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Williamson as ‘Hamlet’: Richardson Film Based on Debated Version,


New York Times, 22nd December 1969, Roger Greenspun


Despite the text in the newspaper ad, “To think own thing be true …,” the Tony Richardson ‘Hamlet,’ which opened yesterday at the Cinema Rendezvous, makes no particular claims to modernity or  to contemporary relevance. And despite the illustration for the same ad, showing Hamlet (Nicol Williamson) about to nibble the up-slung shoulder of Ophelia (Marianne Faithfull) it isn’t a sexy ‘Hamlet,’ either. The ad wins my vote for the most tasteless of the year in its field (always a very hot competition). But the movie upon which it is based is a traditional and bowdlerized version of Shakespeare’s play.


The text has been cut to ribbons. Although Nicol Williamson talks very fast, this version, running 114 minutes – as against 153 minutes for the 1948 Laurence Olivier film of ‘Hamlet’ – eliminates some of his role, much of  everybody else’s role, and almost all of what serves to locate physically and to amplify the action. As a result, Hamlet’s presence is magnified out of all proper relationship to the world around him.


And since the film is shot perhaps 95 per cent in fairly extreme close-up, it is not so much as his presence as his head that continually dominates the screen. ‘Hamlet’ from the neck up (with the occasional Ophelia from the neck down, to acknowledge Miss Faithfull’s charming cleavage) offers less, even to the mind’s eye, than you might imagine.


The production is full of ideas. Richardson has photographed his film against total blackness (except for a few dark brick walls and passage-ways to represent the battlements), with only the most essential properties, often in front of his actors’ faces. He thus provides a foreground, but very little background. And, because he is at pains to include among the properties a candle flame of greater or lesser brilliance, we have the notion of “idea” or, more accurately, an emblem for “idea,” as a metaphor for the play.


However, the production only succeeds in making it look as if all of ‘Hamlet’ took place at night. And at certain moments, for example the appearance of the Ghost (who does not appear, but is represented by particularly bright light, some science-fiction movie flying-saucer music and Nicol Williamson’s pre-recorded voice), it achieves, for all its gestures towards spare efficiency, a kind of square theatrical ridiculousness.


People whose opinion I greatly respect tell me that the Williamson-Richardson stage production of ‘Hamlet,’ which I did not see, was both vital and moving. I can believe that, because the one piece of outright stage business in the movie, the play within the play, is handled with great style and intelligence. But in his approach to film, Richardson has used the medium to close in rather than open up the drama, and the result, though not without honor, is quite without interest. Because we have so little of Hamlet’s world, we scarcely have Hamlet. The final deaths, which are shown in great functional details, offer less for pity or terror than in any other production I have experienced.


Except for Nicol Williamson’s Hamlet and Mark Dignam’s very fine sly Polonius, the major players range from the nondescript to the unspeakable. Williamson talks with what sounds like an intentional lower-class accent; Claudius seems to have immigrated from Wales and everybody else speaks standard stage English.


Williamson has never seemed to me a good actor for the movies (just as Tony Richardson has never seemed a good director of movies), working always with a kind  of projected intelligence that may carry in the theater  but that in film merely screens the person from the camera. There is nothing especially distinctive about his face, he is further hampered by having to act with a Horatio (Gordon Jackson) whom he more closely resembles than, in this production, Rosencrantz resembles Guildenstern. Nevertheless, the mind that informs the performance reads the lines, and at its pleasantest the production is distinguished by many original and right-sounding decisions about speeches.


Playing on the same bill is a 5-minute animated short by Ryan Larkin, called ‘Walking,’ in its imaginative spaciousness and fine observation – literally, of people walking across or up and down the screen – it offers a reasonable clue to the quality of the nine-tenths of  life excluded from the Tony Richardson ‘Hamlet.’

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