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n many ways it‘s a dream scenario: opera-toting. dog-loving Italian

chiselled-featured surefire-box-office apocalypse-hero Mel Gibson to film the world's most famous playwright. A fusion of perfect components for a project with endless potential. Let‘s face it. though. thepitfalls are many. Since the high-water mark ofOlivier‘s wartime Henry V. the success of filmed Shakespeare has been in steady decline: Branagh‘s re-working ofthe same play last year despite all the acclaim only demonstrates how hard it can be. Mel might turnout to be rubbish. And Zeffirelli‘s own undoubted bravura skills could get the better of him - not for nothing did Time magazine call him ‘a director who needs a director‘.

Hamlet represents Zeffirelli‘s third tussle with the Shakespeare monster: his attitude towards all these creations is at once reverential and faintly bemused. ‘l low can I say. . .' he ponders. ‘Iiilms are like children: sometimes one feels compelled to create something. to pass life on to something else. I have been thinking of Hamlet practically since I began to work. When I was a kid. I played I lamlet in a small university production. and ever since then it has a special place in my heart. Twenty years after my last Shakespeare film I thought I was ready to try again I‘m very glad I didn’t do it before. like I wanted to many times. In all humility. I think I'm in better shape culturally. as a man I know better. I'm more balanced than before.”

Shakespearean influence has. in fact. always been evident in Zeffirelli‘s work. After a short apprenticeship with Luchino Visconti. he began his directorial career in America with a film of The Taming ()f The Shrew starring Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. I le quickly followed this with his celebrated version of Romeo zlnclJttliel. made in 1968. which revolutionised box-office sense about Shakespeare by filtering the play though a then novel hippy consciousness. In his attempt to cinematise the classic. Zeffirelli created his distinctive brand ofdreamy romanticism with a modern kind of pastoral idyll. Inside the costume-drama trappings there is eroticism aplenty. as beautiful teenagers play beautiful teenagers. and Mercutio is given a strong gay identity. The kids. apparently. went wild for it. A generation on. Zeffirelli considers that the same kind ofeffect is possible with Hamlet. ‘I feel that in the world today I would love to see a production of Hamlet.‘ he says. ‘There hasn‘t been anything of any relevance for about 40 years. That is extremly unfair to the young generation. They are not offered the opportunity to find the classics. My frustrations as a father make me devote all my work to the younger generation in the USA and Italy I wasn't surprised at all to see people from all age brackets coming to see this. It was a very mixed cross-section. A lot of young people came to see what Hamlet was all about.‘

Pandering to juvenile tastes is. understandably. the charge most often thrown at Zeffirelli. I lis next film after Romeo And/alter. the 1972 life of St Francis ofAssissi. BrotlierSttn. SisterMoon. fared so badly that it was nine years before

6The List 19 April 2 May 1991


highbrow Franco Zeffirelli teams up with l

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Hollywood allowed him to make another film. Rehabilitated by the designer television ofJesus‘ ()fNazaretlt. his subsequent efforts - a remake of the weepy melodrama The (hump and the Brooke Shields vehicle Endless Love were trashy to the core. but they betrayed an acute sensitivity to the manipulation ofemotion. The latter in particular explored the boundaries between love and psychosis. idyll and nightmare. with disconcerting relish.

What is more to the point is Zeffirelli‘s obvious love for the grand gesture. the raising ofthe emotional stakes. It has


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become a critical commonplace in this work. but it is clear how his involvement in a series of ground-breaking opera productions has influenced his work. ‘I have an approach larger than life.’ he says. ‘that comes from my familiarity with opera in general. When your characters sing. you must create around them a visual plane that matches the sublime absurdity oftheir singing: but when your characters speak poetry you have to create a plane ofgrandeur that matches this also.‘ It is patently obvious that Hamlet is Zeffirelli’s most restrained film to date a

Claudius. . . guilty secret

Ophelia. . . love rejection drove hermad

collage of sombre browns and greys. with fil only briefspectacular glimpses of a dramatic green landscape yet the same attention to texture is amply demonstrated.

(‘rucially though. as in Romeo x-lll(l.lllll(’l. Zeffirelli's strength lies in the lucidity ofthis film's narrative. ‘I used exactly the same approach.‘ he says. ‘Tell the story in the clearest. fairest way. Once you have that narrative line well carved. then you can see what these characters have to offer. The main purpose for me as a movie director a man who tells stories through his camera —- is to tell the story clearly. Shakespeare is a fantastic storyteller. Although we have a kind of divinity for him. originally this man was paid to write stories for his contemporary audience. He wasn‘t there to write philosophical texts or create cultural experiences. It just happened to be a moment in time when people wrote beautifully. in poetry.‘

The cast assembled to make Hamlet is. on paper. one ofthe strongest since the epic hits of the early 70s. Zeffirelli is very much alive to the need to glamorise his Hamlet. to impress the movie-going public by sheer weight of acting numbers. ‘With a budget of $1 1 million. you have to be careful that big audiences come to see your work. This was one ofthe reasons why I insisted on using important actors. great actors. and it worked well that way I think. When you do Hamlet. you need to have a big leading actor. The first problem. though. is not satisfying the audience in the theatre first you have to

Gertrude. . . married husband's slayer

Polonius. . . stabbed by daughter’s lover ]