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MOVIE REVIEW : A Matinee-Idol 'Hamlet' From Mel Gibson

December 19, 1990|MICHAEL WILMINGTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

His hair is blond, his chin is stubbled, his eyes are wild. And whenever he looks at his parents, he becomes an Oedipal wreck. As Mel Gibson plays him, Shakespeare's Hamlet, a Gloom-and-Doom Dane, is an Elizabethan Lethal Weapon whipped on by vicious hatred of his licentious stepfather, giggly Claudius (Alan Bates), flayed by ambiguous yearnings for his statuesque blonde mother, ice-queen Gertrude (Glenn Close).

Franco Zeffirelli's new "Hamlet"(AMC Century 14)--his first Shakespearean movie since his triumphantly gaudy 1966 and 1967 versions of "The Taming of the Shrew" and "Romeo and Juliet"--isn't exactly campy. It might be better if it were. Deprived of Zeffirelli's usual, high-spirited flourish and flamboyance, his deliciously overdressed sets and rococo clutter, this "Hamlet"--swallowed up in chilly panoramas, dark castles and sonorous verse-reading--sometimes seems cold and spiritless.

It's not at all a bad film. Like all Zeffirelli pictures, it's exquisitely designed, by Dante Ferretti, and lushly photographed, by David Watkin. And Gibson, despite any amused expectations you might have is not bad either.

His blond hair may seem a conscious tweak at Laurence Olivier's 1948 version of the part, but Gibson shows Shakespearean tools: princely bearing, a resonant and supple voice for verse. If his movements seem forced, that's not unfitting for this interpretation. His is a creditable Hamlet: even, in some of his showcase scenes, a more than creditable one.

But why mount another film version of this great play, just to preserve a more than creditable Hamlet? Why not wait for a brilliant, breakthrough one?

This is the champion star part of English drama, against which all great classical actors are measured: the Barrymores, Oliviers, Gielguds and Burtons. One of their company, Paul Scofield, is present here: memorably assaying an icily remote Ghost. But Gibson doesn't really bring anything extraordinary to the part, beyond extraordinary good looks. He seems more impulsive than introspective, more racy than tormented. In fact, his natural part is Laertes.

One almost gets the feeling that bankability was the casting key, that more plausible choices, like Daniel Day Lewis or Kenneth Branagh (who called "Hamlet" the play he most wanted to film after "Henry V") were locked out.

Perhaps not. And, yet, unlike his earlier Shakespeares, Zeffirelli hasn't come up here with a dazzling visual concept. Nor does he give his talented ensemble--which also includes Ian Holm as an impish Polonius, Helena Bonham-Carter as a dour Ophelia and Trevor Peacock as a rustic Gravedigger--any unique governing rhythm or interpretation.

Zeffirelli has always been best with Italianate Shakespeare: romances like "Romeo," comedies like "Shrew" and "Much Ado About Nothing." Plays like these simulate his eye, his lively flair for stage movement, all of which seem near-frozen here in the mock Nordic plains. Only at the end, with another sword fight, does his staging spark up. And it's no explosive, sun-drenched free-for-all, like that of "Romeo and Juliet." Instead, Hamlet and Laertes (Nathaniel Parker), laboriously swing huge swords, sawing at the air and each other in a cavernous, shadowy, Roman hall.

But there is one performance I liked very much: Glenn Close as Gertrude. Playing a dutiful queen whose appetites have been awakened by Alan Bates' simpering roue of a Claudius, Close brings something electrifying to her scenes. She catches something which Ingmar Bergman noted in Bibi Andersson's nurse Alma from "Persona": a sense of shameful lust.

Close keeps her compact with Shakespeare. She figures out a way to make the lines breathe and soar. Most of the rest of this "Hamlet" (MPAA rated PG, despite mature themes, philosophy and language), effective or lovely as parts of it may be, just keeps sawing at the air in a drafty hall and pouring all its light on Mel Gibson and his angelic stubble.

'Hamlet'

Mel Gibson Hamlet

Glenn Close Gertrude

Alan Bates Claudius

Helena Bonham-Carter Ophelia

Ian Holm Polonius

Paul Scofield The Ghost

A Warner Brothers/Nelson Entertainment presentation of an Icon production. Director Franco Zeffirelli. Producer Dyson Lovell. Executive producer Bruce Davey. Screenplay by Christopher Devore, Zeffirelli, from William Shakespeare. Cinematographer David Watkin. Editor Richard Marden. Costumes Maurizio Millenotti. Music Ennio Morricone. Production design Dante Ferretti. With Nathaniel Parker, Trevor Peacock, John McEnery, Pete Postlethwaite. Running time: 2 hours, 34 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG (Mature themes and philosophy).

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