There are more adaptations of Hamlet, dear Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophies. Almost since the very birth of cinema, directors have tried to bring their visions of Shakespeare’s most enduring drama to the screen. The earliest attempt at a full adaptation was a silent film by French director Georges Melies in 1907. Interestingly, however, Sarah Bernhardt has the distinction of being the first film actor to portray the titular character on screen, seven years earlier in 1900. And it was even a talkie! Well, sort of… Some dialogue and music were put onto a separate recording which was to be synced with screenings of the film (sort of like that time you got high and tried to sync Dark Side of the Moon to Wizard of Oz). Bernhardt’s Hamlet lasted for about five minutes, showing Hamlet and Laertes engaging in the play’s climactic sword fight. In the movies, the spectrum of actors who have taken on the role of Hamlet (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) ranges from Laurence Olivier to Chris Farley. And no matter how you cut it, that makes for one fucked-up Venn diagram. In this writer’s humble opinion, the singular contributing factor to the cultural endurance of Shakespeare’s Danish play is its exquisitely confounding ambiguity. Sure, there are studies in psychology and human behavior which make it universally identifiable, but how many works of literature can unfold new layers of meaning on the fifteenth, fiftieth, or even five hundredth reading? Did Claudius kill Hamlet’s father? If not, who did? If he did, did he act alone? Did Gertrude truly seek a widow’s solace in the arms of her former brother-in-law, or is she just a dirty ho? Is Hamlet crazy with grief throughout the play, or is he playing a calculated long game? Is Ophelia the OG Emo Girl or is she the OG Manic Pixie Dreamgirl? The most impactful thing about this play is that any and all of those ideas can be true, depending upon the decisions made by the cast and crew of any given production. In all of drama, no other single work weaves courtly politics and human psychology into such a tight braid. It achieves the impossible task of making the tribulations of a Danish prince of a time long past feel relatable to people from Elizabethan times all the way to today. While it’s doubtful many of us have personally experienced our uncle marrying our mother a couple of weeks after the mysterious death of our father, it’s probably safe to say that we’ve all felt the ground shift under our feet in that instant when we first realize that our trusted elders have feet of clay and are actually flawed human beings just like we know ourselves to be. It’s a painfully necessary awakening that is an essential part of what makes us human and passes us from the innocence of youth into adulthood. Some handle this awakening with aplomb, while others use it as an excuse to stab tapestries in their mother’s bed chamber. It’s no wonder Hamlet has been adapted, lauded, reproduced continually for centuries, and embedded itself into our society’s collective consciousness. It might not even be an overstatement to regard Hamlet as The Singular Cultural Touchstone of the Western World. This is one of the tragedies where it’s not quite hyperbole to say that everybody dies. Hamlet’s dad is dead before it even starts. Hamlet stabs Polonius thinking he’s Claudius (who might have been naked and lurking behind a curtain in his mom’s room; ew). Hamlet dumps Ophelia, who drowns herself. Ophelia’s brother Laertes conspires with Claudius to put poison on a sword to kill Hamlet, while Hamlet conspires with Horatio to poison Claudius’ wine. Gertrude drinks Claudius’ wine, giving the ultimate object lesson about bogarting your bae’s liquor. Laertes gets stabbed with the poison sword, and so does Hamlet. Hamlet stabs Claudius on his way out. By the time Fortinbras gets into the castle, he’s regretting that he didn’t talk to his real estate broker about a plan to haul out all the dead Danes before he takes ownership. What’s Norwegian for “caveat emptor”? The psychological thriller, the dysfunctional family drama, and the modern revenge play all could trace their lineage to this singular piece of Elizabethan theatre. Setting aside the direct adaptations, it has crept into a veritable infinity of other media. Lines and pieces of dialogue from the play are so much a part of our daily lives that many use them without even fully realizing their source. “The lady doth protest too much.” “To be or not to be…” “To thine own self be true.” And am I the only one who frequently has to say, “there’s something rotten in the state of this fridge”? That stupid crisper tray is The Place Where Vegetables Go to Stop Being Crisp and Die. Alas, poor radicchio! For the purposes of this column (and this columnist’s sanity), we’re going to look at a mere sampling of the myriad adaptations, parodies, and homages. While many of the films were traditional in their approach, many more used Shakespeare’s text as a springboard for some wildly transformative (and often inspired) interpretations. A Midwinter’s Tale (aka In the Bleak Midwinter), 1995 It’s the holidays and Joe is thinking about the whole Christmas thing: the birth of Christ, the Wizard of Oz, family murders, and quite frankly, he’s depressed. Over the course of a twenty-one-day shoot, Kenneth Branagh used his big Tri-Star paycheck from the previous year’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to bankroll this gem of an independent film. It would also serve as a surprise run-up for his 1996 lavish, full-folio adaptation of Hamlet. It’s a common practice for actors to grab the big paycheck blockbuster roles so that they can be free to pursue the low-paycheck independent roles that hone their craft. It’s how we get Sir Anthony Hopkins doing scenework with Optimus Prime or Dame Judy Dench sitting a desk at MI6. A Midwinter’s Tale was a passion project for Branagh, and the fact that he was able to pay for it out of his own pocket with giant studio money makes it even more enjoyable somehow. It makes the whole project feel almost like Robin Hood stealing from the rich to give to the poor. Joe (Michael Maloney) is an actor who hasn’t worked for a year. His agent is trying to broker role for him in an unnamed sci-fi trilogy, but that prospect isn’t looking promising. With nothing better to do, he agrees to help his sister save the church in their hometown of Hope (a bit on the nose, but still charming) by staging a production of Hamlet as a holiday fundraiser. He holds auditions and assembles his motley crew. Then, over the course of ten days (and nights), they all come together to bring the story of the brooding Danish prince to life while learning about themselves and each other. They hug and cry and learn and grow. I know, you’re all saying “awwww…” like you just watched one of those Hallmark Channel Christmas movies, right? But those two-hour IV drips of saccharine sentiment have nothing on a smartly concocted film like this one. See, the thing about honest sentiment is how it can sneak up and put its arms around you if it isn’t being used in a manipulative way. It’s the difference between sentiment and sentimentality. Sentiment finds a common ground and uses it to build empathy. Sentimentality tugs at the dark edges of our emotions, exploiting emotional connections. They aren’t called tear-jerkers because they gently persuade the opening of your tear ducts. Sure, the characters of A Midwinter’s Tale are stock weirdos, but if you’ve ever been part of any sort of theatre community, you can’t help but find yourself recognizing every one of these stock weirdos. Among others, there’s the cute ingénue that’s a goofy spaz as soon as she steps off stage, the brassy yet sensitive queen, the embittered yet seasoned actor who just never quite reached the stars that were in his eyes thirty years earlier, the royal-pain-in-the-Strasberg method actor, and the brooding out-of-work actor turned director. Sometimes (just sometimes) there’s a reason that stereotypes exist. In my admittedly limited theatrical experience, I have personally worked alongside each and every one of these characters, and that’s just one of the things that make me find this movie to be so damned lovable. Julia Sawalha is probably easiest remembered as Saffron on Absolutely Fabulous. Here she is the nearsighted Nina, refusing to wear her glasses and consequently stumbling around the stage in the role of Ophelia. I’m sure the pratfalls were a welcome turn from her perennial straight-man status on AbFab. Plus (bonus!), Jennifer Saunders turns up for an unexpected cameo in the final act, likely because of her working relationship with Sawalha. Sure, her romance with Joe feels shoehorned into the story and rather unnecessary, but it isn’t enough of a distraction from the rest of the film to dilute its overall charm. The legendary John Sessions turns up during Joe’s audition process to successfully plead his case for the role of Queen Gertrude. His comedic chops find a way to give a genuine heart to the role of Terry DuBois, lending weight to a role that could have easily denigrated into one of tactless flamboyance. Joe finds his Claudius in Henry Wakefield. Henry, as portrayed by Richard Briers, struggles to find his place with his cast. He sees the role of Claudius as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that stands to be squelched by a lackluster production. One of the most truly charming elements of this film is watching Henry defrost and eventually form an odd couple friendship with his queen and co-star Terry DuBois. A BBC television mainstay throughout the 60s and 70s, Briers would become a Kenneth Branagh film mainstay later on, appearing in eight of the director’s films, including the role of Polonius in 1996’s Hamlet. Nicholas Farrell is Tom Newman, who plays Laertes, Fortinbras, and all of the various messengers. For each role, even the ones with only a single line, Tom meticulously builds the truth of the character. Farrell is another of Branagh’s stable of actors, and would go on to play BFF Horatio to Branagh’s Hamlet the following year. But Michael Maloney is the true linchpin of this cast. Branagh wrote the role of Joe with him in mind, and would proceed to cast him again the following year as his foil Laertes. But for the purposes of A Midwinter’s Tale (and the rural village of Hope), Joe is the Danish Prince. Just like the prince, Joe is grappling with a full-blown existential crisis, which allows him to fully immerse himself in his self-designed pandemonium. The big Hollywood movie deal his agent (played by Joan Crawford; WHAT?) is trying to broker for him throughout the film is for a key role in a science fiction trilogy. It may be mere coincidence, then, that Kenneth Branagh would be one of the finalists for the role of young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequels. The role would, of course, go to Ewan McGregor a couple of years later. But one can’t help wondering whether Branagh’s script was a declaration of intent or Jedi Master-level premonition. There’s also the unpredictably kooky (yet strangely maternal) production designer, the enthusiastically helpful team player, and the middle-aged drunk. They all come together to form just the sort of reluctant misfit community that inevitably melds into a sort of family. I suppose there’s a flimsy comparison to be made about how Joe and Hamlet are both suffering existential crises, but this film really only serves as an appreciation of Shakespeare’s greatest play. Perhaps more than that, it’s a love letter to the hardworking directors, actors, and designers who are out there scraping together performances for the sheer joy of making art (not money). Get out there and support your local theatre troupe, OK? Let this serve as your official call to action, dear readers. In some ways, A Midwinter’s Tale, as a film, exhibits all the trappings of the 90s independent film movement. Shot in black and white with title cards for each act of the screenplay, and produced without the backing of any major studio. But there’s something much more classic about it than some of the other films that were being made at that time. While watching this film, one can almost feel the tension that accompanies making a major studio movie easing itself out of Kenneth Branagh’s shoulders. It’s not difficult to imagine that this twenty-one-day shoot was more invigorating for him than three weeks at a spa. At the same time, there’s a quiet determination that drives the entire film. One can rest assured that this was a labor of love for its writer/director, and that same passion spilled out to its cast and crew. It’s a movie about real people finding elevation in collaboration and mutual understanding. Sure, it wears its sentiment on its sleeve, but who doesn’t at Christmas time? It’s smart and honest and heartfelt and really damned entertaining. As an added bonus, no one has to plan a wedding or mourn a lost love or struggle with a loss of the “true spirit of Christmas” or, I don’t know, mourn a dead chinchilla or whatever it is that happens in those tear-jerker Christmas flicks. Y’all can suck it, Hallmark Channel. See larger image A Midwinter’s Tale To be or not to be? To act or not to act? The questions are the same to Joe, a struggling (read: jobless) actor whose every sinew and synapse cries out to perform and to soften the blow of not landing a part in a megabudget sci-fi movie. So in the stalwart (read: desperate) tradition of actors everywhere, Joe vows to put on a show, a special (read: even more desperate) version of the greatest play in the English tongue. Writer/director Kenneth Branagh serves up Hamlet on wry with this salute to dyed-in-the-wool and other woolly-brained thespians. Michael Maloney (Truly Madly Deeply) portrays Joe, maxing out credit cards and his wits to realize his dream. Does he succeed? Well, with Richard Briers (Branagh’s Hamlet), Joan Collins (Dynasty), Nicholas Farrell (Chariots of Fire), Absolutely Fabulous alumna Jennifer Saunders and Julia Sawatha and more joining Maloney, one thing’s certain. The show must go on! When sold by Amazon.com, this product is manufactured on demand using DVD-R recordable media. Amazon.com’s standard return policy will apply. This product is expected to play back in DVD Video “play only” devices, and may not play in other DVD devices, including recorders and PC drives. New From: $14.04 USD In Stock Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.