Sunday, March 8, 2015

V.ii. Duel and Deaths - Tennant (2009)

In the final sequence, the film keeps its hyper-surveillance conceit up, pulling away from the action to a security camera from time to time, even though there are no characters left whose POV this could accurately reflect. But in the for a penny...

And that's my segue to say Penny Downie as Gertrude is really the one to watch during this scene. She's always active, looking to one character or another, trying to understand what's going on, where the dangers lie, what's real and what isn't. After all, Laertes has just attacked Claudius and then Hamlet, but they're all smiling at each other and playing a "game" now. And knowing what she does of Hamlet's fragility, and his allegations about her husband, which she probably believes, something HAS to be up. And so on her face, often in the background, there are reactions that are crucial to understanding her character. She's surprised and perhaps relieved that Hamlet can throw off the shackles of madness. She tries to decipher whether Laertes means it when he accepts Hamlet's apology. And what of Claudius, all smiles and out of breath? She's in evident pain as she tries to pierce the web of lies around her. In that context, it makes perfect sense that when she realize the cup is poison (the staging is impeccable too, as Claudius, out of focus in the background, turns his head at the tray behind him and realizes which cup she's holding). She drinks deep, as if to save her son from this trap, but then offers him that cup, a suicide pact so that she, Hamlet, his father and Ophelia can all be reunited in the afterlife. At the moment of her death, still holding the cup, she pushes it once more towards Hamlet. A dark interpretation nonetheless consistent with Tragedy.

The duel presents three bouts that are more or less the same - we're not dealing with a big budget production here - but longer and more aggressive each time. Paranoid Laertes lets himself be riled by Hamlet's quips, or rather more by the assembly' laughter, and realizing he will lose, starts to cheat. He thrusts at Hamlet before the judge (Osric) allows it, so Hamlet fights without headgear, and still not scoring, slices the back of Hamlet's back when his back is turned. Hamlet drops his sword and jumps him, and once subdued, takes the poison sword, and in anger over its unblunted end, inflicts the same wound on his opponent. With the Queen dead and both duelists poisoned, Hamlet cries treachery and Claudius is still in a position to get away with it. But afraid Laertes will tell on him, he points to guards to get his co-conspirator out of the room, which is when Laertes decides to point fingers. The last of his family, Laertes doesn't care to die a traitor and stain his name, possibly. After all, would it be so hard for Claudius to brand him such posthumously? A man who just recently incited revolt and tried to kill him?
Claudius' death is amazing. Instead of the usual force-feeding of the poison cup, Claudius is handed the cup and ASKED to drink it. In the play, this a redundant (if poetically just) action anyway, since Hamlet has already stabbed him with the poison sword. In this version, Claudius grabs the sword around the tip to stop Hamlet from stabbing him, but the Prince twists it out of his hand, scratching his palm ("I am but hurt"). So he's doomed anyway, and Patrick Stewart conveys this in great way, that's also darkly comical. He raises his shoulders in defeat, silent asking "meh, why not?", and drinks deeply. This is a stronger Claudius that at least makes a show of dying by his own hand, even though the poison was already in his system. In the end, he still tries to reach for Gertrude.
Handed back to him, Hamlet still holds the cup when he falls over, and he must struggle to keep it out of Horatio's hands. I just struck me that Hamlet's last act was to save a life, and there's hope in that, even if the more cynical among us could see this as a selfish act - Horatio must live to keep HAMLET alive as a story. In his last moment, Hamlet looks off-stage in a mix of awe and fear, as if seeing his ghostly father one more time, or that undiscovered country which can sometimes act as a metaphor for a New Denmark. And yet, once his noble heart has cracked and Horatio cries over him, the credits roll. There is no Fortinbras to herald that New Denmark, no funeral, no questions or revelations from England's ambassador. Director Gregory Doran attributes its importance in the play to an Elizabethan obsession with succession (who would replace the aging Virgin Queen?), and while filmed, seemed an easy cut to make given modern audiences can be satisfied without the coda.

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