Top 5 best actors to play Hamlet

I guess Facebook knows I love “Hamlet,” because my news feed keeps pushing the July 8 screening of a recent stage version.

The one-night-only theatrical event is not live, but reprises an acclaimed 2015 production from London — with Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role.

Yeah, that one.

Trouble is, as much as social media has promoted this thing, it won’t be playing at any of the movie theaters in Lycoming County. As far as I can tell, the nearest locale is Regal’s Ithaca 14 in New York State; and yes, I’ll be headed up there to see it tonight.

For those who aren’t quite so committed, Lycoming Critic’s Corner herewith presents five other worthwhile versions that are readily available; I should add that I write not only as a film critic, but also as a high school English teacher who covered this play for more than 30 years.

MEL GIBSON (1990)

Probably the most popular and accessible version, this is a handsome and well-acted mounting from director Franco Zeffirelli (he did the excellent TV miniseries “Jesus of Nazareth,” as well 1968’s “Romeo and Juliet”).

Mel is not the best Hamlet you’ll ever see, but he does enlist our sympathy; several scenes are quite strong, and his delivery is solid for someone with little Shakespearean training.

Better yet is the supporting cast: Alan Bates, Ian Holm, Glenn Close, Paul Scofield and a riveting Helena Bonham Carter as Ophelia. Film also has top-notch production design by the veteran Dante Ferretti (“Hugo,” “Shutter Island,” 2015’s “Cinderella”). Uncut, this play can run as long as four hours (see Branagh below); but Zeffirelli & co. manage to get through it in 134 minutes.

My students love this one.

KENNETH BRANAGH (1996)

Beloved British actor-director Kenneth Branagh, after success with “Henry V” (1989) and “Much Ado About Nothing” (1993), made the bold move of filming Shakespeare’s play without a single cut to the text. This had never been done before — and now we know why: The thing is four hours and two minutes long.

Whoa.

Nonetheless, this is one terrific version, with a cast to die for: Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie, a pre-“Titanic” Kate Winslet as Ophelia and a host of big-name actors in small roles (Robin Williams, Gerard Depardieu, Jack Lemmon, Judi Dench, John Gielgud — among others).

In addition to its colorful sets and long, sweeping takes, this film really soars when Charlton Heston comes on as the First Player, and again later when Billy Crystal chews it up as a wistful, wise-cracking grave-digger.

I never show this whole movie to students; but I can’t teach the play without screening several scenes from this impressive rendition. One critic described the lengthy experience as similar to getting hit by a bus — and enjoying it.

ETHAN HAWKE (2000)

Despite its dandy cast, here is one version my students don’t care for — because the setting is moved to modern-day Wall Street: limos, skyscrapers, guns and three-piece suits. Hamlet’s uncle works for “the Denmark Corporation,” and Hawke plods around with a video camera and a funny-looking hat. But what really puts kids off: Despite the contemporary time period, Shakespeare’s language is maintained intact — though trimmed a good deal throughout.

Personally, the linguistic issue never bothers me in this film. Hawke, a sadly underrated actor, is sensational as the brooding lead, with good help from Kyle MacLachlan, Julia Stiles, Liev Schreiber, Sam Shepard, Steve Zahn, Jeffrey Wright, Tim Blake Nelson, Casey Affleck and — a bit of casting brilliance — Bill Murray as Polonius. (Wisely, Murray underplays the part, which perhaps served as a stepping stone to later more serious roles in “Broken Flowers” and “Lost in Translation.”)

Watch Laertes and Gertrude carefully in the climactic fight and you’ll see them tweak the narrative a bit; rarely have I felt such loss and sadness at the end of the play. I love this version — absolutely love it.

DAVID TENNANT (2008)

Students enjoy this, too — partly because they know Tennant as the 10th Dr. Who; as Barty Crouch in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”; or from Neil Gaiman’s current TV series “Good Omens,” co-starring Michael Sheen.

Actually, a lot of my students don’t recognize Tennant from any of that stuff; it’s just that he’s so freaking awesome in this version! You cannot take your eyes off of him.

Staged by the ever-capable Royal Shakespeare Company, the Tennant version is also updated to the modern era, but any resulting awkwardness is smoothed over by retro production design and low-key lighting (it’s almost entirely indoors). Other performances are likewise terrific: Patrick Stewart as Claudius; Peter De Jersey as a sympathetic Horatio; and Oliver Ford Davies as a prissy and comical Polonius.

CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER (1964)

Ha! You probably thought my final version would be the 1948 Laurence Olivier film — the more so because it won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Actor; but, like Holden Caulfield (who belittles it in “Catcher in the Rye”), I find Olivier’s movie stiff and mannered. What’s more, the fine old Christopher Plummer version just became readily available on DVD.

Entitled “Hamlet at Elsinore,” it was staged live for television in 1964, performed on location at the actual Danish castle where the play takes place.

Plummer is excellent, and the authentic backdrops — including a night scene filmed by the ocean! — really add zest and vitality to the proceedings. This version has the added benefit of a very young Michael Caine as Horatio, an even younger-looking Donald Sutherland as Fortinbras and sensational work by Robert Shaw as Claudius; best known as the tough sea captain from “Jaws,” Shaw shows off his Shakespearean background with a gripping and nuanced performance.

There’s no such thing as a perfect “Hamlet,” but each of these brings something new and interesting to the table. That always seems to be the case with just about any version of this endlessly fascinating play. No doubt Cumberbatch’s staging — which runs a walloping 217 minutes — will have many fine and memorable scenes as well.

Here’s hoping for a DVD of that one too.


Lycoming Critic’s Corner takes a periodic look at timely and interesting films.

JOSEPH W. SMITH III
Film Critic

Smith is a local writer, speaker and teacher. You can learn more about him at josephwsmithiii.com.

JOSEPH W. SMITH III

Smith is a local writer, speaker and teacher. You can learn more about him at josephwsmithiii.com.

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