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.