A cornerstone of English theater and literature for four hundred years, William Shakespeare's Hamlet has for the past century been a touchstone of cinema, and more recently, television. Though this seminal revenge tragedy has been staged or adapted for the screen no less than seventy times, the material is so deep and rich a font as to supply a steady stream of new films and teleplays, whether rigorously faithful or fancifully interpretive. This 2009 production, created for British television by the Royal Shakespeare Company, is among the best.
Fresh from staging the play for theater audiences in 2008, director Gregory Doran and his cast, led by David Tennant (in the titular role) and Patrick Stewart (doing double duty as Claudius and the ghost of Hamlet's father), adapted their production for television. Though filmed on location in a de-consecrated Catholic church, the production purposefully retains some of the restrictions of a staged play, most notably the use of set dressing to mask a single performance space used for multiple locations. Where this television production differs most notably from a staged performance though is in bringing the camera, and by extension the viewer, close to the actors when its useful to do so. Thus, unlike in a stage performance where an actor must project his voice and overemphasize his gestures for the sake of those in the cheap seats, here the actors are at liberty to be as subtle in gesture, sly in asides, and subdued in soliloquies as they wish.
With a runtime of three hours this version is twenty-five minutes longer than Lawrence Olivier's essential 1948 version, but an hour shorter than Kenneth Branagh's exhaustive 1996 opus. Excised are most of the diplomatic details and political maneuverings, and the role of some secondary characters, notably Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are curtailed, but the core of Shakespeare's tragedy is preserved.
The plot begins two months after the untimely death of Prince Hamlet's father, the King of Denmark. Prince Hamlet (David Tennant) has returned from college to the royal court to find that his mother Queen Gertrude (Penny Downie) has hastily wed her dead husband's brother Claudius (Patrick Stewart). Already in a dark mood because of his mother's hasty marriage and his uncle's usurpation of the crown, the Prince is visited by the apparent ghost of his dead father who blames Claudius for his death. To settle his doubts about the veracity of this accusation of fratricide Hamlet employs a troupe of traveling actors to stage a play for the court that parallels his suspicions. When Claudius storms out during the performance Hamlet is convinced of Claudius' guilt.
At this point the story becomes a clash between Hamlet and Claudius, with both covertly seeking the death of the other. Caught 'twixt and 'tween, and ill-fated all, are the Queen and the family of Polonius (Oliver Ford Davies), chief counsellor to the King and father to Hamlet's girlfriend Ophelia (Mariah Gale) and to the hotheaded Laertes (Edward Bennett).
Doran's vision for Hamlet includes some modern touches in terms of costume and the incorporation of closed-circuit surveillance cameras for the court and a camcorder for Hamlet, but despite these trappings, Doran generally hews to the traditional in his interpretation. Tennant plays Hamlet a bit more loony and less brooding than Lawrence, while Stewart's interpretation of Claudius is especially cold-blooded, but all the performances are superb, especially those of these two stars, without being surprising.
Video & Audio:
Shot in 1080i high-definition video for British television, Hamlet is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Though not approaching the quality of film remastered for 1080p, the image quality is very strong for television. Colors and black-levels appear accurate. Contrast is also fine, with only detail suffering the limits of the source material.
The PCM Stereo sounds crisp and clear, but the lack of 5.1 surround will disappoint audiophiles. Finally, subtitles are limited to English for the hearing impaired.
The extras include a standard 32-minute behind-the-scenes featurette and a feature-length commentary with director Gregory Doran, director of photography Chris Seager, and producer Sebastian Grant in which the trio discuss the stylistic choices of the crew and actors. The audio quality of the commentary is poor throughout, but especially bad during the first half hour. Finally, rounding out the extras is an odd 3-minute promo for careers at the Royal Shakespearean Company.
Screen adaptations of novels are typically poor, stunted, and simplistic progeny because they are simply incapable of capturing in a couple hours runtime the scope and depth their progenitor meticulously constructed through 100,000 or more words. In contrast, the adaptation of plays from stage to screen offers no such impediment, and may offer an experience to rival that of the original. Shakespeare's masterworks are imminently suited to be experienced as often and in as many different formats as possible -- whether seen in the theater, read on the page, or viewed on the screen, each means offers a unique mix of benefits.
This television adaptation of Hamlet, directed by Gregory Doran, and starring David Tennant and Patrick Stewart ranks among the finest. Though the forthcoming Blu-ray release of Kenneth Branagh's 1996 version is sure to outshine this one in terms of video and audio quality, the two are otherwise on par, and neither is dispensable. Buy this one now, and prepare to buy that one come August.