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To watch or not to watch: a ranking of hamlet movies

Last semester, I mostly wrote recaps of the Great British Bake Off. While that is all very well and good, I feel as though I need to break into Serious Arts Journalism this semester. Therefore, I have turned to the most Serious of Serious Arts: Hamlet, by William Shakespeare.

Over break, I watched six separate movie adaptations of Hamlet (to the potential detriment of my mental health). Here is my extremely objective and definitive ranking of those six Hamlet films, from the dire to the sublime.

#6: Laurence Olivier, 1948

It is a truth semi-universally acknowledged in the Shakespeare world that Laurence Olivier’s movies simply have not aged well. In my opinion, that is certainly true. Unfortunately, the worst thing about Olivier’s Hamlet is Olivier himself. The supporting cast is passable at the very least, there’s plenty of excellent camera work and use of lighting, and the costumes are amazing (shout out to Horatio’s shiny sleeves). However, Olivier’s performance is stilted, at times unintentionally comedic, and his delivery of nearly all Hamlet’s soliloquies is quite flat. The Freudian interpretation of the play doesn’t help matters, and the less said about Claudius’ death scene, the better.

#5: Kenneth Branagh, 1996

This movie is most notable for being long. Like, really long. Four hours and two minutes, to be exact. It may very well be the only uncut version of Hamlet ever made. There are some good points, particularly Julie Christie as Gertrude and Charlton Heston as the Player King, but then again, something might be wrong if the Player King is a highlight of your production of Hamlet. When it comes down to it, Kenneth Branagh’s portrayal of Hamlet just isn’t my cup of tea. Branagh isn’t that good at serious Shakespearean roles, and the role of Hamlet just doesn’t play to his strengths. And despite all the good moments as you go along, it’s hard to deny that this version of Hamlet is, at its core, rather plodding.

#4: Franco Zeffirelli, 1990

First off: Mel Gibson, who plays Hamlet in this film, is a horrible person. I pirated this on a sketchy Chinese website just to ease my conscience. Setting that aside, this is a serviceable Hamlet. It has the classic Zeffirelli medieval aesthetic, and there is a CASTLE. And HORSES. And OCEAN. Truly a fabulous sense of place. Glenn Close’s Gertrude is excellent (despite a single instance of Freud), and Helena Bonham Carter’s Ophelia is brilliantly unsettling. Hamlet does quite a bit of lurking in an Obi-Wan Kenobi costume, which is quite good. However, the whole production is, in true Zeffirelli form, a bit too basic.

#3: Michael Almereyda, 2000

The famous (or infamous) “Hamlet 2000” stars Ethan Hawke as the title character, and reimagines Hamlet as a moody film student, Denmark as a megacompany, and Claudius as the company’s CEO. There’s lots of excellent atmosphere and lovely ideas. Hamlet as a film student works extremely well, and Julia Stiles is one of my all-time favorite Ophelias. And “to be or not to be” is delivered in a Blockbuster Video, which is iconic. The rushed final fight scene and weaker supporting cast (particularly Gertrude and Polonius) keep this film from being in the top two. Also, having the only non-white actor in the film play the Gravedigger was…a choice. And I’ll leave it at that.

#2: BBC Shakespeare, 1980

Easily the best of the ye olde medieval Hamlets, despite having by far the lowest budget (blame the BBC). Derek Jacobi’s take on Hamlet is excellent, and you really believe he’s cracking up. Lalla Ward is a brilliant Ophelia, and Eric Porter’s Polonius is one of my favorite takes on the role. Patrick Stewart’s Claudius isn’t quite as brilliant as it would later become, but he benefits from being surrounded by an excellent supporting cast. There are some unfortunate incidents of Freud, but other than that, it’s extremely good. Just don’t look too hard at the special effects.

#1: Royal Shakespeare Company, 2010

David Tennant is the best film Hamlet. Full stop. His take on the role is nothing short of incredible. It’s nuanced, often scary, heartbreaking, and just perfect. Patrick Stewart in his second turn as Claudius is jaw-droppingly good, and Penny Downie’s Gertrude is just fabulous. Each one of her lines is delivered to perfection. The top-notch acting in this film, as well as the attention to detail in every dramatic choice, elevates it far above the rest. I have probably seen this film over fifty times, and I discover new things every time I watch it. This is one of my all-time favorite Shakespeare movies, and certainly my favorite film Hamlet.


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