top of page

Hamlet (2009)



David Tennant as Hamlet, in profile, holding a skull up to his side and talking to it. He is wearing a navy blue beanie, a red & black turtleneck jumper and a battered black parka. The image is bordered by the rrramble brand colours: orange, pink and green.


Imagine, it's 2009 and you're watching David Tennant -- I mean Hamlet -- speak to the Ghost of his Father (Patrick Stewart) who says Hamlet's uncle (also Patrick Stewart) murdered him and wants Hamlet to enact revenge! And in response, Hamlet's uncle (Patrick Stewart) plots to kill Hamlet in order to cover up his previous murder of his brother, the King (Patrick Stewart). I don't know how Hamlet was meant to keep his head on straight when his father and his uncle are both Patrick Stewart!


The Royal Shakespeare Company really leaned into the theatre camp for this filmed-for-television production. Using a modern spin on the fictional Danish monarchy (note David Tennant's outfits in particular) with some creepy CCTV elements within the castle...


Is this still considered a classic modern remake of Hamlet? Let's see what our writers say...


 

Sasha


This star-studded cast intended to produce a cinema relay for their Hamlet run. When this fell through, they partnered with the BBC to produce this film instead. 


I appreciated the minimalism of the set: very limited locations, and pared-back designs. The mirrored surfaces were such a simple and yet yielding way to add ambiguity to Elsinore. It could be timeless, except David Tennant is in skinny jeans. In appearing stage-like in these conventions, it retained an intimacy with the audience; I could almost have been watching a live-stream. One clear departure however was the incorporation of CCTV cameras, acting as props and also providing an eerie perspective of the unfolding events. I loved this choice, as it cast suspicion over who was revealing the narrative.


Battling the audience’s expectations is a huge task with a play so renowned. The blurred line of Prince Hamlet’s facade of madness sustains a volatility that evades inevitability. David Tennant brings such dexterity to this complex role; he plays with age regression in Prince Hamlet’s torment, then at other times leans into regality. We watch his character delight in running rings around the others with sneaky wordplay, playing with power, and acting aggressively righteous. At other times he is warm and loving. He is more synergistic with Horatio than anyone else. Instead of getting lost in Prince Hamlet as the philosopher, Tennant’s physicality keeps it grounded. 


Appearing as both Claudius and the Ghost of King Hamlet, Patrick Stewart perfectly encompassed the threat hidden in plain sight. Having primarily seen Stewart in Star Trek, I wanted to feel fond of him, to see him as a warm, insightful father figure like I've been used to. He succeeds in overcoming any perceptions of familiarity, and instead provides a convincing villain. Even when performing as the Ghost, his performance contains a thread of evil, drawing Hamlet in to avenge him despite the consequences. I found his performance as the Ghost to be somewhat undermined by the heavy use of faux fog and voice distortion; it was unnecessary, and one of the few elements that caused this production to feel dated. 


Although the plot of Hamlet most closely centres the leading male characters, Ophelia and Queen Gertrude are layered, complex roles. Penny Downie blew me away with her performance, particularly in the moments after the death of Polonius, and her own knowing death. Her performance was embodied in Queen Gurtrude's fear and frustration, yet nuanced at the same time. She readily gave plenty of steely looks befitting the changing relations she had between other characters. Unfortunately, the dynamic between Laertes and Ophelia was too syrupy for me, even bordering on incestuous in the opening scenes where they discuss each other's virginity. 


Undeniably, Hamlet is a three hour exploration of an impossible demand: avenge your father when you know that he is burning in brimstone fires for his own immoral deeds. Caught between conflicting ideals of Catholicism and folklore, it spotlights mortality - and what could be more enduring than that? 


Watching this production of Hamlet reaffirmed for me that it is one of my favourite texts of all time (I even watched it with subtitles on). Possibly even a desert island pick, although that would be quite morbid. You could argue that with multiple versions of the script to cherry-pick from, and its considerable length, of course it should hold impactful moments. But it goes further than that; each time I encounter it I find something new. This time? David Tennant in a muscle t-shirt. 


Two men are in centre frame. In front is Patrick Stewart as Claudius, kneeling and hands together in prayer. Behind him, David Tennant as Hamlet stands holding a knife above his head and wearing a crown with an angry look on his face.
“Life's not fair, is it? You see, I shall never be king. And you shall never see the light of another day.” - Scar from The Lion King


Alec


Revisiting this version of Hamlet really took me back to an odd point in my teen years. I had been slowly getting more into 60s American folk music, was exclusively seeking out foreign films about sad old men, and I had a weird, short-lived Hamlet obsession. I don’t like thinking I was more culturally inclined as a teenager, but the truth hurts sometimes (I’m working on it).

Hamlet isn’t even my favourite Shakespeare play (that goes to King Lear) but it’s one that very much resonated with me at the time. This adaptation is very good. I can’t say I’ve seen all the film adaptations as I mostly just sought out youtube videos or nearby, amateur theatre productions—something about local actors playing Sardines on a small stage, delivering flowery dialogue whilst smacking each other with wooden swords really just hit different.


One thing that remains fundamental in my Hamlet headcanon is Hamlet’s casting needs to be very particular. To me, Hamlet’s story is an iconic depiction of angsty, chaotic teenage rebellion, complete with a dead parent, emotional trauma, catharsis and violence. Hamlet is the original bad boy, surrounded by wealth, no real interest in his royal duties, and way too cool for sex. I think David Tennant is a very good choice here—an emotive heartthrob, funny, energetic and has probably made a lot of us under 30 cry at least once. I still think a young Hamlet should be the casting age; mid life crisis or or geriatric Hamlet just doesn’t work. 


I feel BBC movies, even in their cinema-released productions, often can’t escape their televisual roots. A lot of projects just don’t feel very dynamic and are a bit perfunctory in their storytelling. Not to say this adaptation jumps high beyond the confines of its budget, but it still finds moments of cinematic flair. The lighting and set design look good, though I do wonder if a lot of Shakespeare adaptations that go down the contemporary route come from financial compromise. The film does try to be a bit more technically interesting, with Hamlet’s soliloquies in particular, as it doesn't let the camera and editing get in the way of the performances too much but does enough to make it not feel like just a filmed play.


Not to undermine the other great actors, such as Patrick Stewart as Claudius and the ghost of Hamlet's father, but Tenant is the driving force of this production—his energy is goosebump inducing.


I watched this after sitting through a live broadcast, a Rory Kinnear-led adaptation, and Tennant’s was definitely the better half of the 7 hour Shakespeare adventure I set forth on (I won't be mean, Kinnear just wasn't the rebel without a cause I needed).


As much as I often rag on BBC/UK TV produced shows and adaptations, I think TV has the potential to offer Shakespeare plays the space and intimacy they need to breathe without the restrictions a mega budget, action-hungry Hollywood production might enforce on the project. I think for once, the balance here is struck quite nicely.



David Tennant as Hamlet, holding a skull up to his chin. He is wearing a navy blue beanie, a turtleneck jumper and a battered black parka..
Alas, poor Yorick! He just wants a nap... (Credit: Tristram Kenton)

Harriet


As a former theatre kid and an English Lit grad, Shakespeare holds a very special place in my heart. However, Hamlet has never been a favourite of mine. My knowledge of the play is relegated to vague memories of GCSE English and, from what I could recall, the play was long and political and filled with meandering monologues. But I am always open to being persuaded. So sitting down to watch BBC’s Hamlet, I forced myself to keep an open mind, and I am so glad I did.


This is the sort of adaptation that could convince a person to like Shakespeare, and I can see why it was so revered. It is entirely based on the skill of the cast and their ability to hold the attention of the audience for the hefty three-hour run time. David Tennant in particular is fantastic. He is a gifted Shakespearian actor, approaching the lines with a fluidity and natural cadence that relays the dialogue in a way that would have made The Bard proud. His Hamlet is equally likeable and unnerving – he is able to accurately portray grief in such a way that manages to justify Hamlet’s madness and his actions. Patrick Stewart, the other top billed actor, is also very good, but is given a more restricted role with Claudius. I would have liked to have seen him take a comic turn as Polonius, though Oliver Ford Davies does a brilliant job as the bumbling counsellor.


Each adaptation looks to see how they can keep this play fresh, and this production is the same. People have mixed feelings about setting Shakespeare in the modern day, but given the play has been performed for four hundred years, I think it is necessary to attempt to keep the material exciting. The use of cameras in this adaptation is very unusual, using them to provide an objective visual on the scenes whilst also giving the feeling of constantly being watched. The cameras, combined with the conscious breaking of the fourth wall, give the actors someone to talk to without a physical audience present. They never explained why this castle had such aggressive surveillance, though I would imagine it was to show the tyranny of the new King. 


I would have liked to see them use more sets. Perhaps it was due to budget constraints, or perhaps they wanted to keep the staging as if it were a play, but most of the production was staged within one room. When adapting a play to screen, you can use the benefits of filming that a stage production cannot give you. This being said, keeping the majority of the action in one room did compound the feeling of claustrophobia that had been encouraged through the dark walls and camera surveillance, so perhaps it was an intentional choice. 


Is Hamlet worth all the remakes? I think so. There is a magic to Shakespeare that is often muffled by the density of the language and the length of the plays. At its core, Hamlet is about grief, a universal emotion that we all have or will experience. Stripping away the war for a throne, or the descent into madness, or the sheer amount of murder, this is a play about a man who desperately misses his father and has had the ground pulled from under his feet. Tennant does this beautifully, humanising a character whose path could appear so far removed from our own, and showing us why Hamlet is still considered one of the best plays of all time. 




Review edited by Artie

30 views

Recent Posts

See All

Ripley

Comments


bottom of page