Sunday, July 18, 2010
Hamlet played by Campbell Scott.
Directed by Campbell Scott and Eric Simonson.
The Hallmark Hamlet. Though I see from looking at the website, the actual channel in the UK has now become the “home” of reruns and first runs of the likes of legal drama Damages and legal drama Law & Order, my actual experience of Hallmark productions are the fantasy and fairy tale adaptations and “true” life stories that still sometimes populate the post 3pm slot on (channel) Five.
That meant my usual pre-conceived notions going into Scott’s production (despite my love for his directorial debut Big Night) were skewed towards expecting to see what Hamlet would be like as a US tv movie and to large extent that’s what this is, with a mis-en-scene designed to fit very specifically within Hallmark’s house style as it was in 2000 and quite irritating minor-key piano noodling which litters the soundtrack.
The accompanying advertorial on the dvd also points to an attempt to make sure that it doesn’t run counter to the rest of Hallmark’s programming as each of the actors is wheeled out, given an voiceover explanation of their acting credentials and allowed a thirty second sound bite which generally consists of them explaining how exciting the play is and how accessible they’re trying to make it, including the original language which would seem like a prerequisite.
This documentary's hogwash dipped voiceover implores the viewer to enjoy “the immortal prose of William Shakespeare” (he did write some pretty good verse too) and refuses to give much in the way of background to the play with the exception of such wild speculation as “Hamlet, this literary masterpiece, scripted by William Shakespeare on the eve of his own father’s death” (which is interesting considering that the dating of the play still hasn’t been fixed).
Setting the story on the edge of New York at the beginning of the last century, the film itself is vibrant and often thrilling because Scott and co-director Eric Simonson make some strong choices with the text that seem designed to counter accusations that this will simply be an slightly inoffensive, orthodox version. As Roscoe Lee Browne chuckles in the fluffumentary, he told Scott that he wouldn’t ever play and old buffer like Polonius, only to be reassured by Scott that he still wouldn’t be.
First big decision: Scott’s Hamlet is mad. Not just mad, suicidal or at the very least self harming. Scott shifts “To Be…” as early as I’ve ever seen it – before the fishmonger (we’re unsure how much Polonius has observed) – but just after he’s seen slashing unsuccessfully into a vain (the scabs visible throughout the rest of the film). Sprawled on the floor, this Hamlet isn’t just rhetorically musing on the question for show, but genuinely considering his own mortality.
And because from the moment he learns of Claudius’s deeds until he’s shipped off to England, the prince loses not just his mirth but all of his senses, sometimes seen talking to himself even if a soliloquy isn’t forthcoming. When Hamlet asks Laertes’s pardon for the murder of his father before the duel, rather than simply blaming the fault on his feigned madness, he’s asking if he can be held responsible for Polonius’s death because he was really not in his right state of mind.
Second big decision: Scott justifies this by turning up the supernatural quotient of the play to near Macbeth proportions. This Hamlet doesn’t just hear the matter of his father’s death, he feels it as the ghost brings about a hallucination, the prince experiencing the poisoning, blood flowing from his ears, a kind of tinnitus infusing the soundtrack. As he stalks the halls, the whisper of Hamlet Snr (“Remember, remember”) and that whine follow him about, demonstrating how he's now all but consumed by the experience.
And the ghost keeps reappearing; not just in Gertrude’s chamber, but holding Hamlet’s sword back as he’s about to off a praying Claudius and at the point of death. But of course there’s an ambiguity to these appearances; are these really new emergences of the figure or manifestations of Hamlet’s crumpled state of mind. We assume it must be the latter and then Claudius sees his brother in the face of a player during The Mousetrap and then we’re not so sure. It’s like an episode of Lost with royalty rather than polar bears.
As well as Scott’s layered performance, Blair Brown makes some sense of Gertrude’s woolly motivation towards the end by playing up her belief in her son seeming not entirely unhappy that Polonius is out of the picture (shock at the deed, not shock at the outcome) even if she’s weakened slightly by Scott’s decision (and I’ve not seen this before) to cut “There is a willow…” which whilst having the effect of strengthening the opening of the gravedigger scene does mean that Brown doesn’t have the chance to give her character’s one great moment of compassion.
Within her own breath of madness, Lisa Gay Hamilton’s Ophelia appears wearing her father’s jacket and gives an eerie, uncanny imitation of Roscoe Lee Browne’s Polonius that’s also rather breathtaking. But this is generally a good cast with only Roger Guenveur Smith’s passionless Laertes failing to convince, at no point seeming to be the rapscallion that his father would need to keep an eye on as he creates mayhem in Paris. If his whispery understated performance was a directorial choice, it would only make sense if Reynaldo had been cut. He wasn’t.
In total, then, not the first production of the play I'd show to someone, but an interesting interpretation. Some elements, such as Ophelia seeing Hamlet joke about her father's corpse only really resonate if you're aware that in the original text the stage directions make it impossible. But this does also feature an excellent version of The Mousetrap in which the players are dressed in what seems like the very Elizabethan period costume that a Hallmark audience coming to the play cold might have been expecting...
[Scott has given a rather good interview about this film but he doesn't give very much away. Most of his choices, including casting African American actors in Polonius's family seem to be in the order of "It seemed like a good idea..." but without much of an underlying motivation. He even says, "It's hard because people think there's an alternative agenda. And the fact is, there is none." Nonetheless, a lot of thought has clear gone into how this version fits together, even if it has seeped in from previous stage productions Scott has been involved in.]