptation, but have to admit the duel's choreography is to my liking, as it explicitly shows Laertes vacillating between murder and forgiveness all the way through. It begins with a sincere Hamlet apologizing and even embracing his wary "brother", which may well sow the seeds of doubt in Laertes' mind.

In the first exchange, Laertes knows he has a lethal weapon in his hand, and is timid in coming at Hamlet. This motivates the line "Come on, sir!" Laertes eventually does, and it's a good fight. An aggressive one too, and now wary of Laertes, Hamlet's attention really isn't on Claudius and his poison cup. The second exchange begins with a series of feints from both fencers, and at first, Hamlet seems to be having fun. It stops being enjoyable when he falls into a group of courtiers and while he's held in their hands, Laertes looks poised to skewer him in a rage. Obviously, this isn't one of the ways Hamlet can legally die here, so he stops himself, but from then on, the Prince is more careful. And it rattles Laertes too. The second exchange ends in a strange way, with Laertes letting his guard down on purpose and allowing Hamlet to get an easy hit. It's possible he now knows Hamlet is his better and he's trying to push him into drinking from the poison cup, but as events develop, it looks more like Claudius was right to doubt his drive for revenge.

After Gertrude naively drinks the poison, it looks like he's lost it completely. He heads for the weapons rack to get a non-poisonous sword, but Hamlet is too quick and begins the bout before he has a change to exchange one foil for another. As is usual, there's a moment where they hold each other and Osric must push them apart. In that moment, Hamlet - still oblivious to Claudius' shenanigans - almost takes a drink from the cup. The gesture makes Laertes turn again, and now wanting Hamlet to die by HIS hand, not Claudius', he stops Hamlet from drinking with the point of his sword, scratching him in the process. He then drops his sword and backs away, a gesture that recalls the modern "mike drop". There. Done.

Hamlet takes the dropped sword, and throws the other at Laertes. In the ensuing scuffle, Laertes grabes the blade in the middle, trying to keep the poison tip away from him. Hamlet slides the blade out of his grip, however, which slices his palms open. This ambivalence on Laertes' part makes his asking for Hamlet's forgiveness, and Hamlet giving it, more believable.
This Claudius clearly loves his wife, the fact of which we're reminded when he kisses her hand before even taking Hamlet's and Laertes'. His "Do not drink" comes off as a heartfelt warning, even a plea, which really should have given Gertrude pause. For the modern theater goer, the means by which he poisons the wine will seem highly unhygienic. He takes his ring off his finger and drops it in the cup, the pearl apparently set in it. I wouldn't drink out of that cup no matter how many fencing matches I won.

Gertrude dies in Hamlet's arms, which is a kinder way for her to go than is usually staged. He then moves to kill the King, scratching his ear, which we'll remember was where Hamlet Sr. was poisoned. He dies quickly; they don't make a meal of it. When Hamlet himself starts to feel the effects, he calls for Horatio who almost magically appears to catch him from behind. He clutches the Queen's hands for a moment more, the bodies more or less arranged in a chain on the floor, thematically representing their familial connections. Horatio would die with his friend, and there's a struggle for the cup, which Hamlet ends by throwing it away.
In the end, Kline's Hamlet doesn't struggle through his final lines the way other Hamlets sometimes have. The poison overcrows his spirit, not his vocal chords. If it means he dies more peacefully, so be it. At least the lines are strangled and hard to hear. Fortinbras next enters, and he seems a compassionate youth, surprisingly warm in his exclamations. Once again Hamlet is carried out in a Messianic position - this seems a favorite bit of staging - and as the soldiers slowly recede down a corridor, we hear a choir. These are the angels singing Hamlet to his rest, and in the notion of Horatio, a commoner, ordering royalty about, is expanded beyond even the mortal sphere. Horatio has commanded the very angels in Heaven. The world truly has been turned upside down by these events, an echo of Hamlet's parable of the worm and the king.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

V.ii. Duel and Deaths - Zeffirelli '90

Though not the most verbose of scenes, Zeffirelli still manages to cut a fair bit of material, making the sequence of triumph of staging over text.

Hamlet is herded into the throne room where a fighting area has been erected, and where people mill around unceremoniously until the trumpets sound and the Royals enter. Hamlet makes an apology to a smirking Laertes, but does not blame his madness or paint himself as a victim. Consequently, the crowd is heard to cheer Laertes on, not Hamlet, but in the second exchange, the Prince plays the bout for laughs - acting like his sword is too heavy, winking at the Queen, running around the room, calling a time-out to sneeze in Osric's face - and regains the crowd's favor.

Zeffirelli's excision of the word "unbaited" and failure to mention what weapons are being used means he can stage the action with heftier swords. Each exchange has a different arrangement of blades and armor - sword/chain mail, heavy sword/chain and plate combination, and two swords/frilly shirt - to give them a distinct flavor. Laertes is violent and eager right out of the gate, Claudius feigning shock when he exchanges a look with the Queen, and this does highlight the fact this combat could be deadly, poison or no. After Hamlet scores the first touch, Laertes tries to have a go at him right away, but is stopped by the judges. Combat often goes just a little bit too far, and in the third exchange, Osric must break a hold for the fighting to continue. When Hamlet breaks it is when Laertes takes advantage and scratches his arm with his green-tipped blade. Enraged, Hamlet attacks him hand to hand, the poison sword falls, Hamlet picks it up, and Laertes spends the right of the "fight" looking deathly scared of its point.
Meanwhile, the Queen has drunk from the poison cup, and gone from wiping her son's brow to wiping her own. Sweating gives way to pain and the editing makes it clear she knows what's happened. The culprit is also easy to determine. When she looks at Claudius, he can't endure her gaze. She knows. Her death will be as violent as everyone else's, with spasms and cross-eyed indignity. It's a bit much, actually.

Laertes' turn, from anger to regret, is one of the weakest elements here. It seems barely justified. One minute he is frustrated and angry, the next the fear of death has shocked him into friendship and the rejection of the King's plan.
The poisoned Hamlet, for his part, acts drunk. He pokes at his wound, pathetically, stumbles over to his mother, gags on the poison, and slips to the ground dangerously - the mark of an actor who doesn't mind the stunt work. Throughout, the assembled audience stares in shock, Horatio included, with frequent cutaways to stunned swordsmen just standing there. Eventually, Horatio will go to him, but never will he attempt to follow him in death. They just don't have that close a relationship in this adaptation. Absent any notion of Fortinbras, we will simply accept that Horatio will tell the tale to whoever wants to hear it, and the camera zooms out from above, as if representing Hamlet's soul finally free of his wretched physical existence. If there is hope in the tragedy, it is through devices like these, subliminally indicating that the hero goes to his peaceful rest.