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Afternoon Delight: Best Hamlet on Film. Ever. Trust Me.
by Jerome Weeks 9 May 2011

When he made his legendary (but rarely seen) film version of ‘Hamlet’ in 1964, director Grigori Kozintsev had three great advantages: a script by Boris Pasternak, music by Dmitri Shostakovich and the Soviet Army for extras. But it’s his brilliant use of darkness and his thunderous theatricality that makes this ‘Hamlet’ breathtaking.


Afternoon Delight is a daily diversion for when you’re just back from lunch, but not quite ready to get back to work. Check back tomorrow at 1 p.m. for another one.

Ukrainian writer-director Grigori Kozintsev made two gloriously cinematic film adaptations of William Shakespeare: Hamlet in 1964 and the director’s last film, King Lear in 1971. They’re not very widely known in the West, however, because although they were made during the Khrushchevian “Thaw” that permitted greater artistic independence in the Soviet Union, they received limited distribution in the West. And after the Cold War ended in the late ’80s, access to them from outside Russia seemed to be a muddle of red tape and unresolved issues. And then there’s the fact that it’s sub-titled Shakespeare. Not a big selling point.

I was fortunate to see both on 16mm copies in the late ’70s — and have spent the years since, trying to convince people that Kenneth Branagh and Laurence Olivier’s versions of Hamlet seem small in comparison. Now you can see both Kozintsev films on DVD and his Hamlet is even available, cut up in sections, on YouTube.

Of course, Kozintsev had three formidable advantages that no other Shakespearean director has had: a script by novelist Boris Pasternak (which, although too truncated for some purists, retains real dramatic power), incredible music by Dmitri Shostakovich and the cooperation of the Soviet army when it came to extras in the battle scenes.

The results are epic. But what truly distinguishes Kozintsev’s Hamlet, in particular, is his rich, Wellesian use of light and darkness — this is a very noir-ish Shakespeare. Kozintsev also had a highly theatrical sense of the dramatic and the visual. The use of the medieval clock with its figure of Death, the shots with the horses panicking before anyone else sees the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, the crosscuts between King Claudius’ raucous festivities and the cold, huddled figures on the castle battlements, the repeated images of people (or horses) retreating into doors or bolting out of them: The entire sequence has a terrific feel for suspense, contrast and imagery.

Most especially, it’s Kozintsev’s treatment of the Ghost that makes this brilliant. Kozintsev understood, as few stage directors seem to, that for the opening scenes of Hamlet to work, to kick the tragedy off with the right shock and awe, the Ghost has to have a terrifying, gothic impact (he certainly would have had on stage in Elizabethan London). Kozintsev makes Hamlet’s father a giant, marching suit of black armor — he’s like Darth Vader with his cape whipping around behind him.

Yet when he finally speaks, when he delivers the message that will power the rest of the play, driving Hamlet to revenge and to death — the Ghost whispers. I’m not ashamed to say it: Nearly four decades after I first saw it, this thing still gives me chills.