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Movie Review

Hamlet 1990

Reviewed by: Brett Willis

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Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Teen to Adult
2 hr. 15 min.
Year of Release:
USA Release:
Cover graphic of “Hamlet”, 1990
Featuring: Mel Gibson, Glenn Close, Alan Bates, Paul Scofield, Ian Holm, Helena Bonham Carter, Stephen Dillane, Nathaniel Parker
Director: Franco Zeffirelli
Producer: _____
Distributor: _____

This adaptation of Shakespeare’s famous play is abridged and altered, as are most other versions (it’s been filmed at least 25 times including a 1948 Best Picture Oscar-winner), but preserves the intent of the original. The acting is emotional and convincing, even though everyone is speaking an obsolete dialect of English.

Hamlet, the prince of Denmark (Mel Gibson), is offended that his mother Gertrude (Glenn Close) has married his uncle Claudius (Alan Bates) only a month or so after the death of his father the king (Paul Scofield), and that Claudius has taken the throne for himself. Hamlet’s offense is heightened after his father’s ghost appears to him and reveals that his death wasn’t an accident, that Claudius murdered him by pouring poison into his ear while he slept. Hamlet reasons that the spirit he saw might have been a demon imitating the spirit of his father and deceiving him (good thinking, because in real life that’s in all likelihood what it would have been); so to be certain of Claudius’ guilt, he arranges for a troupe of actors to put on a play with a scene that reproduces the murder. By Claudius’ reaction, Hamlet knows that the accusation is true, and he commits himself to avenging his father. This is a morality play; tragedy follows tragedy as the sins of Claudius ultimately lead to many deaths.

Profanity is limited to exclamations such as “God’s Blood.” There’s some sexual language, such as when the insane Ophelia (Helena Bonham-Carter) flirts suggestively with a guard and recites a poem about how men don’t marry girls who’ve already gone to bed with them (human nature hasn’t changed much in the last 400 years). There is treachery plus several on-screen killings. Besides the occult theme of a ghost visiting the living, there’s a theology of salvation by “works” or by confession of each individual sin. The ghost says that his eternal state is worse because his brother murdered him and didn’t give him a chance to make his most recent sins right. And when Hamlet has a chance to kill Claudius while he’s praying, he passes it up in favor of catching him at some other time when he’s engaged in gross immorality, so as to make sure he goes to Hell. The obvious assumption is that there’s no such thing as assurance of salvation, and people’s eternal destiny may change every day, even several times a day, depending on what they’re doing at that exact moment. But the Bible says eternal life is a free gift and we can know that we have it (Rom 6:23 ). [At the end of his attempted repentance, after Hamlet is out of earshot, Claudius says something profound; unfortunately, that line is cut from this film version. The line is: “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”]

Shakespeare is part of a good education. Even in the Disney comedy “The Absent-Minded Professor”, both Prof. Brainerd and his rival Prof. Ashton quote from “Hamlet”. First-time viewers will be amazed at how many lines from “Hamlet” have become everyday expressions or have been used as movie titles. There’s really no substitute for seeing “Hamlet” as a stage play, in its entirety; but this film version, which moves along quickly and uses well-known actors, could be a stepping-stone for teens to get interested in Shakespeare in general. For that purpose, it’s a better choice than the 1996 Kenneth Branagh version, which adds offensive content that isn’t authentic Shakespeare.

Viewer Comments
As a former senior high English teacher, I used this film as part of my conclusion to the unit on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” I regret now that I polluted the minds of my students. Yes, on the whole, the movie is a masterful representation of the original text—even though it leaves out much material, of course, adds some scenes not in the original text, and manipulates the scenes to fulfill the screen version’s storyline. For purists, know that Fortinbras is not a character in this movie. Why would I say that I polluted my students’ minds? One was mentioned in the above review—although it was glossed over by the reviewer. The scene of Ophelia “flirting suggestively” with the guard is not an accurate description of the scene. Without going into detail, it’s a fully-clothed sex scene. Another such scene happens when the furious Hamlet jumps atop Gertrude (his mother) and violently acts out a incestual rape to express his rage over his mother’s marriage to Claudius (his uncle, now step-father). The only way Gertrude can calm him is to kiss her son passionately to stop his violence. Again, all clothes are on, but the implication is disturbing and visually intoxicating for viewers—especially male viewers. My Ratings: [Very Offensive / 4]
—Bob Painter, age 33