Those crazy Soviets may have been inept at justice, but when it came to bold and striking imagery and stirring music, they were experts.
Witness Hamlet, a 1964 version of the play by William Shakespeare. Composer Dmitri Shostakovich wrote the score. The adaptation was written by Boris Pasternak, best known in the West for writing Dr. Zhivago. And although we non-Russian speakers may fail to appreciate the language in this version, the strong visual language is universal.
Hamlet has an excellent opening sequence. It is bold, gripping, and powerful, but not slow. It opens on the shadow of Elsinore cast on a troubled sea. Big black flags are hoisted and booming cannons are shot to announce the death of the king. The king’s son Hamlet gallops home before a storm (in a tracking shot that can’t quite keep up). Hamlet dashes up the medieval steps of the castle, cape swooping behind, and inside the greatroom, the two-story mourning tapestry is unfurled. All the while, Shostakovich’s heavy, raw orchestra competes with the cannons for momentousness.
When Hamlet sees his father’s ghost at midnight, the striking, caped, silhouetted figure will send chills down your spine. He makes Batman look like a poser, and Darth Vader look fashion-conscious. The ghost wears steel plate armor, not a rubber suit. And the wind that billows his ten-pound, seven-foot cape comes straight off the North Sea in winter.
If visual impact were the only facet to evaluate, I’d consider Hamlet yet another excellent, unexpected four-star find. But there is more to consider than just the look, and neither the casting nor the acting seem to be up to those (admittedly) high standards.
An American-born Anglophone, I’m not the best judge of Russian-speaking actors. Still, none of the portrayals seemed nearly as epic as the visual impact commands. Innokenti Smoktunovsky looks a little older than I expect Hamlet to be, yet he still acts and behaves immaturely. Instead of a young tragic hero (which would fit the visuals), Hamlet looks like the 40-year-old virgin. Nor is Claudius (Mikhail Nazvanov) as menacing or calculating as the visuals might suggest.
Nevertheless, casting and performance style were conscious decisions by filmmaker Grigori Kozintsev. From my vantage in the 21st century, I can complain that I would have preferred different choices, but that probably reflects more on me than on Hamlet.
As an adaptation, Kozintsev’s version is mostly faithful. There is no weird updating going on. There don’t appear to be any philosophy-of-drama inspired changes — at least on the surface. Pasternak’s translation into Russian, is supposed to be “colloquial modernized dialogues,” according to the essay in the booklet. But all of that effort is lost in the translation back to English (and in fact the subtitles are sub-par, with occasional misspellings and odd contractions such as ” A’ ” for ” he.”)
If you read the booklet, you’ll learn that there is more to this production of Hamlet than I have let on. A lot of thought about art, drama, and cinema went into it. For example, Hamlet’s soliloquies are done in voiceover — a very cinematic choice. Framing, music, color choice are all discussed.
But unless you’re a scholar of Soviet cinema, or the cinema of the early 1960s, these decisions aren’t the sorts of things you’re likely to notice, especially with the gigantic visuals and score to distract you.
Picture and Sound
Picture quality is outstanding. The rich, deep contrast in the black-and-white film is striking. When I started looking for dust or scratches, I couldn’t find any. The only down side to the picture quality is something I noticed by accident. When I had 5 spare minutes, I watched the opening on my laptop. On the higher-resolution computer screen, I saw some compression artifacts that I did not see on the TV screen. It’s possible that if you have a high-resolution monitor or HD TV, you may not have as striking a picture quality as those of us with simple TV sets.
The soundtrack, like the look, is striking, bold, and artistic. Music is used as part of the texture of the movie. The score is raw and headstrong, not bland and polished. Though the movie predates surround sound, Hamlet will fill your movie room with big sound.
The only extra feature is the booklet that comes in the case. It has two essays on the talent behind Hamlet.
How to Use this DVD
First, know Hamlet. If you don’t know the story, watch another version first because the doubly-translated subtitles could be hard to follow. There are no extra features on the DVD, so just put the disc in and press play.
But do pay attention to the visual style as you watch, because if you watch passively, you may miss what’s so good about this version.