Some people say the greatest Shakespeare movie is Russian.That would be the Hamlet (“Gamlet”!) of Grigori Kozintsev, first shown in the spring of 1964. Kozintsev, had been exploring his topic one way or another throughout his adult life, and this capstone performance counts as a kind of trifecta: himself as director with a script by Boris Pasternak, and music by Dmitri Shostakovich. Or a quadrifecta; the title role went to Innokenty Smoktunovsky, perhaps the most highly regarded Russian actor of his generation. Apparently the film counted as an important cultural event in its time but I wasn’t paying attention; I learned of it only last year and saw it for the first time last night on the big screen at Il Teatro Buce. My judgment is that it is not the greatest Shakespeare movie ever, but it is an interesting and worthwhile endeavor, and I think I can understand why it made such a splash in its time.



The film cries out for comparison with the benchmark Hamlet for that generation—Lawrence Olivier’s, released in 1948. No, not “cries out;” rather “insists upon” comparison, dressing Smoktunovsky in Olivier-esque black, with his close-cropped hair, his voice-over soliloquys, and his general air of moodiness and introspection. This comparison may not have been obvious at the time because Kozintsev also did so much to distance himself from Olivier: in particular, to showcase the political context that Olivier virtually excises.




The result is a Hamlet (or a “Hamlet”) hemmed in by posturing and intrigue, claustrophobic inside Elsinore, cut off by the vastness of the ocean and the great featureless northern plains. It must have carried a powerful message outside of (and in) the Soviet Union, at the end of the great thaw, and the beginning of the mean mendacity of the Brezhnev years. Apparently it still carries force today: some of the strongest framing scenes appear as theft homage in the Kenneth Branagh Hamlet of 1996.




Actors in a good many of the supporting roles function admirably to drive home the point: an intriguing, fussy Polonius, short and round and bearing what appears for all the world to be a rubber nose, would be comical if he did not remind us so much of the sinister supernumeries of the Kremlin in its time. King Claudius is a chillingly smooth manipulator and thug. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are no better than they ought to be. And the gravedigger looks like he has been waiting all his life for just this chance.



The script—or rather the subtitles, because I can’t read any Russian—is a mixed bag. It’s Shakespeare only by courtesy, which it may not deserve—mostly a collection of Shakespearean snippets assembled almost as if in a word game out of magnetic panels on a refrigerator door. Yet one has to concede that a straight translation just wouldn’t have worked in context. And you have to concede that even if he took snippets, still Pasternak seems to have found the right snippets for a lot of individual moments. Shostakovich’s score doesn’t seem to add a great deal. At some points, it threatens to intrude; at best it seems simply to remind us of other things that Shostakovich has done better (and more generally, perhaps, for his heroic presence in Soviet culture).



But the real trouble here is the star, though once again, I suspect the guilty party may be Olivier. It was Olivier who taught a generation of moviegoers that Hamlet is a young man in a permanent sulk. He is that; the catch is that he is so much more. John Gielgud called him “a great renaissance prince” (Gielgud pronounced it “ruh-NAY-sance,” the first time I ever heard it pronounce it that way). And that he is: sometimes sulky, but often ebullient, sometimes jaunty—and sometimes very close to downright brutal. It’s the reason I like Branagh so much: imperfect as he may be, he is the only film Shakespeare who seems to me to come close to capturing the full range of his possibilities.



So Kozintsev’s Hamlet is a Hamlet with a hole in the center—a hole we might not even have noticed in 1964, dazzled as we were by Olivier and gripped by mesmerized by the shadow of the Soviet Union. It remains a worthy achievement and an important artifact of its time. I like it well enough that I think I’ll go on and watch his Lear and even his Don Quixote. I might even watch this Hamlet again. But I wish it were better.


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