Thursday, October 18, 2007

Prince of Jutland (1994)

Amled played by Christian Bale.
Directed by Gabriel Axel.

This is just one of those occasions when you really can’t believe quite what's unfolding in front of you. That someone wrote the thing, someone decided to direct it, a deal was struck, financing found and then the script was sent around and attracted this cast who then agreed to go on location for principal photography, the footage was edited, a score written, a prints struck then dvds and at no point did anyone notice that in fact they’d created a monster, the kind of entertainment which is unintentionally funny more than on purpose and deserves at least a cult audience just for the ludicrousness of it all. In other words, don’t get too excited. This is not a chance to see Christian Bale play Hamlet, at least not the Shakespearean iteration. You do, however, get to see him eat a tree branch, one leaf at a time. But more on that later.

In this, Axel who’d previously offered the wonderful Babette’s Feast attempts to film the ancient Danish legends that Shakespeare apparently based his play on. As the film opens a caption heralds that this is based on the original writing Saxo Grammaticus, whose Gesta Danorum was the source of the tales of Amled (isn’t the Wikipedia amazing?). The theory has it that, Shakespeare looked at this material at one remove via an earlier play, usually described as the Ur-Hamlet and actually what Axel seems to have done here is draw together elements of Grammaticus with that earlier play (or what’s known of it), Shakespeare and oddly Return of the Jedi (one or two scenes are oddly similar). In other words its about as authentic as Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur which was also reputed to be of some kind of ancient about Camelot but somehow still managed to feature a Druidic version of Merlin.

The story then, like the Kurosawa, Kaurismaki and Disney has many of the familiar elements in not quite the right order. It seems a bit pointless analysing how the two differ since it really is worth seeing both if you’re a Hamlet and film fan and to deny you the surprise of how the narrative plays out would rob you of one its few genuine pleasures. Lets just say that at about fifty minutes in you’ll be wondering what is going to happen for the remainder of the running time; the answer reminded me of the way that television theme tunes would be released as singles and the composer would be called upon to fill the gap and would simply add in some unexpected solo or wacky jazz version that was totally unlike the tune that everyone knows -- track down the long versions of Grandstand, Rainbow or The Archers to see what I mean. Let's just say is that Fortinbras is here in spirit and spoiling for a rumble. And played by Brian Glover.

Anyway back to Bale and his tree eating. I’m probably not spoiling too much by saying that when Amled discovers his uncle murdered his father that his only recourse is to fain madness. In Shakespeare that pretty much amounts to some shouting at Ophelia, calling her Dad a fish monger and all the talking to himself in between. Here the future Bruce Wayne, his floppy long hair has to bark like a dog, crow like a cock and eat wood (and leaves). But he does it with such conviction that you’re entirely convinced this is the best strategy under the circumstances. When he’s expectedly revealed to be sane (in the arms of a naked wench) Bale steps up his game and he becomes charismatic, noble and everything you’d want from a king, cunning too, and certainly not the ditherer that ‘our’ Hamlet is sometimes portrayed as. Bale is another reason to watch - he steals almost every scene that he’s in and like Welles in his radio version of the play, the actor suddenly presents the on-screen persona that we’d find later in everything from The Prestige to indeed Batman.

Elsewhere, it’s madder than a bag of spanners but gloriously so in that special way that these things often are. Much of the fun is obtained from seeing actors, like Bale who would go on to be known for far more illustrious projects doing some very unexpected things. Well, yes Mirren’s back as this show’s version of Gertrude, and goes naked again -- but by this time she was already film the Prime Suspects for television so this was a very curious career choice and she’s not all that bad. Gabriel Byrne hadn’t get gone stellar with The Usual Suspects, although he generally plays Fenge (Claudius) in the same mould as Dean Keaton and there’s even s moment when he does the finger pondering thing which crops up in the closing montage of Byran Singer’s film to make him look suspicious. Tom Wilkinson’s in here too as Hardvendel (Hamlet Snr) which should indicate that it’s not for long. Oh and Kate Beckinsale too as Ethel (Ophelia) but doesn’t do much other than look longingly at Bale.

Now take a look at this tableau:

That's Ewen Bremner (Trainspotting), Mark Williams (The Fast Show) and Andy Serkis (The Lord of the Rings & King Kong). Tony Haygarth (Bleak House) and David Bateson (The Hitman games). And some beards.

The music is by Per Nørgård. Per Nørgård is one of Denmark’s most famous composers -- his work is in the international repertory and what’s here is remarkable. Unfortunately at no time does it match the visuals and some of the more unintentionally funny moments are when the five above (in clothes) are striding purposefully around the village (they couldn’t afford a castle in those days) to a soundtrack which indicates that they might as well be attacking Norway. Fans of Murray Gold’s soundtrack to the first series of new Doctor Who would be well served here as the chords clash in at random moments. And the whole film is like that -- just as it settles into a rhythm, there’s always some bizarre bit of editing, fake wig action, wavering accent. extremely odd acting choice (see Byrne fake cry), piece of set design or crowd scene which breaks the drama. The closing shot, which might be entirely accurate, might have looked good on paper, is totally ludicrous, as a collection of extras and many of the principles are called upon to pat their chest in unison, the sound of fist on cloak being the final sound we hear.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That's funny. Because to me, the movie was about something entirely different, namely trying to paint an authentic version of how the Vita Amlethi could have been, including setting. Including stiff dialogues, sparse equipment, very few riches (the gold crown was all the more impressive BECAUSE there was nothing else that valuable), and a barren landscape. Also to me, it was about perceived history, believed nordic mannerisms and in fact, the movie would have worked much better in Danish - the dialogue do not inspire when translated into English.
It was very much more authentic than King Arthur. The clothes were right, the amount of townspeople to hail the king were right - the belts and axes were a tad wrong with the time periode, but everything else was as accurate as could be expected.

In the regards of trying to entertain, it failed compared to other movies, I agree. But! It never meant to replace Shakespear's Hamlet - and that's the real tragedy here, because the original source cannot compete with a very altered copy's copy of a copy. (Tracing back from Shakespear to Kyd's version, who copied it from Belleforst, who copied and altered it from Saxo's original version) - and moreover, it did not mean to be anything else that it wasn't: An attempt at recreating history and giving back a sense of, well, national identity.

This here might be of interest to you as it explains Axel's intention much better than I could: