As the original self-doubting neurotic of Western literature, Hamlet tends to come off as a furrowed-brow intellectual — that’s certainly the way Laurence Olivier played him in his 1948 film version. Yet one of the most appealing (and universal) aspects of Shakespeare’s legendary Dane is that he’s also the original Rebel Without a Cause: a young man who works himself up into self- righteous fits, railing against a world that has fallen short of his moral standards.
That’s the taking-off point for Mel Gibson’s surprisingly supple performance in Hamlet, a Franco Zeffirelli production. Gibson makes no real attempt to camouflage his sexy vigor. Sporting a beard and a Prince Valiant hairdo that brings out his melancholy eyebrows, he nevertheless performs with a smiling wit and some of the quicksilver energy he brought to the Lethal Weapon films. His Hamlet is a charismatic brat, a feisty youth whose anger over the treachery surrounding his mother’s remarriage gradually shades off into genuine despair. Zeffirelli has trimmed the play to the bone, and his approach here, as in his 1968 Romeo and Juliet, is to render Shakespeare’s poetry as close to natural speech as possible. Purists may be driven up the wall, yet this is a fluid, compelling production. Imaginative highlights include a nicely de-melodramatized Yorick’s-skull scene, the final sword fight, and Helena Bonham-Carter’s startlingly good performance as the spacey Ophelia. B+