Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Гамлет (1964) ~ A Quick Look

This essay is the outcome of a recent viewing of the celebrated adaptation Gamlet (`Hamlet', 1964, directed by Grigori Kozintsev).

This movie deserves a special mention purely for personal reasons; after a gap of nearly six months I have watched a film in its entirety.

A racy, gripping, pared-down Hamlet, not the bumbling three-hour act that we habitually see, coming from reverent classicists like Olivier (who has the dubious distinction of putting out the worst of the celebrated Hamlet portrayals), Branagh (who perhaps took a cue from Kozintsev by setting his version in Victorian England), and the rest of them (Kurosawa's version does justice to Hamlet, but he has considerably altered it), where we are left wondering how a procrastinator and philosopher like Hamlet would ever find the resourcefulness or the energy to match the revenge-crazed Laertes in a swordfight. In my opinion, this is perhaps how Shakespeare would have directed a Hamlet film. Of course, it is unquestionably Romantic (even though the costumes would place the action somewhat earlier to that). It is surprisingly contemporary, and the hero, as well as everyone else, is remarkably modern. As someone has already remarked, this is the only version which looks like a film. The castle, about which everything revolves, is a real Estonian castle. So is everything else–real and cold–and the attention to detail is breathtaking. In a close-up of a tapestry (lasting about five seconds), the director successfully conveys the "reality" of the production–we're sue that that wall curtain can only belong to a castle; it is not a piece of textile that you can buy. It is a reminder of the immense pains which must have gone in to the production of such a smooth, cavalier film. But there are other reminders as well. Ophelia is shown under clear water, and not floating; Hamlet takes light steps on a steep flight of steps (indicating how well familiar he is with those forbidding steps—‘my backyard’), and the gravedigger converses and sups as if it was a matter of course. There are heightened moments (you cannot avoid the fanfare and the drama in Hamlet), but Shostakovich's regal music score raises it out of the earthly plane. The horses are shown in full gallop, and we are aware of the painful absence of any report of hooves. Suddenly there is the rap of hooves over the drawbridge, and suddenly we become aware of being in the presence of a supremely talented director who has done all the homework for our benefit.

The movie has been shot in wide-angle (aspect ratio 2.5), with a sepia-tone to it. Sets and costumes are superb, and the castle plays a tremendous role as the only prop. Everything of importance is tied intimately to the castle and its inescapable confines; the castle is never shown in its 'form.' There are a few times when Hamlet breaks free (only Hamlet is able to do so; but so can the gravedigger and the commoners), and at such times (which includes the famous soliloquy where Hamlet mostly has his back towards the viewer), his thoughts are free, and borders on the resolute decisions that he comes close to making. In true Hamlet fashion, however, reality has its own way of presenting things but Hamlet is ready for any eventuality. He is supremely talented as a swordsman, articulate as a conscientious son and a citizen and a Dane (for all purposes he is a dashing Soviet, but do let's keep up appearances). By the time we get acquainted with him we fall in love with him but he is already a distracted lover who is irked rather than amused by the innocent purity of his sweetheart (and in true Shakespearean vein, the adaptation does not speak anything about Hamlet's romantic past or anything else).

The meeting with the ghost (the first of the many breathtaking shots in the movie) gives Hamlet's life a definitive turn. He might have been a brooding swordsman or an intellectual or both rolled into one, but the ghost propels his son headlong into a flurry of difficult choices. To make things easy for him, the ghost, who has the advantage of knowing nearly everything related to the murder, offers Hamlet the easy way of sparing his mother, which must have been his most vexing problem. But this Hamlet is surely not tied down to his mother's skirt-strings. Prince Hamlet is heroic, accomplished, and in every way the true heir to the throne. The death of King Hamlet and the subsequent coronation of Claudius, followed by the new king's marriage to the deceased king's queen, all managed quite admirably, has somehow appeased the citizens and they seem reconciled to the realities. They (as well as Hamlet) are not aware of what happened, nor do they seem to care. The castle and the insinuations that go inside are as far away from the common man and his homestead as the stars from the earth. Much like how it was really like in those days (the adapters have taken the liberty of placing the story in the 16-th century rather than in the Dark Ages), the common man, or the king's subjects, is hardly more than an occasional speck on the screen. It is palace intrigue at its dramatic best, and all the reins seem to be safe in the hands of Claudius until a few things conspire against the usurper. In the absence of any real talent (his only claim to the throne being his cunning—Claudius is perhaps the most cunning of all those in a palace which was perhaps teeming with scheming ministers and soldiers), Claudius has to constantly forge and foster uneasy relations with very dangerous men each of whom could dispatch him. And in the end, his worst dreams come to torment him and he is disgusted with the reflection of his own face in the mirror.

Among the highlights of the film, the ones I thought truly outstanding include the scene where Hamlet is summoned by his mother after the play. In a brilliant sweep, he razes his mother to the ground and finally stops short with an empty share into the distance, at which his mother finally breaks and gives in. Few cinematic occasions equal, let alone surpass, this sequence in its originality and sheer madness. Hamlet trips with a light step, playing dangerously close to the borderline, yet everyone has to listen to him and keep their distance because he fires off idea after unnerving idea in the fashion of a raving lunatic. Yet everyone is aware that this is the man who alone has been hurt by the death (murder) of his father. Little by little, as he performs alone to deliver the shocks that would finally implode the royal family in the catastrophic finale, rehearsing his lines and improvising his reactions, Hamlet pulls everyone into his private gloom. Closest to him in her innocence, truly unable to fathom the depths a kind-hearted soul could suddenly reveal, Ophelia breaks first and dies in a gully. Ophelia is meant to be a prop, for this is a serious man-to-man affair. It is the tragic story where a brave and worthy man has to sacrifice his family and all that he loved—in addition to himself—to destroy a coward. And how this unfolds over two-and-a-half hours of unsurpassed cinematic compression, while retaining poise in the occasional long-take, is an immense exhibition of supremely gifted adaptation (Kozintsev and Pasternak) of what has been called, along with Oedipus Rex, a perfect dramatic plot. There can be nothing, better than this.

02:21 22-Jul-09

[1270 words in 50 min]

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