With over 50 full length versions of Hamlet running around (200 credits on Imdb alone and I know of others not even listed there!) the main problem seems to be how to just sift through the choice.
Many are emabarassing dross and there’s something about Hamlet that make people regard it very personally, not just the play itself, which many aren’t very familiar with at all, but they have ideas and views about how it should be.
As someone who’s actually made a feature film version myself (www.hamletmovie.co.uk) I’ve seen comments ranging from wild enthusiasm to outright pain and abuse! Openmindedness and freedom of speech seems to go right out of the window when talking about Hamlet.
So there’s probably a version out there that totally presses your buttons but how to find it?
The nice thing about ShakespeareMovies is that on the social feeds we continually show little clips of productions that we discover in some very dark places and post them online, so sooner or later you’re going to see one which feels right for you.
In the meantime though here are some to get you going, these outlines have been largely adapted from a very good blog: petergalenmassy.com which is well worth checking out (many thanks!: Original version) though I’ve been putting in some thoughts of my own and adding to the list as I find new versions – enjoy!
- Kenneth Branagh: Hamlet 1996.
Branagh’s performance swings wildly between Hamlet’s famous indecision and the Danish prince’s other signature (but often overlooked) characteristic: his recklessness. This choice creates a highly satisfying Hamlet and turns Branagh’s conspicuous habit of overacting into a virtue. Branagh films the whole text, and so includes the essential framing character of Fortinbras and allows us to fully see how Laertes and Ophelia together serve as a double for Hamlet. Some of Branagh’s directing is very fine (the two-way mirror in “To be, or not to be”) and some of it is not. The ghost scene in 1.5 is unwatchable, and Branagh stages the climactic duel in action-movie land. IMDb page
- Laurence Olivier: Hamlet 1948.
Olivier is the better actor, and gives a better performance, but his concentration on Hamlet’s indecision makes less sense than Branagh’s choices. (Could an always-hesitating Hamlet improvise the murder of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern or jump into the middle of a battle with pirates?) Olivier edits the text so heavily that the story is unintelligible unless you know it. The way his camera stalks the corridors of dark, Freudian Elsinore castle hasn’t aged particularly well. And Olivier’s ditzy, hysterical Ophelia – played by Jean Simmons – not only offends contemporary tastes, but also begs the question, “What does Hamlet see in her?” IMDb page
- Derek Jacobi: Hamlet 1980.
Derek Jacobi plays Hamlet as amazed by his weakness, rather than desperate for strength, and is one of the few Danish Princes who feels like he could actually be the son of a warrior king. Jacobi’s voice has an extraordinary range of emotional colors, and his acting is often supple and subtle. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is uneven and in some scenes, dull. This version is filmed like the stodgy stage play it is with the occasional rough close-up, for which none of the actors except Jacobi seem prepared. IMDb page
- Benedict Cumberbatch: Hamlet 2015.
Cumberbatch’s superb Hamlet is marred by the choice of making his Danish prince entirely sane and pretty well adjusted. This makes Cumberbatch the most appealing and engaging Hamlet on my list, but it also robs his Hamlet of the philosophical transformation that powers the last third of the play, leaving the end feeling rushed and flat. Some clunker performances among the supporting cast and staging a bit heavy on gimmicky spectacle also knock this version down the list. Mylonger review is here. IMDB page
- Richard Burton: Hamlet 1964.
No Hamlet has ever sounded better than Richard Burton in his 1964 stage performance on film. Burton’s Hamlet is oddly disengaged, however, as if he finds his entire situation tedious but unavoidable. This is likely director John Gielgud’s intention, but it leaves the viewer feeling indifferent to the action. That many of the scenes are played as straight comedy doesn’t help. In the Yorick scene, for example, Burton banters comfortably with the gravedigger and then chats about the jester’s skull as if it were nothing more than a mild curiosity. IMDb page
- Mel Gibson: Hamlet 1990.
A “Mad Max” Hamlet is a piece of stunt casting, but Gibson climbs into the middle of the list by exceeding expectations. He’s really not bad. Gibson’s Hamlet is angry, wounded, and fearful, and he brings off the role well. There are strong actors through out the supporting cast who are interesting in their roles. Zeffirelli substitutes his habitual spectacle for any fresh ideas about the play, however. IMDb page
- Nicol Williamson: Hamlet1969 and 8. Kevin Kline: Hamlet 1990.
Both of these performances are solid, intelligent, and affecting. But they are also familiar. With so many Hamlets on film, Williamson’s and Kline’s successes are less fun than the interesting failures below. IMDb page Williamson and IMDb page Kline
- David Tennant: Hamlet 2009.
This 2009 Royal Shakespeare Production productively mines the play for maximum humor but comes up short on emotional punch. David Tennant nails Hamlet’s jokes, and his fear, but falls back on acting louder when he plays the Danish Prince’s anger and grief. Patrick Stewart’s Claudius is charismatic but doesn’t quite seem the fratricidal type. My longer review is here. IMDb page
- Ethan Hawke: Hamlet 2000.
Much of the plot of Hamlet ceases to make sense when it is set in modern New York City, as this version is. But Ethan Hawke’s louche, slacker Hamlet is perfect for its time and his “To be, or not to be”” is superb. IMDb page
- Campbell Scott: Hamlet 2000.
Most actors play Hamlet as unsteady but basically sane. Scott’s Hamlet is actually unhinged, which is what makes this performance from a good actor so intriguing. The problem is that a Hamlet who has actually suffered a mental breakdown would be unable to function in the play after Act 2. A supporting cast that is adequate at best doesn’t help matters. IMDb page
TBD. Innokenty Smoktunovsky: Hamlet 1964.
I need to track down a full version of this Russian language Hamlet before I can offer a capsule review. However, the clips available on the internet look promising as does the Shostakovich score. The production designer for Olivier’s film should demand royalty payments from the Russians, however. IMDb page
- Arnold Schwarzenegger: Hamlet 1993.
Arnold’s hilarious turn as the perfect anti-Hamlet in The Last Action Hero is not to be missed by fans of the Danish prince. Here’s the video from YouTube: