Hamlet (Gamlet)

Russia (1964) Dir. Grigori Kozintsev

You may not want to believe this but it wasn’t until I finished watching this film that I learned today (April 23rd) is in fact Shakespeare’s birthday (and death day too – oh the irony)! I genuinely chose to watch this film because it was on my HDD recorder and I needed the space, making this quite the fortuitous selection for viewing.

One of The Bard’s most famous and oft quoted (and misquoted) works, Hamlet has been made into a big screen adaptation on numerous occasions, the first being a snippet of the duel sequence made in 1900 and the most well known being Laurence Olivier’s Oscar winning version from 1948.

But it is this Russian interpretation under review, adapted by novelist and playwright Boris Pasternak, famous for his 1957 novel Doctor Zhivago. Pasternak and director Grigori Kozintsev stick as faithfully to the source material as possible, with some accepted truncation and omissions due to its length (the complete play can run in excess of four hours), keeping it within a more manageable 132 minutes.

A tale of murder, revenge, deceit and tragedy (it is Shakespeare after all), the eponymous Prince of Denmark (Innokenty Smoktunovsky) arrives back in his homeland to learn that his father has died and his mother Queen Gertrude (Elza Radziņa), has already remarried, the new King being none other than the late regent’s brother Claudius (Mikhail Nazvanov). Hamlet is visited by the spirit of his father, revealing how Claudius murdered him to usurp the throne and encourages his son to extract revenge.

Of course, it is not as straightforward as that but you get the gist of the plot and that is largely what this film proffers due to the run time. When Olivier made his version he chose to excise the political aspect of the story and stick to the drama; Kozintsev on the other hand had no such delusions and kept it in, which shouldn’t be much of a surprise since his country is practically a metaphor for political upheaval.

And, being a European production this is also a very strong visual presentation, making use of the surroundings to create atmosphere and serve as a symbolic reiteration of the narrative. One can find touches of Bergman’s historical dramas in the mise-en-scene while ethereal touches such as the lustrous wave of sunlight in the main chamber recalls Dreyer at his most poetic.

Perhaps a nod to his fellow compatriot, there is an Eisenstein-esque montage to open the film and is repeated throughout usually to help heighten tension or build a particular mood. Take the scene where the late king’s spirit arrives (manifest as suit of armour with a suitably booming voice) – to show the shock and disbelief we see the tethered royal horses looking startled as the night sky inexplicably darkens before them.

Kozintsev keeps the camera moving for most of the time, following the characters around like an obedient dog or taking in the vast expanse of the palatial scenery, both internally and externally. The latter is an integral part in exploring the themes of confinement, both emotionally and physically, when the drama begins unfold in earnest and takes its toll on the characters.

The external landscape is presented in wide sweeping shots to represent the freedom of the world beyond the fortified dwelling, punctuated by clips of birds flying unabated over the oceanfront. Inside, the halls are often cavernous yet with the royal entourage dutifully flanking their highnesses, this space is seldom enjoyed by them.

Following the conversation with his father’s ghost, Hamlet decides to fake madness in order to expose the truth about the murder and Claudius’ involvement. The first person he presents his manic persona to is Ophelia (Anastasiya Vertinskaya), daughter of chief counsellor Polonius (Yuri Tolubeyev). Ophelia believes in this insanity and is heartbroken when Hamlet rebukes her in character.

Later Hamlet accidentally kills Polonius during a confrontation with his mother, the grief of this causing Ophelia to have a mental breakdown of her own resulting in her apparent suicide by drowning, unbeknownst to Hamlet, who had been sent away to England by Claudius to be killed. Normally I would apologise for the spoiler but I am assuming on this occasion, most of you reading already know what happens anyway.

You don’t? Well, that is fair enough because whilst Shakespeare’s language is a thing of beauty with its flowery patterns, jaunty rhythms, inventive metaphors and loquacious lyricism, it can be a chore trying to figure out what is being said. Then again, some of the Bard’s most famous phrases – “Get thee to a Nunnery”, “The lady doth protest too much”, and soliloquies – “To be or not to be”, “Alas poor Yorick” come from Hamlet.

One clever facet of this tale is meta “the play within a play” gimmick, in which Hamlet audaciously scripts a scenario featuring Rosencrantz (Igor Dmitriev) and Guildenstern (Vadim Medvede) depicting the very events of his father’s death before King Claudius. I can’t imagine how this is pulled off on stage and not confuse the audience but for cinema it is great plot device and one far easier to execute.

Possibly the most alluring thing about this film is witnessing the Bard’s dialogue spoken with in Russian – no mean feat as most of the cast were not native Russian speakers – yet still maintain the familiar rhythms and dramatic flair of the delivery as we are used to hearing in English. The only difference is that it feels more natural coming from this lot, lead by sole Soviet Innokenty Smoktunovsky as a charismatic Hamlet.

This version of Hamlet may not convert anyone to the Bard if they are not already on board but world cinema lovers should find plenty to enjoy in this award winning curiosity, be it the epic staging, the unique interpretation and the esoteric European aesthetic.  

Happy Birthday William Shakespeare!