“The Lady Doth Protest Too Much”: ‘Hamlet’ (2009) Review

Posted in The Screening Room by - July 09, 2016

Hamlet is probably the Shakespearean play that I have seen most often, yet also manages to be my least favorite. While there are certainly some fine lines of dialogue in the production, the characters and plot often fail to appeal to me in their self-pity and their slow plodding toward what is an all too swift resolution. With that in mind, I will attempt to review Hamlet (2009) without allowing my general dissatisfaction with the play itself tainting my statements.

Hamlet follows Hamlet, a young Danish Prince. His father has recently died, and his mother married his uncle immediately to maintain the stability of the kingdom. The ghost of the dead King comes to Hamlet, however, and informs him that his death was murder at the hands of the newly crowned uncle. Pledged to avenge the unnatural death of his father, Hamlet feigns madness as he bides his time, seeking proof of the ghost’s words and waiting for the right moment to strike at the incestuous king. In his quest he pushes away many of his former friends and loves, bringing many of them to their untimely deaths. After three hours the play finally comes to an end with Hamlet and his old pal poisoned at each other’s hands, his mother poisoned by the wine meant for Hamlet, and the King Uncle struck down by Hamlet himself. The play is a slow burn, spending more time on the characters’ feelings about the events in which they are wrapped than on the events themselves.

Produced by the Royal Shakespeare Club, this rendition stars David Tenant as the titular hero, Patrick Stewart as the dead King and the usurping Uncle, Pennie Downie as Gertrude the Queen, and Oliver Ford Davies as the foolish and ill-fated adviser. Their performances seem to be constantly on the edge of fantastic but never quite rising above acceptable levels, with no real stand-out displays. Each has a few lines that are quite well done and then seem to sink back into the feeling of the proper nobility of Shakespeare that so often convinces the players to subdue their depictions of the characters.

Visually it appears as though the creative leads wanted to imitate as close as possible the feel of theater, handicapping the benefits of the film for vainly trying to maintain those of the stage. The set pieces manage to be both ornate and drab in their lack of color or substance. Actors speak directly to camera as if were are the audience, thus ignoring the sense of immersion one can achieve with film if shot as if the public is not there at all. Some shots, such as a top-down visual of soldiers marching through Denmark, are clearly shot on the same stage as the courtroom with the soldiers walking in a circle that take them off camera and back again. What abilities of film they do partake in are somewhat jarring, with transition shots filmed from the perspective of security cameras or a handheld that Hamlet carries. Another issue is their desire to bring the setting into modern times. They hint at the film being set during the early 1940s, but only in the design of the soldiers and the inclusion of a few rifles here and there. The rest of stylistic choices remain much the same as they would in any production of Hamlet, crippling what compelling visuals might have arisen from a more modern setting.

The 2009 made for TV version of Hamlet fails to stand out from other productions, even with such talented cast members. The story of Hamlet itself is rather plodding, the set design lacking in individuality, and the visual styling hampered by the inability to adopt the differences between film and stage. It is by no means a bad movie, but at a three-hour run time and with so many other adaptations of the play in existence, there are certainly better choices.

Final Say: Skip It

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Born in Arizona, he currently resides in Denton, Texas. When he isn't watching movies he's playing board games and drinking whatever he can get his hands on. John watches Djimon Honsou movies because he likes Spawn, which had Michael Jai White.
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