Hamlet played by Innokenty Smoktunovsky.
Directed by Grigori Kozintsev.
When I began counting Hamlets, I took the decision that a production only counted, as per the about page, if “I've seen or heard it from start to finish through a whole production”. The other more secret rule was that it had to be based on Shakespeare’s text and follow the same plot, which led to the offshoot list “Almost Hamlet” as a place to put The Lion King or The Banquet and also films that followed translations of Shakespeare’s text, which didn’t matter much with Aki Kaurismaki’s Hamlet liikemaailmassa (Hamlet Goes Business) or Akira Kurosawa’s Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru (The Bad Sleep Well) since both deviate quite considerably from Shakespeare’s version of the story.
Not so, Grigori Kozintsev’s 1964 film which offers a direct, albeit heavily truncated Russian translation by Boris “Zhivago” Pasternak of the text that goes from “ghost to jest to death” and is probably “more” Hamlet than some of the other versions which I’ve nodded through without controversy (the Meyer twins). It even has the whole of Fortinbras tucked within. So without much consideration I’m nodding Innokenty Smoktunovsky through too as my thirty-third Hamlet. If Peter Brooks says it’s of special interest and “it has one gigantic merit - everything in it is related to the director's search for the sense of the play - his structure is inseparable from his meaning”, that’s good enough for me.
Perhaps the film's most famous element is the score by Shostakovich which has developed something of an afterlife through orchestral suite versions. Having heard the pieces in isolation (notably during the BBC Proms in 2007 which themed themselves around music inspired by Shakespeare), I’m quite surprised by how brazenly they particularly underscore the expected “moments of charm” (for want of a better phrase), bursting in from apparent silence during a soliloquy or Yorrick, booming and bombast and melodramatic sometimes working against the on-screen action. It's most effective in the appearance of Hamlet Snr on the battlements who’s dark moonlight silhouette is greeted by a maelstrom.
From the opening shots, Kozintsev bases his letterbox imagery on Hamlet’s line that Denmark’s a prison. We see first the crashing waves surrounding Elsinore, then shots of Hamlet riding back to into the palace before a drawbridge is pulled, portcullis drop and windows shut. Throughout the film, characters are shown behind wooden slats and balastrades, Hamlet especially shown speaking from behind bars which only disappear from view when he’s taking action rather than brooding. During “To Be Or Not To Be” which like all the other soliloquy’s is given as voice-overed internal monologue, he broods on the rocks looking out towards sea, suggesting that he’s contemplating two forms of escape from this Alcatraz.
The director is clearly influenced by the Olivier version though as the usefully thorough Wikipedia article notes that influence was negative, Kozintsev going out of his way to do the opposite of Sir Larry not least in emphasising the political over the domestic. He portrays Laertes as a kind of revolutionary seeking to overthrow Claudius even though as I’ve finally noticed after watching this production, even if he’d succeeded he’s still have Fortinbras to contend with. You could almost imagine that in agreeing to carry out Claudius’s plan (a decision made off screen here) he’s still eyeing the crown and once Hamlet is gone he’ll still have the king in his sights.
Not that this Hamlet is easily killed. Kozintsev works hard to make him less of a procrastinator. This prince has few reservations about following his father’s spirit, is cut from Claudius’s confessional so he doesn’t lose his single easy chance of killing his enemy and most remarkably a whole new scene is inserted showing him taking action against Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on board ship, something I’ve only ever seen before in Tom Stoppard’s play. He even dies mutely, simply, with "the rest is silence". Arguably Smoktunovsky carries all of this rather too subtly and because he’s rarely shown in close-up, it’s sometimes difficult to gauge the extent of his inner turmoil, only now and then given to outbursts of emotional energy which quickly dissipate.
Strengthening Hamlet’s protagonist credentials does have the effect of weakening the rest of the cast. You could argue that Kozintsev is trying to reflect Hamlet’s own slackening awareness of his family, but it’s almost impossible for me to say anything illuminating about any of the rest of the characters, other than that Gertrude’s attitude does definitively change once Hamlet has exposed her husband’s murderous actions and that Claudius seems to be modelled after Holbein’s portrait of Henry VIII (or Charles Laughton for that matter). Anastasiya Vertinskaya’s Ophelia is especially wan though she does have one of the best introductory scenes I’ve seen, practicing her ballet moves like a doll in a music box.
Grigori Kozintsev's Hamlet is out now from Mr Bongo Films. Review copy supplied.