×

Film Review: ‘Hamlet’

Bruce Ramsay directs and stars in a modestly inventive but curiously bloodless version of the Bard's timeless tragedy.

With:

Bruce Ramsay, Lara Gilchrist, Peter Wingfield, Gillian Barber, Duncan Fraser, Haid Sutherland, Stephen Lobo, Russell Roberts.

Shakespeare is stripped to essentials in Bruce Ramsay’s spare and streamlined “Hamlet,” a modestly inventive but curiously bloodless version of the Bard’s timeless tragedy. Ramsay, a Canadian-born actor making his feature directing debut, gives a lead performance as the indecisive Dane that seldom rises above the level of a good try, and never really offers a good reason for resetting the narrative in post-WWII England. Still, academics and Shakespeareans may be intrigued (and perhaps amused) by audacious decisions Ramsay has made while trimming and compressing the original text. That might help spur biz in home-screen venues.

In the “Hamlet” according to Ramsay, the title character returns home to a curiously underpopulated palace — more likely an embassy, given that this Elsinore is clearly situated in ’40s London — and moodily indicates his displeasure over the hasty marriage of his recently widowed mom, Gertrude (Gillian Barber), to his too-convivial Uncle Claudius (Peter Wingfield).

Hamlet briefly cheers up after a close encounter with girlfriend Ophelia (Lara Gilchrist), depicted here as a not-entirely-chaste maiden whose dubious virtue worries her brother, Laertes (Haid Sutherland), and her dad, Polonius (Duncan Fraser). But then Hamlet’s buddy Horatio (Stephen Lobo) shows up with spooky news: He claims to have been visited by the ghost of Hamlet’s dead father (Russell Roberts).

Shortly afterward, the restless spirit appears to Hamlet, demanding that his son avenge his murder at the hands of Claudius. It’s more than a little unfortunate that this scene is shot in such a way that a viewer might assume the ghost is seated on a commode in a small bathroom. But never mind: The revenge plot is set in motion, and the film proceeds at a brisk clip toward the climactic accumulation of corpses.

Clocking in at just under 90 minutes, this “Hamlet” is nothing if not built for speed. Ramsay has jettisoned several scenes and entire characters, occasionally to ingenious effect: Hamlet himself stars in the play-within-a-play meant “to catch the conscience of the king,” performing in silent-movie pantomime with Horatio. There is no graveyard interlude — and no “Alas, poor Yorick!” — but the final scenes are cleverly condensed into a mad rush of action that involves a revolver and silverware, not poison-tipped dueling swords.

On the other hand, by trimming the text so ruthlessly, Ramsay removes the reason why Polonius is in the wrong place at the worst possible time. And while there are some effective payoffs to Ramsay’s repositioning of Hamlet as a participant in scenes where he usually doesn’t appear, it’s pointlessly jarring to see Ophelia attempt to strangle her sweet prince before she wanders off to drown herself.

The supporting players — and, of course, their director — deserve credit for some other departures from convention. Fraser’s Polonius is far less of a doddering doofus than the character often is portrayed, and Wingfield actually manages to generate a surprising amount of sympathy for the conniving Claudius.

Michael C. Blundell’s atmospherically lit lensing and Schaun Tozer’s silken score adroitly enhance the overall mood of anxious dread.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Hamlet'

Reviewed online, Houston, Jan. 9, 2014. Running time: 89 MIN.

Production:

(Canada) A Breaking Glass Pictures release of a Hamlet Prods. production. Produced by Bruce Ramsay, Jacquie Gould, John Cassini. Executive producers, Simon Barry, David Hansen.

Crew:

Directed, written by Bruce Ramsay, based on the play by William Shakespeare. Camera (color), Michael C. Blundell;  editors, Lisa Robison, Franco Pante; music, Schaun Tozer; production designer, Paul Joyal; art director, Mheyah Bailey; costume designers, Jenni Gullett; sound, Stephen Weakes, James Shoening; associate producers, Derek Barry, Fiona Barry, Albert Wessel, Shawn McLaughlin; assistant director, Jacqueline Gould; casting, Sean Cossey.

With:

Bruce Ramsay, Lara Gilchrist, Peter Wingfield, Gillian Barber, Duncan Fraser, Haid Sutherland, Stephen Lobo, Russell Roberts.

More Film

  • The Lighthouse, with Willem Dafoe, FICM.

    Willem Dafoe on Robert Pattinson, Choosing Roles, Acting as Adventure

    MORELIA, Mexico – Mindful of how his words could “turn into click-bait,” Willem Dafoe, in Morelia to present his latest film “The Lighthouse,” declined to comment about the looming advent of more streaming giants in the market. “It’s a complex question; we’re still forming ideas on how people see films and how films are being [...]

  • Motherless Brooklyn BTS Edward Norton

    Edward Norton Hails His 'Motherless Brooklyn' Crew for Their 'Career-Best' Work

    Edward Norton wrote, directed, produced and stars in Warner Bros.’ “Motherless Brooklyn,” but he’s quick to give credit to his behind-the-camera collaborators. Norton told Variety: “I think this is career-best work for some of these people.” The film is set in 1950s New York, and the team accomplished a lot on a budget of $26 million [...]

  • Jo Jo Rabbit Once Upon a

    Why Younger Actors Could Be Crashing the Oscar Nominations

    Tatum O’Neal was only 10 years old when she became the youngest actor to win an Oscar in 1974 for her work alongside her father, Ryan O’Neal, in “Paper Moon.”  Besides O’Neal, the only other young Oscar winners have been Anna Paquin, who at age 11 went home with the supporting actress Oscar for “The Piano” [...]

  • Marona's Fantastic Tale

    Tokyo Film Review: 'Marona's Fantastic Tale'

    “Everyone had the right to love and a bone.” That’s just one of the many canine insights served up by “Marona’s Fantastic Tale,” a dazzling expressionistic view of the world through the eyes of a stray dog who wants nothing more than those two comforts. Actually, the unassuming narrator (Lizzie Brochere) — who looks like [...]

  • Brad Pitt Once Upon a Time

    Quentin Tarantino's 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' to Be Re-Released With New Footage

    Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is heading back to the silver screen. Sony Pictures, the studio behind Tarantino’s latest feature, announced the movie will be re-released with 10 minutes of additional footage, including four new scenes. The lengthier version of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” which already clocked in at two [...]

  • Roadside Attractions co-presidents Howard Cohen and

    How Roadside Attractions Fights to Give Indies a Theatrical Path to Success

    In January, work and life partners Howard Cohen and Eric d’Arbeloff went to war. Their 15-year-old film distribution and production company, Roadside Attractions, engaged in heated rounds of bidding for four titles playing at the Sundance Film Festival — the Cinderella story “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” the Mindy Kaling comedy “Late Night,” the political documentary [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content