Two popular film renditions of Shakespeare s great tragedy Hamlet present us with two very different interpretations of the title role. In the first act of each we come to know Franco Zeffirelli s Hamlet, played by Mel Gibson, as authentic, believable, never exaggerated and not altogether puzzling; in stark contrast, Kenneth Branagh directs and plays a Hamlet who is fantastic, larger than life, intensely tortured, and enigmatic. Arguably Zeffirelli s interpretation, taken on a purely literal level, is more true to the playwright s intent (regardless of its fairly free rearranging and cutting of lines and passages); yet for that his Hamlet is somewhat lacking in the complexity of character so central to the drama. Branagh s Hamlet, although initially less plausible, ultimately draws us in toward the real themes of the play in a much more convincing and satisfying way.
The first and most immediately obvious contrast between the two films is that of setting, illustrating the main point of this essay. While Zeffirelli remains historically faithful to the text at a literal level, Branagh s nineteenth-century setting, retaining all the claustrophobic hierarchical qualities of the medieval court, provides the modern audience with an empathic bridge into Hamlet s world. The twentieth century audience might feel themselves too far removed from the medieval setting to be able to identify with the characters as human beings struggling with human issues issues that transcend the bounds of history. A nineteenth-century Hamlet is not so far removed from our own experience that we are distracted by the setting, as we are by the unfamiliar trappings of a medieval Hamlet.
A pronounced difference between the two Hamlets is the way they interact with those around them. This difference has profound effects both on the development of tension and on the complexity of the interpretation of the character. Zeffirelli s somewhat sulky Prince of Denmark often speaks very directly to those he is addressing. With Branagh we get the sense that his words are muttered as much for his own benefit as for anyone else s, emphasising the turmoil present within his mind. A good example is Hamlet s first line, spoken in the presence of Claudius: A little more than kin, and less than kind (I.ii.65). The line is sullen in tone as spoken by Gibson, whereas Branagh s voice-over, though unexpected, immediately establishes a troubled internal monologue. And while the king appears obviously unsettled in the former, the audience is invariably more unsettled by the latter. Responding to his mother later in the same scene with Aye, madam, it is common (I.ii.74), the same contrast is evident. Zeffirelli has Hamlet accuse Gertrude face to face, while Branagh spits the line almost under his breath without making eye contact. Branagh s rendering, emphasising the rift between Hamlet and his mother, actually causes more dramatic tension since each must suffer separately with the ironic implications. The audience is perturbed not just by what Hamlet says, but also by the extent to which each character is alone.
Too literal an interpretation results in a loss of irony, as is evident from further comparison of these two versions of Hamlet. Again in the same scene, after Hamlet has ignored his uncle and agreed to his mother s entreaties for him to stay at Elsinore I shall in all my best obey you, madam (I.ii.120) Branagh has Claudius appraise Hamlet s utterance thus:
Why, tis a loving and a fair reply.
Be as ourself in Denmark .
This gentle and unforced accord of Hamlet
Sits smiling to my heart (I.ii.121-4)
It is quite evident to the audience that Claudius brushes over Hamlet s hostility to save face. Zeffirelli takes Claudius out of the scene altogether and has Gertrude speak Claudius words interesting and even necessary with respect to the way he directed the rest of the scene, but lacking the tension and irony Branagh s rendering creates so well.
The way a character interacts with others reflects his own internal state of being. Zeffirelli s Hamlet is substantially calmer, less tortured and better grounded in reality than Branagh s. As a result, however, Zeffirelli s Hamlet needs a different outlet for his emotions. The one he chooses is less mature: a sulky, angry disposition communicating a sense of feeling short-changed. Right after Hamlet has seen the Ghost, for instance, he is completely and understandably overwhelmed. Branagh has Hamlet fall to the ground in the forest unable to stand up any longer, clutching the solid earth as a reminder of what is real. But for Zeffirelli s Hamlet, the task he is burdened with simply seems one beyond his years as he bangs his sword against the castle turrets in heated frustration. Zeffirelli s Hamlet is realistic: we too would be scared and would scarcely know what to do in similar circumstances. But this strict literal realism is arguably unnecessary and even undesirable given the epic dimensions of this play. More significant are the thoughts and sentiments within Hamlet s mind; Branagh s character is deeply tormented, torn apart by internal conflict from the outset, a characteristic that will make his coming failures and his indecision all the more plausible and maddening.
Taking a step further into Hamlet s troubled psyche, we come to his interaction with the ghost of his father. Zeffirelli opts for a realistic dialogue that, were it not for the content, could take place between any two men. This ghost is solid to the point of being pedestrian. Interestingly, Branagh s much more conventionally scary ghost actually puts greater demands on the audience, recreating for them a hint of the terror and confusion Hamlet must feel. Is this towering monster real, or a product of Hamlet s fevered brain? Is this the father of his nightmares or the one whose death he professes to want to avenge? Here Branagh echoes Laurence Olivier who in his 1948 film shoots the Ghost scene through the back of Hamlet s head, and has Hamlet himself utter the words Horrible, horrible, most horrible (I.v.80). Compared to the more literal Zeffirelli, Branagh leaves us pondering an important question: where does the boundary lie between Hamlet s external and internal world, between his conscious and unconscious mind?
Kenneth Branagh s Hamlet is intense and larger than life, as are many aspects of his cinematic interpretation. But because the interpretation is both consistent throughout the film and, more importantly, consistent with the larger than life but universal human themes explored by Shakespeare, it succeeds in ways that Zeffirelli s Hamlet can only dream of.