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HAMLET is a superbly-produced version of Shakespeare's play, with strong performances all around. Zeffirelli catches the look and feel of medieval Europe very well.

Zeffirelli's HAMLET opens at the funeral of King Hamlet, and cuts quickly to a feast, about two months later, when Queen Gertrude has married her dead husband's brother, King Claudius. The old king Hamlet has been almost forgotten, except by his grieving son, Hamlet. Nothing can rouse Hamlet from his stupor, and seeing the ghost of his father unhinges him.

Hamlet seems unhinged by more than his father's ghost. The spectre of sex also unhinges him. He's torn by his feelings for Ophelia, his feelings for his mother, and his convictions that his mother has dishonored his father. His madness is more than just a mask---he's loosing it early in the film, and spends the rest of the movie loosing it.

Mel Gibson gives a fine performance as Hamlet. I particularly liked Helena Bonham-Carter, who gives a really strong performance as Ophelia. Ophelia comes off as a very weak woman in most productions of HAMLET, but in this version you can hear the passion in her voice. Glen Close and Alan Bates portray Queen Gertrude and King Claudius as love-sick adolescents, but it works very well. And Ian Holm is sufficiently dottering as the advice-giving Polonius.

In HENRY V, Kenneth Branagh kept the frame of a theatrical production around the film, by starting the movie on a sound stage and keeping the Chorus (Derek Jacobi) in the film. Zeffirelli completely divorces Hamlet from theater, and opens up the play by adding a few short scenes that had only been described in the original. While I tend to be a purist about original material, the additions keep true to the spirit of the play.

My only reservation about the movie is that Gibson's performance is a little erratic. His early scenes of madness are a tad too wild-eyed. He is brilliant late in the movie, particularly in the climatic scene with Gertrude. However, Hamlet is a tough role to simply "act" in; it requires a theatrical performance.

It's rated PG-13. I'm not sure why--the killings aren't particularly brutal, there isn't much in the way of bad language, and the sex is only implied. (Actually, the "country matters" speech was said somewhat more laciviously than I'd seen before, and Hamlet attacks Gertrude in an almost rape-like manner.) Our ten-year-old begged to go, so we took her. Unfortunately, she was rather bored by it. (I forgot to note earlier that she enjoyed AWAKENINGS, but is now worried about getting encephalitis!) If your pre-teen wants to go, you might suggest they watch Zeffirelli's ROMEO AND JULIET on tape first, to see if they can follow it.

HAMLET is definitely worth seeing on a big screen. There are some lovely sweeping shots that will get lost on TV. It's also worth paying full price for. I'd give it an 8.