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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Hamlet (Blu-ray)
Hamlet (Blu-ray)
Opus Arte // Unrated // May 4, 2010 // Region A
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Bill Gibron | posted May 9, 2010 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
E - M A I L
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The Product:
Why is Hamlet often considered the greatest play in all of theater? Why hasn't some well-known or obscure Greek comedy or modern Broadway work surpassed its Sgt. Pepper's like staying power? Part of the reason is the man who wrote it. William Shakespeare is such an enigma, a writer of considerable conjecture and speculation that, even today, many question his authorship and abilities. Burying his complicated storylines in reams of rhyme and metered measures, he's as elusive as his works are engaging. It could also be the complex psychological issues at play, from anger and revenge to madness both feigned and frighteningly real. There is ennui and melancholy, confusion and thoughts of suicide sprinkled throughout - pretty deep for something written around 1600. Perhaps the main reason for its longevity and classicism comes from the ease of adaptability. From period precision to post-modern and slightly surreal, the tale translates over all approaches. Add in the power and potential for an actor essaying one of the key roles and you've got an entity ripe for regular reinterpretation. Such is the case with this Royal Shakespeare Company version. Featuring marvelous work from some high profile talent, the results argue for Hamlet's many fascinating facets - and its substantial staying power.

The Plot:
Something is rotten in Denmark, and Prince Hamlet wants to figure out what it is. His father - The King - has died recently, and in quick succession, his mother Gertrude has married his Uncle Claudius and given over the throne to him. Rumors abound of foul play, and when the ghost of his dad shows up, spouting conspiracy theories and accusations, Hamlet vows to get to the bottom of this tacky transfer of power. He decides to restage the death using a band of traveling performers, hoping to spark some sense of guilt in Claudius. It heightens concern in the Court. After accidentally killing Polonius, the King's trusted advisor (and father of his girlfriend Ophelia), Hamlet becomes a marked man. The Crown is now wary of his motives and Polonius' son Laertes is vowing revenge. During a fencing exhibition complete with poison tipped swords and equally toxic libations, Hamlet learns the truth. He gets his revenge before succumbing to his own sense of duty.

The Blu-ray:
Removed from its theatrical setting and shot in some spectacular found locations, this brilliant BBC production of Hamlet has all the right Shakespearean moves. It contains near definitive performances from Patrick Stewart as Claudius and Dr. Who's David Tennant as the melancholy Dane, as well as an up to date style which gives many of the Bard's more obtuse elements (soliloquies, arch dialogue) a fresh, contemporary spin. This is especially true of Hamlet's many moments of self-reflection, which now become part of a video diary he is keeping. Even better, we viewers get to see what the camcorder sees, turning the often arcane dialogue into the YouTube type confessions that have come to signify the 21st Century. As with Kenneth Branagh's take to the material (his four hour adaptation is equally impressive), the actors try to bring an everyday feel to the spoken couplets, avoiding the obvious rhyme schemes and florid pronouncements of Shakespeare's wordiness. Still, it's hard to avoid completely, so don't expect this Hamlet to hand you its secrets. You have to work just as hard as the actors to uncover the many layers inherent in the story. Add to this the updated subtext of our current political clime and this version of Hamlet takes on a whole new tone.

Indeed, the influx of pundits and a constant stream of Left/Right commentary into our everyday life makes this take on the material all the more cogent. At its core, Hamlet has always been about power - the balance of, the struggle and usurping of same, the need for retribution and retaliation because of it, the temptation and the tragedy that comes from mixing it with more personal priorities. Shakespeare may have been trying to delve into the psychological strategies of his characters, but for the most part, Hamlet is about taking back what was wrongfully removed from you. Our hero (who is often viewed as passive and ineffectual) knows the truth about his Uncle, the death of his dad, and the reverberations from such old school Greek tragedy tenets. He takes his angst out on everyone around him, from pal Polonius to potential gal pal Ophelia. Some have seen Hamlet as cruel and uncompromising, so singular in his desire to avenge his father that he can't see the decidedly downward spiral he's on. In this version, Tennant is all twisted rage and simmer hate. He's not so much reflexive as he is ready to strike at any moment. He's David Lynch's cartoon cur, so angry that he can barely move.

Mirror that against Stewart's award winning work (he picked up an Olivier trophy for his portrayal) and you've got a sensational smackdown just aching to awaken. Claudius is as pompous as he is proud of what he has down, the smallest cracks in his otherwise fierce fa├žade indicating a miniscule level of guilt. As he plays his step-son/nephew for the fool he thinks he is, we watch a man slowly self-destruct. If Hamlet is all halting fury, Claudius is pure beleaguered bravado. He puts on a good show, but that's about it. For the most part, he is a corrupted soul who uses place and position to forward his farcical agenda. As a back and forth between these two ideas, this version of Hamlet is excellent. Gregory Doran, who moves from the stage to the small screen for this adaptation, does a great job of bring the audience into the work. Aside from the soliloquies, there are POV moments were it appears the actors are actually speaking to us. Similarly, he brings in the trappings of the modern world to make the otherwise esoteric narrative resonate. Sure, the other performers can barely keep up with Stewart and Tennant, but that doesn't detract from one's appreciation. As a battle between old school subterfuge and post-modern madness, this take on Hamlet is amazing.

The Video:
On principle, this critic does not comment of the quality of video or audio on Screener copies of a product. There is no guarantee that the promotional product, offered to give critics a preview of something still in the process of being finalized, will accurately reflect the technical specifications eventually offered. Therefore, no rating for Hamlet's presentation on Blu-ray will be awarded.

The Audio:
On principle, this critic does not comment of the quality of video or audio on Screener copies of a product. There is no guarantee that the promotional product, offered to give critics a preview of something still in the process of being finalized, will accurately reflect the technical specifications eventually offered. Therefore, no rating for Hamlet's presentation on Blu-ray will be awarded.

The Extras:
As for the added content, we are treated to a commentary track by with director Gregory Doran, producer Sebastian Grant, and director of photography Chris Seager. They discuss the decision to translate the play into a more modern setting, the subsequent restaging in actual locations, and the brilliant cast on hand. It's an insightful, informative discussion. Then there is a Making-of featurette which allows the rest of the cast and crew to comment on Shakespeare's greatest tragedy, as well as the issues to overcome for a contemporary audience.

Final Thoughts:
This is one of the best versions of Hamlet ever, easily matching Branagh's ambitious completist adaptation, Olivier's reverential take, as well as other intriguing offerings featuring Mel Gibson, Ethan Hawke, and Nicol Williamson. Tennant takes command of the role and runs with it, bringing unexpected layers to what is often seen as a character overflowing with indecision and implausible passivity. Add in Stewart's sparkling work and a wonderful up to date feel and you've got something that easily earns a Highly Recommended. While tech heads will not be happy with this review (sorry - yours truly just can't be certain about the eventual look and feel of the final product), those interested in what this Hamlet has to offer literarily and theatrically should be assured of greatness. Again, Shakespeare has proven his ability to transcend time and place to put his stamp of the power struggles of today. Costumed or contemporary, it remains a stellar achievement for actors and audiences alike.

Want more Gibron Goodness? Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here

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