Everybody Dies: Hamlet at Elsinore (1964)

Every once in a while, you’re lucky enough to stumble upon something so overwhelming that you find it impossible to imagine how you had ever lived without its presence in your life. Hamlet at Elsinore was produced in cooperation with the BBC and Danish television in 1964. It was filmed on location at Kronborg Slot, the actual castle at Elsinore that Shakespeare used as the setting for his play. And it is absolutely as good as anyone could possibly imagine. Among the assembled cast were Christopher Plummer, who presents us with an actor’s master class in the title role (earning himself an Emmy nomination at the time), Robert Shaw was his sometime uncle/sometime stepfather Claudius, Michael Caine was Horatio, and Donald Sutherland took a break from his early-sixties Hammer films to storm the castle in the role of Fortinbras.

This was a cast of hungry up-and-comers. While largely considered to be an accomplished actor at this point in his career, Plummer was still a year from worldwide success as Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music. It would be a couple of years before Caine’s Alfie took the world by storm. And Sutherland was a few years from The Dirty Dozen and even further from Altman’s MASH at this point. Oh, and that gravedigger who looks so damn familiar is British character actor Roy Kinnear, who would go on to suffer the misfortune of being Veruca Salt’s father in the original Willy Wonka movie. I had to look it up. It was driving me crazy.

Hamlet at Elsinore aired on BBC television and in Denmark but was only broadcast once here in North America when it ran on NET (National Education Television) which would eventually be replaced by PBS. It sat in relative obscurity until a 2011 DVD release from BBC and Warner, despite a career-spanning campaign by Christopher Plummer to get it released widely. And herein lies the true tragedy of Hamlet at Elsinore. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to suggest that this production could very well be the singular, definitive film version of Hamlet, to which all others should be measured. Every note chimes perfectly. Every character is lusciously complex and exquisitely acted. The castle itself lends its own valued characterization, and director Philip Saville made full use of its corridors, chambers, and surrounding grounds. The directorial choices are thought-provoking and original. And, tragically, it has remained largely unseen for over half a century.

Before I attempt to back up my gushing praise with something that resembles actual critical analysis, it seems fit to discuss my only true misgiving about this film. Before I could even slip the disc into my player, I knew that the sound quality was going to be an issue. Having seen old Dr. Who, Top of the Pops, and Avengers episodes, I was already familiar with the problematic sound quality of BBC shows in the sixties. As a child, I was convinced that it must always be summer in England, because the background hiss of the old Doctor Who episodes I used to watch on late-night PBS always sounded like my cassette recordings when I sat too close to the window fan in my bedroom. In addition to this experience, I couldn’t help but consider that when Kronborg Castle was rebuilt after a fire in the mid-1600s, the short-sighted craftsmen must have lacked the foresight to consider the acoustic needs of film crews. My expectation was that I would, at worst, lose whole swathes of dialogue to the hiss and hum of bad BBC microphones. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the sound wasn’t quite as bad as expected but was still the weakest link in an otherwise flawless production.

Yes, I said flawless and I’m not gonna take it back. Not even if you bring up Donald Sutherland’s weird attempt at a Norwegian accent.

The most striking element of this particular adaptation for this particular viewer was Michael Caine’s Horatio. Never before have I seen a production of Hamlet on stage or screen that convinced me so utterly of the deep bonds of friendship between Hamlet and Horatio. The screen chemistry between Plummer and Caine simply crackles. When Horatio stands up to Gertrude about Ophelia’s mental state, it is an act of righteous anger. In other productions, Horatio is barely more than a stock character to follow Hamlet around and be a sounding board for his bitching, but Caine is able to paint him as a man whose loyalty puts him in the eye of a great storm. And in the end, he is the one who suffers most in this tragedy. In the end, grief isn’t for the dead, it’s for the living. And Horatio is going to suffer a ton of it.

But Horatio is only half of that equation. The character of Hamlet positively oozes out of every corner of Christopher Plummer. The naturalism of his performance elevates his every relationship. Rather than a clunky, forced humanity of Olivier’s performance, Plummer’s prince is an anguished, angry young man. His trust is betrayed (whether through fact or fancy) at every turn, leaving him to confide solely in his trusted friend. As his commitment to his chosen course waxes and wanes, his manic episodes give way to crippling anxieties. His journey throughout the play is both heroic and villainous, and Plummer delivers it in a way that is unceasingly engaging.

I could go on tracing the individual character arcs of everyone in this movie and the actors’ pitch-perfect conveyance of them. I could write an entire volume about Robert Shaw’s journey from self-congratulatory newlywed/newly-crowned King of Denmark to pissed-off stepdad who just can’t anymore with that damned kid. There’s much to be said of the slow fracture of June Tobin’s regally cool detachment into the concerned mother of a child who has seemingly slipped off the rails. Ophelia was young Jo Maxwell Muller’s first screen role, and her rapid spiral from lovelorn to suicidal is a wonder to behold. Alec Clunes, already established as one of the leading classical actors in all of Britain, crafted a Polonius whose wit and cleverness was legendary (in his own mind), yet was no match for the verbal cat-and-mouse games of the young prince. It would be worth noting the genius stroke of using Gertrude and Claudius’ discussion of Ophelia’s mental state as a twisted sexual foreplay. I could write about all of these things and more. Heck, even the paralleling camaraderie of Hamlet and Horatio versus that of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would be worth a paragraph or two. I probably wouldn’t have much to say about Donald Sutherland except that here he looks a lot like his son did in The Lost Boys, but mostly because the role of Fortinbras is rather limited in scope.

It’s true that I could go on and on and on about most any of these performances, but the true novelty of this film is its location. The fact that it was filmed at the ACTUAL Elsinore castle creates a striking verisimilitude. It’s like thinking you’ve experienced Morocco after visiting Epcot, then suddenly waking up in a back alley of Marrakesh with the taste of kefta and mint tea on the back of your tongue. An ingenious use of the setting is the infamous “get thee to a nunnery” scene, in which Hamlet plays the dick move to end all dick moves. See, Kronborg Slot has an actual chapel built inside. It’s sort of like when they build mansions today with movie theaters and bowling alleys, I guess. When Hamlet disposes of Ophelia’s good grace, he does so from a raised dais in the chapel. When he suggests her resignation to a nunnery, it is as the priest ordering penance. The chapel is revisited later during a scene in which Hamlet nearly brings himself to assassinate Claudius while the newlywed king is at prayer. There is a corridor of successive doorways in which Claudius and Laertes conspire to hatch their layered plan to challenge, duel, and poison Hamlet. The sweeping bluffs overlooking the rocky coastline outside the castle serve as a wildly haunting place, fit for a vengeful ghost to speak to his living son (or at least for a grieving son to imagine dad’s wrathful spirit).

Through and through, this production is one that is worth seeking out. Why it isn’t on heavy rotation on Masterpiece Theatre here in the States is a mystery to me. I’ll be the first to admit that I get really nerdy about Shakespeare films, but this one truly blew my Anglophile mind and caused me to shuffle around my nominees for all-time favorite Hamlet adaptation.

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