Bruce Ramsay’s fun-size Hamlet is notable for its omissions, cutting out poetry, politics, dialogue, characters, and famous scenes, and putting the focus on a fucked-up family.
It’s a tidy 90 minutes that crams the play’s events into a single evening, locks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the yard, and leaves Yorick respectfully interred.
Shakespeare’s plays are like Colorform playsets in which the characters can be stuck on basically any backdrop — the Upper West Side, 1920s gangland, World War II, or the inside of Baz Luhrmann’s brain, for instance.
Ramsay, who wrote and directed and plays mopey ol’ Hamlet, opts for a vague gesture at Downton Abbey with waistcoats, braces, some lesser English estate, and a single old-timey car.
The generic surroundings and the deliberately unstudied photography emphasize the drama, but the setting doesn’t evoke any particular contemporary frisson. If the Edwardian costumes hadn’t been available, Ramsay could well have set it in the existential whiteness of a Progressive Insurance ad. Skipping preliminaries, Hamlet arrives home and immediately bones Ophelia against the wall (“in honorable fashion,” ha ha), and stalks around the gloomy mansion engaging family in fast-paced confrontations.
So why isn’t this adaptation sweatier, madder, more bloody and breathless? Peter Wingfield delivers an engagingly oily Claudius, and Lara Gilchrist’s Ophelia is radiant.
But Ramsay’s Hamlet’s madness never really overcomes the character’s traditional emo temperament, and anyone who believes the play is a dry sponge isn’t going to feel much wetter when the lights come back up.