Hamlet–David Tennant-style

From the get-go, I like it. It’s modern, but not so modern (a-la Ethan Hawke’s version, which I like, but am not die hard over). It’s also full-text, which I can most certainly get behind, and it’s really the only kind I can ever truly love. There’s also the unexpected appearance of Patrick Stewart as Old Hamlet, hinting at the idea that Claudius and Old Hamlet may have been twins? I think this may be a contributor to Gertrude’s hasty reassignment of her affections.

The first thing that separates us from our beloved Doctor and this new portrayal is the hair, or lack thereof. He does seem rather emo, though that’s a common interpretation, which I agree with.

Claudius is a really good jerk, making jokes at the death of Old Hamlet; I’d never read those lines in that manner.

Laertes is often portrayed as weak, but not completely dim-witted, but even better is the idea that the “brief” Polonius is literally pulling the strings, telling him exactly what to say.

Oh my goodness! The very first soliloquy is amazing. “Oh, that too, too sullied flesh would melt…” He literally talks to the camera here. This is often avoided in movie adaptations, but it’s treated like a stage play at times, which really works here.

The farewell scene between Ophelia and Laertes is properly awkward, and Polonius is appropriately stodgy, repetitive, and full of himself, annoying everyone around him. As he should!

Patrick Stewart just does it right as Old Hamlet, playing a tortured spirit and yet really demonstrating love for his son, not just rage.

There is a visual cue of Hamlet’s decision to play mad. He is not mad, but so very distraught and disturbed that he seems it. He’s so passionate about his cause to root out his uncle’s crime that he can easily put his “antic disposition” on.

During the “to be or not to be” section, Hamlet is wearing a bright orange shirt with muscles on it! Amazing! I completely agree with their interpretation, that he knew Claudius and Polonius were watching him. This shifts the scene from a mere contemplation to a show of madness. Unfortunately, poor Ophelia, like most women at the time, was caught in the crossfire.

Quickly, the scene moves to the “fishmonger” scene, and Hamlet insults Polonius so very well, and Polonius just doesn’t get it. He only sees the “madness.”

Hamlet runs rings around Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, just making them confess their guilt with them not even realizing it. Smoothly moving into the scene with the players, Hamlet changes into madness again, really enjoying himself it seems, and we have a great actor as the lead player, with Hamlet watching as attentively as a child on Saturday morning in front of the TV during the cartoons.

David Tennant is such a physical actor, with such great enthusiasm and affectation, that he really demonstrates the extremeties and turmoil that Hamlet is going through. He is so conflicted, torn, which literally splits his character in two and goes from morbidly introspective to dancing around with glee.

That being said, all of Hamlet’s soliloquys are brilliant and intense, revealing the true nature of his sanity, yet preserving the nature of his preoccupation.

I have never read “The Mouse-trap” as a comedy, but it so quickly moves from slapstick to deep drama. It really demonstrates what Hamlet is looking for in Claudius and Gertrude’s reactions through a hand-held camera. It’s pure brilliance.

Just after the play, we have the recorder scene. One which I’ve often overlooked. He pulls out a recorder and accuses Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of their betrayal. He says, “You cannot play upon me” like a recorder. I’ve honestly never gotten the gravity of that scene until now. He is furious with them for their betrayal.

He. Nails. It.
Then immediately goes to funny crazy after being murderous and dark toward them–he plays “Hot Cross Buns.” C’mon! Once more proving that David Tennant is bloody brilliant.

Then, during Patrick Stewart’s soliloquy about prayer, he is just so devious, so dark, so very unrepentant and frightening. I can’t even properly relay the brilliant fright that comes with Hamlet whipping out a switchblade and nearly murdering Claudius while he is “praying.” Completely murderous. I’d never have guessed, if I didn’t know the play, that he wasn’t going to kill Claudius. Yet, there is NO question of Claudius’ guilt. He is guilty, and doesn’t exactly care about the consequences.

The “closet” scene is properly terrifying for Gertrude It’s seriously intense. I’m so happy they didn’t go the Oedipal route, because I’d have turned it off then. That’s my test of an acceptable adaptation. They do well. We absolutely realize that Gertrude is innocent, and they play the ghost in that scene very well. Hamlet is the only one who sees it, but it interacts with Gertruse as well. Nice touch. This is a seriously moving scene.

I’m always intrigued by Hamlet’s tragic flaw, which is decision-making. He can’t make a decision and act on it, he waffles so much. He just can’t act. But, when he does, he kills the wrong man. Thus, condemning himself to death. He would have been just fine if he’d have killed Claudius outright in vengeance. But he commits an un-called-for murder. He must die. I always feel bad for him at that point.

David Tennant’s inherent physical comedy works well when hiding Polonius’ body, and also when he goes head to head with Claudius.

…and then we have crazy, crazy Ophelia. This is the most insane I’ve seen Ophelia since Kate Winslet. It’s, frightening, pathetic, and just sad.

Claudius’ confrontation with Laertes is brilliant. Patrick Stewart just stares him down with cold tenacity. He is confident and a force to be reckoned with. He is supremely confidant.

I love this gravedigger scene! The guy plays it as a straight man, which works very well in the absurdity of the entire scene. This is one of my favorite scenes of the play, and it’s played so simply here that it’s even more poignant.

Truly, the scene at Ophelia’s grave is tear-worthy, for she is an innocent. Hamlet loves her, truly. She was a casualty of the situation, typical of the culture at the time.

Claudius is still icy cold. He displays a bit of a smile when Hamlet and Laertes scuffle at the graveside. He’s such a manipulator that he’s fine with having Laertes do his dirty work for him.

I love it when people interpret Osric as absurd–just like Robin Williams in the Kenneth Branagh version. He’s just a kisser-upper. In this case, a sleazeball with a gigantic grin. Hamlet runs circles around Osric, confusing and befuddling him, and pointing out his every flaw.

“We defy augury: There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come it will be now. If it be now, yet it will come. The readiness is all.”

Hamlet Act 5, Scene 2, 219-223

Hamlet fully comprehends his fate. He realizes he is about to die. It must be done. He will kill Claudius, but he will not come out of this alive, as Laertes must also have his revenge.

In this, Gertrude, I think, realizes that the cup from which she drinks is poisoned. She purposefully takes the risk from her son as contrition for her hasty betrayal of Hamlet, both Old and New.

Patrick Stewart’s decision to drink from the cup is a conscious one. It’s deliberate, not forced by Hamlet, as in many interpretations. He knows he’s been caught, there’s nothing for it but to die. He retains that last shred of “dignity” in choosing to die, rather than being forced to it.

All in all, this is the best adaptation of Hamlet that I’ve ever seen. Kenneth Branagh’s version is a close second, with Mel Gibson’s and Ethan Hawke’s versions doing pretty well. But don’t get me started on Olivier’s version…blah!

Watch David Tennant’s outstanding performance here on PBS.org.


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