review for Hamlet on AllMovie

Hamlet (1990)
by Derek Armstrong review

Frequent Shakespeare interpreter Franco Zeffirelli gives Hamlet a go with this gritty and unglamorous version, starring Hollywood actors like Mel Gibson and Glenn Close. Gibson may have struck some viewers as quite the wrong choice, destined to be overmatched, but he displays surprising subtlety and range, not to mention wearing the cropped hair and scraggly beard to good effect. The actor's playful flickers of madness (his calling card in the Lethal Weapon movies) translate quite well to the scenes in which Hamlet gleefully toys with those he's trying to confuse. Close and Helena Bonham Carter are effective in the smaller roles of his female tormentors, with Carter offering a particularly touching breakdown scene. Ian Holm is also a scatterbrained standout as Polonius. As he has done in his other adaptations of the Bard, Zeffirelli (the first to filmmaker to cast actual teenagers as Romeo and Juliet in 1968) aims for accuracy in his production design, forgoing the anachronisms some directors use to amplify themes. Hence, the dank Danish castle feels like the genuine article, purposely lacking in grandeur. But the director continues to betray Shakespeare in familiar ways, too; not only does he truncate the text, but he even commits the cardinal sin of blending several scenes, which is usually avoided. It's decisions like this that rob the film of some depth and emotional resonance, not to mention scholarly respect. In fact, this Hamlet was likely an important motivator for Kenneth Branagh in his decision to film an elaborately unabridged, four-hour version of the play six years later.