Ensuant to Tony Richardson's resounding success in presenting The Bard's warhorse tragedy at London's Roundhouse, that director of stage and screen predictably adapted his concupiscent rendition to the latter medium so to blazon his brilliant cast beyond the confines of their esteemed venue.
Peradventure those few great Danes honorific of Bard and Burbage who best incarnated the half-mad prince in the century of cinema and of exacting diction substantiated his panoply of jests, woes and wonders were Gielgud, Burton, Jacobi, breathless Smoktunovsky and the great Nicol Williamson. His cynosure comportment commensurate to a towering stature, the Scottish histrion is a revelation in the lead: gently lulling and chiding in lament, ruminating with halting and consummate deliberation, expectorate of enounced celerity in sneering commination to avenge fratricide. Addressing audiences with soliloquies irrespective of a fourth wall, he astonishes by his own pronouncement of awe, terrifies with seething harangues in execration of a malign agnate, delights with vulpine ripostes to thwart spies, charms in dalliance and elicits from the most unyielding heart his own exalted tides of abhorrence, adoration, mirth, devotion, incertitude -- ever as droll, dour, girding, amative, volatile and wily as any personation of the tortured Dane, himself an embodiment of indecision. Jacobi's Hamlet is surely an effort of better measure in exercise of mellifluous articulation to aureate verbiage, tickling ears in stringent consonance to the character's pathos, yet he hadn't a tenth of the unflinching gravitas that charges Williamson's characterization. To best expose the inferiority of Olivier or the dread Branagh by polarity, view in sequence either the former's overestimated, egregiously reductive feature of 1948 or latter's complete yet tawdry Hollywood production of arrant ostentation afore this. Of this oppugnance, Williamson's eminence is underscored by disparity.
As punic Claudius, Anthony Hopkins cunningly understates the regal venality of the traitor-king with a disarming charisma exceeding his supercilious smarm, but spares not a drip of that monstrous dynast's desperate vitriol or artful connivance in service to intrigues. Nigh a year the junior and six inches short of his nephew, this disproportion of Hopkins' regent only emphasizes the turpitude of his accession. Ably supervened upon Constance Cummings, Judy Parfitt's joyous Gertrude is first enraging for a nonchalance in neglect of her son's bereavement and reverence for her precipitant betrothed...until Act IV, when her guilelessness and maternal constancy are confirmed in an affective enactment that cleverly repudiates any inkling of incest. In contradistinction, salacious osculations and coquetry reciprocated of Laertes (Michael Pennington) and Ophelia (Marianne Faithfull) bestow a context of prurience, so that the conflict of her affections and her aggrieved brother's vengeance assume a newly incited aspect. Pennington's performance is conventional, but his furious score vociferated rivals that of Williamson's, and magnetism whilst caressing his comely sister nearly on par to hers -- prefiguring his own lauded exploit in the lead a decade thenceforth. Substituted for the stageplay's Francesca Annis, Faithfull's circumscribed emotive range relegates her to least of the players herein. Sleekly gorgeous, hers is an adequate yet unimaginative delivery, but even she arouses a stirring commiseration in her terminal scene, madly vocalizing an angelic timber for her unworthy sovereign. To genteel Horatio, Gordon Jackson imparts an affable appeal, his earmark conceit of spectacles dramatically abstracted in portent and a palliative temperament as monitory counsel and foil to the manic prince. Mark Dignam's Polonius bears fruit not a day fresher than Pennington's scion, though his impeccable deadpan carriage utterly beseems the ineptitude and backstair betise of that officious Lord Chamberlain. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are realized by Ben Aris and Clive Graham as an imposing, plausibly shrewd conspiratorial pair. In his penultimate feature film roles, a wizened Roger Livesey first roils poignancy reciting lachrymose and presaging verse in treatment of Pyrrhus as the First Player, proclaiming malefaction as dramaturgical villain Lucianus, then redounds brisk charm to a portrayal of the fifth act's wry gravedigger (alas, there is but one; paired with another adept player, he might have bettered the bantering raillery of the first scene's opening diversion) with mingled mirth and sorrow, pilfering a delightful moment from the lead as the only figure who entertains his wit in equal stride.
To accommodate a running time of two hours, Richardson halved the second quarto and compensated for this abridgment with audacious yet judicious measures: by transposing the crucial first and second scenes of the third act, Hamlet's derision of Polonius (now following his admonishment of Ophelia) adopts a novel, minimized revulsion. This permutation entailed new dialogue scripted by Richardson in a credible approximation of authentic Elizabethan verse. Scarcely an exchange is untouched by contraction, yet none of these abbreviations suckle at the marrow of discourse.
Shot on a minuscule budget as and where staged, Richardson's picture -- the premiere Hamlet committed to color stock -- profits from its director's ingenious exploitation of fiscal and spatial restrictions. Jocelyn Herbert's production design is at least so spare as any devised by Welles; interiors and exteriors alike are represented by stark, tenebrous sets sparsely furnished with period fixtures, and the battlements wherein the slain monarch is beheld by a brick tunnel -- umbratile locales reflecting verbalized despondence. Clothed likewise in dark Renaissance garb, the thespians are often nearly camouflaged before their gothic surroundings, subjects of a reductivist aesthetic that fixes any viewer's ambling attention to performance. Further imperative is the director's constricted composition, comprised chiefly of close-ups and close medium shots necessitated by the Roundhouse's demarcations and admitting no quantum of error in emphasis of empyreal performances. Manifest as luminescence to evoke in the viewer mere esthesis of presence and deflect nary a second from Williamson or Jackson, the Ghost is only heard: voiced by Williamson in affected baritone treated with echo, accompanied by a sonorous drone courtesy of Delia Derbyshire. Sprightly anthems and fanfares punctuating The Mouse-trap and conclusive duel alike, and a mournful coronach of percussion and horns thereafter were composed by Patrick Gowers.
Only this feature's editing is objectionable, cut in evident haste to lurch each scene to next with maladroit abruptness. Incredibly, editor Charles Rees was aided by a department of three, whose efforts suggest exceptional ineptitude!
From the author of Romeo and Juliet, reads a first flummoxing tagline of theatrical poster, ...The love story of Hamlet and Ophelia. This blazing attempt to capitalize on Zeffirelli's commercial triumph a year anterior gantlets stupefaction itself; either Richardson or a copywriter in Columbia Pictures' or Filmways' employ was disposed to strident patronage of a benighted multitude whose appetite for Shakespeare on celluloid was affirmed by Romeo and Juliet's box office success. Notwithstanding, a second passage was penned in verity: The Hamlet of our time... For our time. Faith, but in retrospect of its enduring potency and relish, this blurb is owed redaction... For all time.