You already know the play. The question is, how’s the new actor? In what has been grossly underestimated as a dramatic leap, Mel Gibson moves from the asinine Bird on a Wire to the Bard of Avon. Credit Gibson for guts. He doesn’t disgrace himself, but he doesn’t distinguish himself either. Gibson gives the melancholy Dane an earnest but pedestrian reading. An early three-year stint at Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Arts has served him well; that is, he might get by in summer stock. But this big-screen Hamlet, pumped up to operatic scale by overkill director Franco Zeffirelli, exposes Gibson’s shortcomings. And the casting of such master Shakespearean thespians as Alan Bates (Claudius), Ian Holm (Polonius) and Paul Scofield (the Ghost) only makes Gibson look worse.
Zeffirelli, who has revamped the Bard onscreen before by providing Romeo and Juliet with naked teen flesh and The Taming of the Shrew with star power (the Burtons), says he wanted a Hamlet for “the youth of today.” That may explain why we see the mad Ophelia (Helena Bonham Carter) feeling up a guard, Hamlet and his mother, Gertrude (a histrionic Glenn Close), kissing and rolling around in bed and a climactic duel with Hamlet mugging outrageously and leaping about with Lethal Weapon abandon. Laurence Olivier’s Oscar-winning 1948 version remains the definitive screen Hamlet. The rest is silence. Or should have been.