Tony Richardson’s Hamlet (1969) is perhaps less “radical Shakespeare” than it is experimental, quirky, personal Shakespeare. Apart from cutting the play to its essence, it isn’t especially outré in any specific way — and yet it is deeply, intrinsically different. Let’s start with the fact that Richardson chose to shoot the entire film in London’s Round House Theater (an actual train roundhouse that had been converted into a theater). No, this does not mean he shot it as a theatrical experience. There is no sign of a stage. Rather, it means he shot the film against the building’s red brick walls — in its corridors and backstage areas — making it largely unadorned. It also made it necessary to shoot in close on the actors, which produces a distinctly claustrophobic feel. Richardson — who is something of a forgotten figure in the British Invasion style of filmmaking we mostly associate with Richard Lester — also made his Hamlet a very 1960s work. There are echoes of Marat/Sade to the whole thing, and casting Marianne Faithful (of all choices) as a kind of flower child Ophelia adds to the ’60s vibe.
And then there’s Nicol Williamson’s Hamlet — a fidgety, nervous, almost spaced-out take on the character, who speaks in an edgy staccato manner that makes him very much a modern neurotic. Williamson — who bears a startling visual and verbal resemblance to Dadaist Brit pop star Vivian Stanshall (then well known for being in the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour) — is going to be the make-it-or-break-it factor for most viewers. If you buy into his Hamlet as valid (and I do), then he will hold you transfixed from beginning to end. If you don’t, you’re probably going to be pretty miserable and might as well give up and go home.
Not all of the film works, but a surprising amount does. Very much on the debit side is a too young Anthony Hopkins as Claudius. No matter how hard he tries, he always comes across rather like a kid who’s gotten into someone’s costume box and is playing dress-up. Plus, the claustrophobia factor sometimes works against the film. However, there’s the sense of personal vision making it more than “just another film of Hamlet.” Most of the cast is good, and Williamson is positively electric in the lead (again, this assumes you buy the interpretation). The film is also notable as the last theatrical movie to feature the great Roger Livesey (as the leader of the theater troupe and the gravedigger), and his presence is a treat. It’s all definitely worth a try.
The Hendersonville Film Society will show Hamlet Sunday, Sept. 14, at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.