In one of the most accessible versions of “Hamlet” yet committed to film, Campbell Scott’s self-helmed Great Dane is more than ever a man for our time. Falling somewhere between Kenneth Branagh’s fastidious grandeur and Ethan Hawke’s slouchingly colloquial take on the troubled prince, the veteran thesp — who returns to the role after several legit runs — injects considerable humor and lots of edgy anger into his screen version, which runs a reasonable three hours. Fulsome text is most notably trimmed where oedipal angle is concerned, emphasizing instead the intensely erotic connection between Blair Brown’s youngish Gertrude and her new husband, the power-hungry Claudius, played by Jamey Sheridan at his steeliest. As the eighth filmed take on the play in only a decade, Scott’s “Hamlet” faces an uphill battle in finding new auds. Existing ones, however, will be fascinated by the variations he wrings out of these familiar themes, and pic should enjoy a brief theatrical run before getting another slot with Hallmark, which last December aired its handsome production only on the small Odyssey cable network. It will probably get longest life as a video-and-disc study guide for college students, for whom it could prove almost as definitive — and far more easily digestible — than Branagh’s textually complete version.
This “Hamlet,” set in the late 1800s in a crumbling seaside mansion in an unnamed place (it was shot on Long Island), gets off to a somewhat slow start with the king’s ghost making a less-than-fearsome entry. The prince’s own first appearance, in a black headband that makes him look like Zorro’s moody assistant, is also iffy, but the pic steadily picks up steam from there. Once the play-within-the-play begins, affording Scott, co-helmer Eric Simonson (who directed one of Scott’s two stage “Hamlets”) and production designer Christopher Shriver a chance to show off, things never slow down. The “to be or not to be” soliloquy is particularly meaty, with Hamlet’s rush to self-abnegation made literal by a failed attempt to slit his wrists.
Setting and thesps in black vests and corseted dresses bring appropriately fin-de-siecle feeling to the work, evoking the final phase of European aristocracy before WWI, with the highborn squabbling uselessly over empires already in free fall. In this context, Hamlet’s lack of enthusiasm to play the royalty game becomes quite comprehensible.
What works less well is on Polonius’ side of the aisle. Scott goes beyond the usual color-blind casting by making the old man’s whole family black. It’s an interesting conceit, both emphasizing and overriding clan differences, especially with Roscoe Lee Browne as the puffed-up, self-absorbed adviser to the new king. But his offspring aren’t so effective: Lisa Gay Hamilton is too much a figure of mature rectitude to play the swooning Ophelia; as her brother, Laertes, Roger Guenveur Smith is simply too remote to be a sharply defined counterpart to the sometimes hesitant anti-hero. Smith whispers his lines when the strength of the production is chiefly how clearly and naturally everyone else delivers theirs (except for Sam Robards, who likewise flattens his lines as Fortinbras).
Michael Imperioli and Marcus Giamatti are good as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, here seen as eye-rolling factotums that Hamlet basically wills himself to trust (momentarily), and John Benjamin Hickey makes a memorable Horatio.
Also striking is Gary DeMichele’s piano-and-trumpet-centered score, which offers a kind of medieval jazz commentary on the action. Dan Gillham’s lensing, which occasionally rests on the buildings’ cornices and gargoyle-like adornments, is straightforward, with just enough interpretive movement to heighten the drama.