Blu-Ray Review: ‘Hamlet’ With ‘Doctor Who’ Star David Tennant
CHICAGO – Having been a theater major who openly knelt at the altar of William Shakespeare for many of my formative stage years and then later became a film critic, I believe the number of versions of “Hamlet” I have seen to number around eight - three times on stage and five on celluloid. And yet I still was blown away by BBC’s production of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre version of the timeless play.
Blu-Ray Rating: 4.5/5.0
The first version of “Hamlet” available on Blu-ray (Branagh’s 1996 version will be available in August) also happens to be the best in years. The modernized-but-faithful telling of the Bard’s classic tale of betrayal and revenge was a critical smash when it premiered at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and someone at the BBC was smart enough to suggest that perhaps a filmed record of the show might be in order.
To be fair, this is not merely a “filmed play”. While it’s clear to see what the stage version looked like with its all-black floor and unusual costumes, this was shot single-camera, allowing for close-ups and a more theatrical film aesthetic. The charismatic star of “Doctor Who” until recently, David Tennant, takes on the role of Prince Hamlet with Patrick Stewart playing both King Claudius and the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Penny Downie takes on Queen Gertrude, Oliver Ford Davies is memorable as Polonius, Peter de Jersey appears as Horatio, Mariah Gale devours the role of Ophelia, and Edward Bennett plays Laertes. The film was directed, as it was on-stage, by Gregory Doran, the Chief Associate Director of the RSC.
Hamlet was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on May 4th, 2010.
Photo credit: BBC
“Hamlet” has been told so many times that the twists and turns of its well-known plot aren’t nearly as essential to its telling as the details. It’s the little things that distinguish Doran’s version of “Hamlet”. Take for example the legendary “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquoy. Doran makes the daring decision to shoot the monologue almost entirely in extreme close-up, counting on the incredibly expressive face of Tennant to sell the piece without the typical pacing or other blocking so many directors use to enhance the scene.
And Tennant absolutely closes the sale. This is my favorite filmed portrayal of Hamlet since Olivier (and, to be fair, it’s completely different than Sir Laurence’s). There’s an emotional rawness to Tennant that’s perfect for the role of a man who is literally turning himself inside out with each revelation of betrayal. (I loved the costume choice during the “To Be” soliloquy and the scene with Ophelia that follows to put Hamlet in a shirt that looks like you can see his insides.) Tennant brings the same charm as he did to Doctor Who, which makes the idea that Hamlet is a well-liked Prince an easy sell, but he lays his soul on the stage with a truly remarkable performance. Tennant’s work is all the more amplified by Stewart’s typically fantastic supporting work in that the man formerly known as Picard has such buttoned-up, refined, eloquent style that it serves as the perfect villainous counterpoint to Tennant’s emotional rawness.
It helps the production that the Blu-ray release of “Hamlet” is visually flawless, bringing the immediacy and urgency of the play right into your living room. The release also includes an audio commentary with Gregory Doran, Sebastian Grant and Chris Seager, and a brief making-of featurette.