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Hamlet (2009, Royal Shakespeare Company)

BBC Worldwide // Unrated // May 4, 2010
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted May 27, 2010 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Poisoned goblets, sword duels, Oedipus complexes, wildly-screaming bereaved women, and a black sheep of the family gone slightly mad; "Hamlet" runs the full gamut through William Shakespeare's repertoire of amusing tragic components. The core story itself is a testament to this fact, as it's spurned both exact and abstract adaptations -- from Disney animation in The Lion King to Chinese martial arts with The Banquet. But, obviously, following Shakespeare's prose in "Hamlet" with straight-edged, step-by-step integrity just feels right, which becomes the reason why Lawrence Olivier's 1948 Oscar-winning version and Kenneth Branagh's massive-scaled production from 1996 exist as the paramount projections of the tragedy of Denmark. Now, Gregory Doran's stage-to-screen transplant of the Royal Shakespeare Company's production, starring David Tennant as Hamlet and Patrick Stewart dual-rolling as Claudius and The Ghost, joins those ranks, as it's a breath-snatcher of a faithful retelling.

Shakespeare tells the story of Hamlet, a grieving son in the state of Denmark, who learns that his father has been killed by his uncle Claudius -- the very man whom is remarrying his mother, Gertrude. Vowing revenge, the story follows along as Hamlet sullenly reflects his father's death and how he'll obtain vengeance, all while interacting with Claudius and Gertrude in everyday facets and dealing with love-struck Ophelia, daughter to royal chamberlain Polonius. Shakespeare ratchets through the traditional five-act structure to tell his theme-riddled story, revolving around the consuming nature of both power and vengeance, as he carries us through deceit, surreal visions of Hamlet's father, the organization of a symbolic play within a play, and the postured rage leading to a satisfying contest of blade near the close. For a more thorough scene-by-scene rundown of the play's activity, check out BBC's website on this production.

Doran's Hamlet first appeared in the UK as a stellar and well-received stage run in 2008, which led to the desire in recording and airing a cinematic version for the BBC. The Royal Shakespeare Company embarked on this long-desired path due to the play's success, enlisting Archangel cinematographer Chris Seager to photograph a form of the tale instead of shooting several stage performances and editing them together. Shot over eighteen (18) days, this form of Hamlet uses an abandoned church -- draped in black, trimmed with gold, and adorned with compelling aesthetic elements -- as the primary backdrop to their traditionally concocted production, with a few twists. Though breathing unerringly with Shakespeare's elegant dialogue and contorted drama, it splices modernist elements into the mix like security camera footage to add tension, as well as black-tie suits, restrained gowns, and even t-shirts and jeans befitting a more contemporary setting.

Left: The Ghost speaks to Hamlet
Right: Hamlet with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Production designer Robert Jones returns from the stage adaptation to dress Hamlet, and the results are spectacular. An austere mood generates from the shimmering marble floors and pillars of the church, the false warmth of a bedroom, and the darkened coldness of exterior stone hallways, arming the production with an intricate yet focused visual look. It remains intriguing to the eye while it fittingly encapsulates the performers in an apt setting, streamlined flawlessly for enacting a play yet stunning to behold. On a number of occasions, I couldn't help but marvel at the construction; the stellar imagery of faces in a shattered mirror, the rays of light pouring in through circular mandala-esque windows like pincushions leading to a brighter world, and the haunted smokiness of indigo-hued scenes with Patrick Stewart as The Ghost. Jones' production merits are unmatched here, budgeted yet glorious.

Naturally, the performances are what'll define this Hamlet, and, oh, they're collectively so gripping in Gregory Doran's production. The director has an uncanny ability in pulling authentic, faithful, yet profoundly human entities from his actors, crafting them into projections of madness, grief, cool-bloodedness and anger that are both theatrically appealing and pertinent to instinctive emotion. David Tennant, likely recognizable as one of the many faces who've embodied Doctor Who, gives us a Hamlet that's a bit more brashly loony than others whom have taken the role as Denmark's black sheep. His wild-eyed, emphatic usage of the stage space projects an unnerving attribute that's astounding to behold. Patrick Stewart, winning an Olivier award for his presence as Claudius, offers a chillingly steady-handed yet haughty carriage, while booming in stirring fashion as The Ghost as his voice rattles the echoic space about him. The rest of the cast members, especially Mariah Gale's unforgettably fluid projection of Ophelia and Penny Downey's scaled evocation of Gertrude, are also universally fantastic.

Make no mistake, Doran's production stands faithful to Shakespeare's five-act play in pinpoint fashion, which carries this film version just over three hours in length -- yet the dramatic integrity formulated and the rhythmic, suspenseful pacing make the time rush by. Everything comes together into an engaging telling of Hamlet's morose power play with his brethren, cherry-picking modern and classic elements into a blend of camcorders, rapier duels, passionate soliloquies, and vulgarities when necessary. What's more, this taped version of Doran's play is surprisingly cinematic within its confined measures, implementing surgical set and costume usage to give us grasps on time and mood in convincing intervallic fashion. His piece finds a distinctively unorthodox balance between Shakespearean presence and a broad use of film-like stage space that's mesmerizing because of it, a grand way of making "Hamlet" feel current, reflective, and genuine to the bard's original aims.

The Blu-ray:

Video and Audio:

Shot with RED digital cameras in high-definition, Hamlet looks stellar in this Blu-ray's 1.78:1 AVC encode -- yet it's not without the misgivings that adorn a 1080i presentation. Larger screens will notice slight digital combing and ghosting in a few sequences, while a slightly hazier level of concrete detail is all but unavoidable at a few points. However, taking the resolution's limitations to heart, Chris Seager's photography looks fantastic; the richness of the blackened church, the luster of the gold trimming, the slight coldness of facial hues and the rare glimmers of sunlight reveal a highly competent grasp on the palette. Detail can also intermittently impress through the etching of detail within The Ghost's armor, the floor's outlying texture, and the staunch fineness rendered in costumes and close-ups. Though not faultless due to the visualization's kneecapped resolution, it's still a highly rewarding Blu-ray showing.

Audio arrives in an unremarkable 2-channel PCM track that struggles with some vocal strength but nails all of the audible elements. It's worth noting that all of the dialogue can be cleanly heard and discerned, so that's not an issue, but the level of crispness can be off-putting at times. Sound effects like the fluttering of film stock in a camcorder, footsteps in the echoic hall, and the occasional gunshot and clank of a sword are satisfactory without being of note. The aural elements work fine enough to suit the production, though not as pleasing as expected. Subtitles are only available in optional English text.

Special Features:

Commentary with Gregory Doran, Sebastian Grant, and Chris Seager:
This commentary track with a trio of the production's key minds stays largely conversational and downkey, yet it lets factoids escape intermittently through their scene-by-scene chatter. They talk up the armor adorning The Ghost and how it reflects Shakespeare's description, how they accomplished a sense of "skeletal" beauty with Tennant during the famous "To Be or Not To Be" soliloquy, making the play within the play as "burlesque" as possible (and they certainly succeed), trubles around shooting the skull-holding sequence, and the way Patrick Stewart almost acts brashly inebriated during the final sequence. It's a nice listen with a few lengthy gaps in between the dialogue, but rich with nifty context.

The Making of Hamlet (31:56, 16x9):
Lots of excellent interview time splices within behind-the-scenes footage into a great overview piece on the construction of the at-home experience -- as well as a bit of discussion on the play. Director Doran and his cast / crew discuss their experience in searching for the right location and landing at the cathedral in the seminary, Tennant discussing the difference in delivering a soliloquy in the theater and in this smaller space, as well as Doran's usage of the film format to do things he couldn't do on-stage, and other bits.

Also available is a three-minute mosaic focusing on the Think Theatre (3:00, 16x9).

Final Thoughts:

Gregory Doran's Hamlet ranks right up there with the very best of the page-to-screen showings of Shakespeare's text, staying faithful while also adding a modern edge and invigorating dramatic potency. Naturally, David Tennant and Patrick Stewart drive the production, but the gathering together of exquisite set design, simple yet evocative photography, and scintillating supportive performances transform this three-hour production into a hearty, well-paced experience that never feels that length. Though BBC's Blu-ray presentation isn't full-HD, the audiovisual properties are still appropriate enough to support the weight of this production, while also offering a strong audio commentary and a behind-the-scenes featurette that are both worth the time. Both for Shakespeare enthusiasts and casual movie-goers looking for a suspenseful, dramatically stringent experience, this comes very Highly Recommended.

Note: Screenshots in this review are from the standard-definition DVD and do not represent the quality of the Blu-ray.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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