Hamlet (1990 film)

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Theatrical release poster
Directed by Franco Zeffirelli
Written byFranco Zeffirelli
Christopher De Vore
Based on Hamlet
by William Shakespeare
Produced by Bruce Davey
Dyson Lovell
Cinematography David Watkin
Edited byRichard Marden
Music by Ennio Morricone
Distributed by
Release dates
  • 19 December 1990 (1990-12-19)(limited)
  • 18 January 1991 (1991-01-18)(wide)
Running time
134 minutes [1]
CountriesUnited States
United Kingdom
Budget£12.6 million [2]
Box office$20.7 million [3]

Hamlet is a 1990 drama film based on the Shakespearean tragedy of the same name, directed by Franco Zeffirelli and starring Mel Gibson as the eponymous character. The film also features Glenn Close, Alan Bates, Paul Scofield, Ian Holm, Helena Bonham Carter, Stephen Dillane, and Nathaniel Parker. An international co-production between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Italy, the film was the first produced by Icon Productions, a company co-founded by Gibson.



The film largely follows the plot of the original play, albeit omitting certain dialogue and minor characters to fit the average length of a feature film. This version also makes no modern day adaptations.



Zeffirelli announced production of the film in April 1989 at a press conference in Los Angeles. Mel Gibson was at that same press conference, where it was announced that he would play Hamlet. Zeffirelli had set out to make a Shakespearian adaptation that would be accessible and appealing to younger viewers, and casting Gibson was considered an intent to lure said audience into seeing it. [4] Glenn Close was another obvious choice, having had recent box-office success with such Hollywood thrillers as Jagged Edge and Fatal Attraction .

Financing was provided on loan from a Dutch bank by Carolco Pictures, Barry Spikings' Nelson Entertainment, and Sovereign Pictures for approximately $16 million. Filming was set to begin on 23 April 1990, with an 11-week shooting schedule. [4]

Gibson, who had grown up idolizing one of his costars, legendary Shakespearean actor Paul Scofield, compared the experience of performing Shakespeare alongside him to being, "thrown into the ring with Mike Tyson". [5]

Dunnottar Castle, Stonehaven and Blackness Castle were used as locations in the film. Dover Castle provided the main location for Elsinore Castle, the home of Hamlet and his family. [6] Interiors were filmed at Shepperton Studios in London. [4]

Norma Moriceau was the project's initial costume designer, but quit for unknown reasons, to be replaced by Maurizio Millenotti. Tailors from Shepperton assembled the costumes. [4]

The film attracted little attention from major Hollywood studios, until post-production, when companies such as Warner Bros., Paramount, and Orion expressed interest in purchasing the film. Nelson Entertainment, which held the North American distribution rights, licensed theatrical exhibition to Warner as part of an incentive to lure Gibson into making Lethal Weapon 3 . Despite Nelson owning a home video arm, they sold the video rights to Warner as well. Warner Bros. attempted to attract high schools with study guides and vouchers for students. An hour-long educational video titled Mel Gibson Goes Back to School was released in conjunction with the film, showing the actor lecturing Hamlet to a group of high-school students in Los Angeles. [4]

Adaptation and interpretation

Film scholar Deborah Cartmell has suggested that Zeffirelli's Shakespeare films are appealing because they are "sensual rather than cerebral", an approach by which he aims to make Shakespeare "even more popular". [7] To this end, he cast Gibson – then famous for the Mad Max and Lethal Weapon films – in the title role. Cartmell also notes that the text is drastically cut, but with the effect of enhancing the roles of the women.

J. Lawrence Guntner has suggested that Zeffirelli's cinematography borrows heavily from the action film genre that made Gibson famous, noting that its average shot length is less than six seconds. [8] In casting Gibson, the director has been said to have made the star's reputation part of the performance, encouraging the audience "to see the Gibson that they have come to expect from his other films". [9] Indeed, Zeffirelli cast Gibson after watching the scene in Lethal Weapon in which Gibson's character, Martin Riggs, contemplates suicide. [10] The fight between Hamlet and Laertes is an example of using Gibson's experience in action movies; Gibson depicts Hamlet as an experienced swordsman.


Critical response

Initial reviews for Zeffirelli's Hamlet were mixed. [4] Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars, calling Mel Gibson's portrayal of the Danish Prince "a strong, intelligent performance." [11] Caryn James of The New York Times praised Zeffirelli's "naturalistic, emotionally-charged" direction and also commended Gibson's "visceral" performance, describing it as "strong, intelligent and safely beyond ridicule." [10] Peter Travers of Rolling Stone gave the film a negative review, calling Gibson's performance "an earnest but pedestrian reading." [12] Michael Wilmington of the Los Angeles Times called Gibson's Hamlet an "Oedipal wreck" and stated that either Kenneth Branagh or Daniel Day-Lewis would have been preferable to play Hamlet than Gibson. [13] A later editorial in the same paper would refer to Gibson's performance as "the most unaffected and lucid Hamlet in memory." [4]

On Rotten Tomatoes the film has an approval rating of 76% based on reviews from 37 critics. The site's consensus was, "It may lack some of the depth and complexity of the play, but Mel Gibson and Franco Zeffirelli make a surprisingly successful team." [14] On Metacritic the film has a score of 53% based on reviews from 18 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews". [15] Audiences surveyed by CinemaScore gave the film a grade A on scale of A to F. [16]


The film was nominated for two Academy Awards, for Best Art Direction (Dante Ferretti, Francesca Lo Schiavo) and Best Costume Design (Maurizio Millenotti). [17] Sir Alan Bates received a BAFTA nomination as Best Supporting Actor for playing Claudius. [18]

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  1. 1 2 "HAMLET (PG)". British Board of Film Classification . 1 July 1991. Retrieved 27 July 2013.
  2. "Back to the Future: The Fall and Rise of the British Film Industry in the 1980s - An Information Briefing" (PDF). British Film Institute. 2005. p. 23.
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  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 "Detail view of Movies Page – HAMLET (1990)". afi.com. Retrieved 20 September 2020.
  5. "Paul Scofield's career highlights". The Daily Telegraph. London. 20 March 2008. Retrieved 16 July 2010.
  6. Kent Film Office. "Kent Film Office Hamlet Film Focus".
  7. Cartmell, Deborah (2007). "Zeffirelli and Shakespeare". In Jackson, Russell (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film (Second ed.). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. p.  216. ISBN   978-0521866002.
  8. Guntner, J. Lawrence (2007). "Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear on film". In Jackson, Russell (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film (Second ed.). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. p.  121. ISBN   978-0521866002.
  9. Quigley, Daniel (Winter 1993). "Double Exposure". Shakespeare Bulletin. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press: 38–9.
  10. 1 2 James, Caryn (19 December 1990). "Review/Film; From Mad Max to a Prince Possessed". The New York Times . New York City. Retrieved 22 October 2019.
  11. Ebert, Roger (18 January 1991). "Hamlet (1990)". Chicago Sun-Times . Chicago, Illinois: Sun-Times Media Group . Retrieved 1 May 2020.
  12. Travers, Peter (18 January 1991). "Hamlet". Rolling Stone . New York City: Wenner Media LLC. Retrieved 31 May 2012.
  13. Wilmington, Michael (18 January 1991). "MOVIE REVIEW : Gibson as Hamlet Has Little to Add". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 10 March 2020.
  14. "Hamlet (1990)". Rotten Tomatoes . San Francisco, California: Fandango Media . Retrieved 31 May 2020.
  15. "Hamlet". Metacritic . Retrieved 10 October 2020.
  16. "HAMLET (1991) A". CinemaScore . Archived from the original on 20 December 2018.
  17. "The 63rd Academy Awards (1991) Nominees and Winners". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 2 August 2011.
  18. "1992 Film Actor in a Supporting Role". BAFTA Awards. Retrieved 20 September 2016.