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A 'Hamlet' True to Its Time

December 29, 1990

Would Michael Wilmington rather be reviewing stand-up comedy again? Do films not work unless they're brightly lit laugh riots? In "A Matinee-Idol 'Hamlet' From Mel Gibson," his review of the new "Hamlet" (Dec. 19), he takes Mel Gibson to task for stepping out of his accustomed persona and daring to be merely "more than creditable," and Zeffirelli for not coming up with a "dazzling visual concept" and a "brilliant, breakthrough" film. Is there something wrong with just being good?

Wilmington's take on the film seems to be that Zeffirelli dropped the ball by failing to use his usual "high-spirited flourish and flamboyance" and "overdressed sets and rococo clutter." Perhaps he missed this aspect of "Hamlet": It doesn't take place in Italy, and it's not a comedy nor a romance. It's a cold and dark tale of revenge and introspection. It has ghosts and death at every turn, and not a lot of pleasantry. It's a tragedy, on a microcosmic yet epic scale. Our Dansker hero is trying to decide whether his life is even worth living, fighting himself as much as Laertes--"to be, or not to be."

In the sword duel Wilmington didn't care for, those huge blades are laboriously swung in a shadowy hall because that's where it takes place and those are the weapons of the time. Broadswords are hacking and hewing tools, heavy, as suitable for cutting down trees as men. If you want "an explosive, sun-drenched free-for-all" duel, I suggest you go to the Mediterranean in the summer and pick up some nice light rapiers; but it's a little difficult to dance tippy-toe in wintry Denmark.

By all means point out errors and problems if they are deserved, but don't castigate historical and geographical accuracy--nor blame the director for using a dark palette to paint a tragedy. Pitch your Cliff's Notes, Michael; I'll loan you my copy of the play.

MICHAEL McCONNOHIE

Burbank

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