37 Christopher Plummer



Hamlet played by Christopher Plummer.
Directed by Philip Saville.

Woosh. Ever since seeing a clip of Plummer's Hamlet narrating the players as part of the Playing The Dane documentary broadcast during the Bard on the Box season in 1994, I've been more than intrigued by Hamlet at Elsinore in which BBC and Danish Radio co-produced an outside broadcast recording of the play at Kronborg Castle in actual Elsinore. This has only increased across the years as innumerable documentaries have included shots of its primary curiosity, Michael Caine in his single classical role playing Horatio.  Now, finally, this morning, well, here we are.

The BFI's still invaluable ScreenOnline section has a short explanatory piece about the making of Hamlet at Elsinore.  As they explain, this was a milestone in television history as the first drama recorded entirely on location outside of the studio, the result of the Danish company having originated the idea but eventually bringing in the BBC to produce, the former supplying sets (obviously) and background cast with the latter providing crew and the primary cast.  Given everything they had to work with, bulk cameras and lighting rigs and appalling weather it's impressive that it even exists at all.

That it exists and is also of such high quality is a miracle.  At just over three and a quarter hours and containing most of the play, this is an entirely "cinematic" interpretation which also somehow doesn't deny its theatrical origins.  There are noirish moments which stand alongside both the Olivier and Kozintsev film versions and at only a few points do its televisual origins show.  Although there are certainly moments when Saville experiments but doesn't quite achieve what he set out to do, Hamlet at Elsinore is clearly in the vanguard of great productions.

Saville and the team fully utilise the location with what must every room in Kronburg utilised in some part, with the chapel even being utilised for the nunnery scene and the expansive central courtyard being the perfect setting for the arrival of the players and for Hamlet to hail, from a window, the arrival of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  There are shots of the modern interior here but nothing much as change in the past fifty-odd years, even the paintings are in the same positions, which in the show are presumably supposed to depict Hamlet's ancestors.

The key directorial choice here is ceilings - in almost every scene there'll be a shot framed from below across an actors chin, up their nose and towards the ceiling of a room as if to increase the apparent headroom of each location.  Given the technology available,  the number of close-ups is startling, especially for Plummer's Hamlet who is introduced in isolation, the viewer unable to quite grasp his position in the throne room at mother and step-father interact with him until everyone leaves and he has the space to himself.

Keeping the action mainly within the walls of the castle necessarily guides the cuts.  Laertes's challenge following his father's murder isn't shown at all and the opening battlements scenes are staccato, even losing the opening line of the play in favour of introducing some dread and mystery as to what the soldiers are encountering, flailing about in the darkness.  For all that, a truncated Fortinbras is present bolstered by an impressive army of extras within what must be the woods at the edge of the castle (doubling as much further away).

Cutting "Who's there" and all aids Michael Caine's introduction as we hang on his every word as Horatio describes to Hamlet the emergence of the Ghost which in the full text usually puts Hamlet's reaction as the focus as a scene which we've already been privy to is described to him.  Caine's militaristic, almost clipped but matter of fact delivery is extraordinary, as though he's the first person to say these words, reveal this uncanny visitor.  So subtle is his work, it almost derails Plummer's performance which at this early stage is far more expressive.

There are deep, deep undercurrents of feeling behind Caine's mesmerising eyes.  Coolly spoken for much of the play, waterfalls of emotion flow from him when Hamlet dies as he's finally able to release the pent up feelings he had for his friend. According to his autobiography, he'd been told by a producer on Zulu that "I know you're not, but you gotta face the fact that you look like a queer on screen." so he worked it to his advantage here and "decided that if my on-screen appearance was going to be an issue, then I would use it to bring out all Horatio's ambiguous sexuality."

Plummer's Hamlet is less convincing.  The mad scenes oscillate between half-hearted and pantomime and the character never quite makes sense even when he's supposed to be sober in decision.  The actor's natural charisma just about masks this indecision but my mind often wandered to questions about production choices while he was on screen which is a strange place to be.  We're never quite able to grasp his inner turmoil, never quite convinced that he's not simply just saying these words because they're in the text rather than because he believes them.

In fairness he's not aided by some of the directorial experiments.  Plummer doesn't deliver his soliloquies to camera, which isn't unusual in filmed productions, apart from a single glance during To Be Or Not To Be.  Except in the desperation to do something different with the famous speech, its delivered as a montage against open spaces within the castle or close-ups on Hamlet, but the necessarily for the time haphazard editing makes the result disjointed and difficult to follow in terms of the emotional thread.

The fourth wall is instead broken when Hamlet addresses his father's spirit and the audience is placed in the point of view of the ghost, the camera hovering above Plummer.  Like To Be, it seems to be a decision born of diversity and then has the added problem of trying to coherently provide a voice at this key moment in the play.  The solution is a disembodied voice, but the actor then spends half the speech whisper-rasping like one of Doctor Who's Ice Warriors so that half of the necessary exposition is lost as is the connection between the two characters which is usually so meaningful.

Fortunately the production is stronger elsewhere.  Jo Maxwell Muller's Ophelia is initially estranged from her father and has an obvious affection for Hamlet.  There's a Brief Encounter moment at the docks as he sees her brother off as her expression becomes cold and disappointed when Polonius arrives and steals their final precious moments together with his endless advice, almost drawing on a smile when she has to turn and acknowledge her Dad.  Later she's unaware of her father and the new King eavesdropping on the nunnery scene, running away in disgust.

It's a strong cast, almost inadvertently.  Peter Luke the producer had decided not to fill out his production with big names so as not to distract from the story.  So he chose Caine, Plummer, Robert Shaw as Claudius  and yes, Donald Sutherland as Fortinbras (at a time when he was still playing Hotel Clerk and Tall Man in Nightclub) which means that a retrospective viewing doesn't have that effect at all.  Even Roy Kinnear shows up as the single Gravedigger years before he became a key player in comedic acting.

Despite my reservations about Plummer, which I'll admit might not be the same for someone who hasn't seen thirty-six actors play the character as well, Hamlet at Elsinore is an incredible piece of work.  The text is rendered lucidly and there are still moment when it's almost like hearing the words for the first time.  If I've drawn anything from it, it's that Michael Caine's self-esteem issues have denied what might have been a career peppered with some excellent Shakespearean turns amid everything else.  Is it too late for him to give us his Lear?

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