Denmark isn’t Denmark in this adaptation of Hamlet, directed by Alexander Fodor and co-written with Emeke Nwokedi. It’s a child of low-budget necessity set in a room above a pub, door-lined corridors and the odd outdoor settings. The film could have been a theatrical production filmed in someone’s apartment complex or basement. But low-budget isn’t a liability to Fodor, who does the only sensible thing: he makes an art film. Denmark, through Diego Indraccolo overexposed (occasionally unstable) cinematography, inverted colours, and other avant-garde rock-video tricks, takes the ordinary and makes it hallucinatory.
It’s as if we’re watching the drama unfold in a kind of timeless, spaceless limbo, a purgatory in which mundane places become haunted spaces with the characters serving as ghosts enacting tragedy in a kind of eternal recurrence. Recalling, at least in the broad strokes, Lars Von Trier’s “Dogville” experiment in which the sets consisted of lines on the floor, the lack of conventionally identifiable locations in Fodor’s Hamlet creates a tingly feeling of claustrophobia and otherworldliness. The drama’s the thing; everything else is supernatural.
Although postmodern style does set it apart from Frank Zefirelli’s medieval grittiness and Kenneth Branagh’s lush classicism, Fodor’s cinematic decisions aren’t the film’s only distinction from previous screen incarnations. Zefirelli added a questionable incestuous dimension to Hamlet’s relationship with his mother. Branagh, in presenting the play in its entirety, made different artistic choices. Fodor takes his turn in veering away from Shakespeare’s text by turning Polonius into Polonia (Piechowiak) – sister to oddly brutish Laertes (Wing) and drug-addicted Ophelia (Sheffield) – and, critically, something of a femme fatale whose political machinations are distinctly Machiavellian. Notably, the spin stems from how, where and by who Shakespeare’s lines are delivered – style and editing – rather than the creation of new material to seal over the fault lines between those scenes from the play that make it into the film. (Naturally, Fodor and Nwokedi take a few liberties here and there, but there’s nothing to quibble about in that). Another gender change: Horatio, who becomes Horatia (Reddin-Clancy) and brings along a whole new set of subtexts.
Risk and Controversy
There are textual difficulties, of course, in these kinds of changes. Case in point: What do we make of Hamlet’s love for Ophelia (“Forty thousand brothers could not, with all their quantity of love, make up my sum”) given the tenderness between Hamlet and Horatia? More controversial still is Hamlet’s de-emphasized presence in the story’s events. As the press kit takes pains to point out, and the film consistently supports, this could very well have been called The Ghost’s Revenge. James Frail, black-clad and unsmiling, is not simply an apparition that has his moment kick-starting the play before retiring; he is a constant, ominous presence to the very end; a portent of doom, in a sense. And with an opening sequence in which Fodor introduces the characters by way of association with chess pieces, that feeling of eternally recurring, supernaturally-driven tragedy is unavoidable. Claudius (Hanson) is the white king, Gertrude the white queen, Polonia the red queen, and Laertes the red knight. The pawns, in this scheme, are Ophelia (red) and Hamlet (white). Where there are chess pieces, there must a chess master. Suddenly Hamlet is but an instrument, and it is the Ghost who plays the tune.
In the face of the standard model – hero tragically undone by his own flaw – Fodor and Nwokedi’s interpretation is decidedly risky. It’s a bold risk, however, akin to Baz Lurhman’s take on Romeo and Juliet. There’s a price to be paid in terms of emotional connection – the full-force of the tragedy and Hamlet’s character is lost in the bleak atmospherics – but, nevertheless, the aim for something different provokes thought.
Fodor’s Hamlet is a visionary and intellectual achievement, beautifully performed with a flair for keeping to the naturalistic. It wears its controversy well. Entertainment Value: ** (out of two) Technical Quality: ** (out of two) Gold star awarded!
Adapted from Shakespeare's Hamlet by Alexander Fodor and Emeke Nwokedi. Directed by Alexander Fodor. Starring Wilson Belchambers, Katie Redding-Clancy, Tallulah Sheffield, Lydia Piechowiak, James Frail, Di Sherlock, Jason Wing and Alan Hanson. 131 minutes. Released to DVD on April 29, 2008. Visit www.echelonstudios.us for more information. By Frederik Sisa, THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE