Reviewer: David Cunningham

Director: Sean Mathias

In 2021 Ian McKellen provoked a degree of controversy by playing Hamlet onstage despite being more than twice the age of the prince. The current film version has the same cast and director and is recorded at the same venue but is not simply a filmed version of the stage play.

Ironically, the movie pays tribute to another form of entertainment -the enduring power of live theatre. A caption at the start gives the false impression filming took place in March 2020 when the covid pandemic necessitated the closure of theatres. The opening, therefore, features black and white footage of Ian McKellen, wrapped in a blanket as if homeless, wandering around and trying to gain access to the deserted Theatre Royal Windsor, where the play was staged, before successfully entering via the stage door and bringing the venue back to life. Once inside, the film changes to colour and the text of the play begins. As the film is supposed to be taking place during the pandemic there is no live audience, which liberates the actors from performing on just the stage- scenes take place in the bar, toilets, dressing rooms, corridors and even the roof.

The disjointed filming could be intended to suggest a kingdom in an unstable, chaotic condition following the death of Hamlet’s father, but the overall impression is of a grab-bag of ideas, rather like watching the cast rehearse, instead of a finished product. There is no background against which events take place. The film’s running time is a brisk two hours necessitating trimming from the text the political tensions between Denmark and Norway. As a result, there is no indication of the political situation in Elsinore, whether, for example, a police state has been established by the new ruler. The film seems to be set in a neverland or limbo, even the time period is uncertain with the cast dressed in contemporary clothing- McKellen in some unflattering leisurewear. Dropping the political angle means there is no contrast between Hamlet, the dithering Dane, and Norway’s decisive Fortinbras.

The cast is gender and age fluid (male characters are played by female actors) which may support a principle but does not always fit smoothly into the story and rarely helps in the interpretation of the text. The gender of Francesca Annis, who plays Hamlet’s father, is not always apparent as her face is barely seen being concealed behind a fencing mask or in shadow. The failure to acknowledge McKellen’s age loses the opportunity to raise a further motivation for Hamlet. Hamlet’s bitterness at his uncle stealing the crown which was his by birthright may have been even greater had it been acknowledged he has been pipped at the post by someone younger.

Sean Mathias’s direction is hit and miss. Alis Wyn Davies’s aggressive use of a guitar ensures Ophelia descends into rage rather than despair and so avoids becoming a victim. The staging of the play within a play as a mime/dance works really well.

However, Mathias’s approach to some of the main speeches is puzzling. Hamlet’s opening speech, in which he is so fed up he wishes for a simple exit from life such as his flesh melting, is followed by McKellen on an exercise bike which seems both a literal interpretation of the text and out of character for someone who has forgone all custom of exercises. ‘’To be or not to be’’ is spoken not as an isolated soul-searching soliloquy but a one-sided conversation between Hamlet and Horatio while the former is having a haircut, which does not seem appropriate for such intimate and devastating insight.

From the beginning Ian McKellen establishes Hamlet as someone who is not simply depressed as deeply world weary. There is a resignation to his interpretation, a sense Hamlet has a foreshadowing of events and is overwhelmed by his responsibilities and fatalistic about his future. It goes without saying McKellen speaks the verse beautifully and there is a piercing intelligence and sharp wit in his Prince, you would not want to get into an argument with him.

Polonius can be interpreted in a number of ways ranging from the comedic self-important twit who is not as clever as he imagines to a sinister conspirator in the murder of Hamlet’s father. Steven Berkoff opts for the harmless old duffer approach, albeit one who speaks in a sergeant- major style bark. Jonathan Hyde is a sleek villain as Hamlet’s uncle Claudius, but the absence of any political background prevents the extent of his ambition from being shown.

Hamlet is, therefore, something of a curate’s egg- good in parts. It is, however, wonderful to have a record of Ian McKellen’s approach to the doomed Dane.

Hamlet will be in UK Cinemas for One Night Only on 27th February 2024.

The Reviews Hub Score

Good in parts

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