It should come as no surprise then that this 1990 film, directed by the flamboyant Franco Zeffirelli, is not known in Clan Murphy as “Zeffirelli’s Hamlet” but “Mel’s Hamlet.” What is surprising, perhaps, is how much this film adaptation has grown on us over the years, in spite of Mad Mel’s personal and professional meltdown, and in spite of Zeffirelli’s mutilation of Shakespeare’s text. Cut by half ― nay, chopped, hacked, eviscerated, generally shot all to hell. No Fortinbras, nary a complete soliloquy, except for the inevitable “To be or not to be,” and lines reassigned all over the place.
Verily, this two-hour script of a four-hour play should have been enough to make these bardolaters grieve…were it not that the acting and staging of what remained was so remarkably satisfying.
To begin, Zeffirelli is an Enthusiast with an operatic streak. His many virtues and occasional vices, cinematically speaking, appear to stem from a temperamental tendency to what the Italians call sprezzatura. Let us say, “dying in his own too much.”
But Zeffirelli has taken his over-the-topness down a notch in this film, befitting the bracing North Atlantic setting designed by the brilliant Dante Ferretti. Zeffirelli resisted the temptation to Wagnerian excess that I, for one, would have loathed. Instead, the medieval Norse Elsinore that the filmmakers have created, an elemental time and place in which springtime seems like a promise never kept, is subdued in color and ornament, but rich in texture. It reels with labyrinthine staircases leading everywhere and nowhere, like one of those dizzying Escher lithographs.
More to the purpose, perhaps, Zeffirelli and his cast put their sets to good use. The actors move, interact, fill the stage ― unlike the Talking Heads productions one so often sees, in which characters stand around babbling beautifully, but never seem to inhabit their spaces, let alone live in them.