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BBC Hamlet (1980)
starring Derek Jacobi
directed by Jonathan Miller
reviewed by Debra Murphy (This review was originally published in 2000, which explains the more recent, bracketed, interpolations)
There can be no such thing as a “definitive” Hamlet, let alone Hamlet. Nonetheless this relatively uncut version is the standard by which the Murphy family for many years tended to judge performances of Shakespeare’s most famous play. Notice I say “performances”, not “productions”; this production, like so many of the plays filmed for the BBC in the late seventies and early eighties, has the higgledy-piggledy feel of something thrown together on a very limited budget and in a matter of a very few weeks…which it apparently was.
The sets and costumes are minimal and uninspired, and I, for one, can’t discern much in the way of an overarching directorial vision—not altogether a bad thing, considering what is often done to Shakespeare’s complexities when the director is determined to shoehorn the play into his predetermined conceptual box. Still, this simple production boasts one of the finest collection of Shakespearean actors ever assembled, and every time I see it I come away thinking that acting doesn’t get much better.
So lets ignore production values and concentrate on the performances, beginning with Derek Jacobi’s.
Jacobi’s Prince of Denmark is a complex and embittered intellectual, whose occasional bursts of love, faith and even fury are transformed within an instant into weary skepticism. His first resort in any dilemma is to let fire with irony on his nearest and dearest. In a way, though hardly “innovative”—too many actors seem desperated to find (or invent) something wholly new in this too-famous character— Jacobi is giving us a very postmodern, almost “deconstructed” Hamlet–attractive, sensitive, even high-minded on the surface, but underneath a man whose sanity and even noble intentions are ultimately untrustworthy. The more I see this version of the play, the more I think the Ghost to be a lying goblin damned, or even a trick of Hamlet’s fantasy, and Hamlet himself more scourge than minister. “It hath made me mad” Hamlet cries, staring at his own two abusive hands in the nunnery scene—a reading of the line which makes more sense to me than any other I have heard. And still we’d forgive this Hamlet anything, wouldn’t we?
Patrick Stewart portrays a Claudius wholly up to the challenge of overturning Hamlet’s world. No lecherous drunkard he, as in many production [cf. Alan Bates in the Zefirelli film version], but the capable CEO of the troubled state of Denmark. Hamlet underestimates him all the way. That Stewart happens to be blessed with one of the finest dramatic voices around underscores this Claudius’ capacity to woo both Queen and Court. In fact, this Claudius is so dangerous that Hamlet’s famous inaction becomes a reasonable reaction to circumstances, and it is no surprise when his only remaining option is direct, and tragic, action—too late.
Claire Bloom is the most beautiful, regal and sympathetic Gertrude I’ve ever seen. Hamlet misjudges her, too, if he thinks this woman is too old for passion. She is also a queen worth killing for, making Patrick Stewart’s job of finding Claudius’ motivations all the easier.
Eric Porter as Polonius also gives a benchmark performance. His Polonius is a generally well-meaning but cunning (and occasionally addle-pated) Chief Bureacrat of the realm. For those who love to suggest that Polonius was drawn from the real-life Lord Burghley, Elizbeth I’s chief-of-state, Porter even looks the part. Last but not least, Porter’s Polonius is likeable enough to make Laertes’ passionate desire for revenge something more than a point of honor.
The one real performance weakness in this otherwise stellar cast is Lalla Ward as Ophelia. Her Ophelia is such a simpering simpleton in the early scenes that one can’t imagine what Hamlet saw in her. Worse, her breathless, sobbing delivery in the big scenes quickly becomes downright irritating.
Least favorite scene: Lalla Ward’s Ophelia hiccoughing her way through the the “while I was sewing in my closet” scene.
Favorite scene: Jacobi [at least until Adrian Lester] gives my favorite reading of “Will you play upon this pipe” while dissecting Guildenstern’s self-serving seemings of friendship. Anyone who has ever felt himself “used” by a supposed friend or loved one will recognize these emotions.
Other Hamlet film reviews on Bardolatry: