A friend of mine who works for a British company had to spend a few months in England at one time. Lucky woman, she was able to see David Tennant as Hamlet, with the Royal Shakespeare Company, live and in person. I had to wait for the DVD of the movie made about six months after the play’s run ended, and then make time to watch it when I was in the right mood for it. It was worth the wait. Patrick Stewart completely owned the role of Claudius, and Tennant’s Hamlet felt, to me, more like a real person than I was accustomed to in performances.
I chose a snowy afternoon after I’d been out and about in the cold. I made myself a large bowl of buttered popcorn and settled in to watch.
“Hamlet” was the first Shakespeare I ever saw live. I was in high school, and went to the theater on a class trip. I remember loving the swordfight at the end. Over the years, I’ve seen a couple of different movie versions in theaters: the Mel Gibson version from 1990 with Glenn Close as Gertrude, and the Kenneth Branagh full version from 1996. This new version is my current favorite, edging out the Branagh.
The play is performed in modern dress; for a good portion of it, David Tennant is barefoot with jeans and a t-shirt, or barefoot with a tuxedo. He’s a very physical actor, not just when he’s making Hamlet-is-crazy faces, but when he’s flinging himself around a room. The motion helped me to feel Hamlet’s turmoil, as if it was too much for his body to contain. Yet in other scenes, such as some of the soliloquies, he’s so still that the air seems to vibrate with tension instead. I think playing to a camera rather than an audience made a difference to me, because the camera could catch every nuance of expression, both physical and vocal. I strongly suspect those close-ups gave a very different feeling than the same speeches would have in live performance. Overall, the tension was incredible throughout. I kept realizing that I was leaning in close to the screen.
All the performances were excellent; of the actors that were new to me, I particularly liked Edward Bennett as Laertes. Coincidentally, I had seen him recently in the movie “War Horse.”
Rather than me going on and on, you can watch the movie online for yourself at PBS.org, and I think a few other locations.