Hamlet (1990 film)

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Theatrical release poster
Directed byFranco Zeffirelli
Produced byBruce Davey
Dyson Lovell
Written byFranco Zeffirelli
Christopher De Vore
Based onHamlet
by William Shakespeare
Music byEnnio Morricone
CinematographyDavid Watkin
Edited byRichard Marden
Distributed byWarner Bros.
(North America)
Carolco Pictures
Release date
19 December 1990
18 January 1991
Running time
134 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
United Kingdom
Box office$20.7 million[2]

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 France, the film was the first produced by Icon Productions, a company co-founded by Gibson.


In Denmark, Prince Hamlet finds himself involved in a conspiracy of powerful interests within the royal palace. Cruel uncle Claudius kills his brother and takes the power of the kingdom. After an encounter with the restless ghost of his murdered father, Hamlet feigns madness and plots to take vengeance.



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.[3] 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, to the tune of roughly $16 million. Filming was set to begin on 23 April 1990, with an 11-week shooting schedule.[3]

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.[4] Interiors were filmed at Shepperton Studios in London.[3]

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.[3]

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.[3]

Adaptation and interpretation[edit]

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".[5] 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.[6] 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".[7] Indeed, Gibson was cast after Zeffirelli watched his character, Martin Riggs, contemplate suicide in Lethal Weapon;[8] the fight between Hamlet and Laertes is an example of using Gibson's experience in action movies; Gibson handily depicts Hamlet as an experienced fencer.


Critical response[edit]

Initial reviews for Zeffirelli's Hamlet were mixed.[3] Noted critic Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times awarded the film three-and-a-half out of four stars, calling Mel Gibson's portrayal of the Danish Prince "a strong, intelligent performance."[9] 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."[11] A Los Angeles Times review stated that either Kenneth Branagh or Daniel Day-Lewis would have been preferable to play Hamlet than Gibson, and a later editorial in the same paper would refer to Gibson's performance as "the most unaffected and lucid Hamlet in memory."[3]

Hamlet currently holds a 74% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes from 34 reviews with the consensus, "It may lack some of the depth and complexity of the play, but Mel Gibson and Franco Zeffirelli make a surprisingly successful team."[12]


The movie received two Academy Awards nominations, for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design (Dante Ferretti, Francesca Lo Schiavo).[13] Sir Alan Bates received a BAFTA nomination as Best Supporting Actor for playing Claudius.[14]


  1. ^ "HAMLET (U)". British Board of Film Classification. 1 July 1991. Retrieved 27 July 2013.
  2. ^ "Hamlet (1990)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 29 May 2017.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g "Detail view of Movies Page – HAMLET (1990)". afi.com. Retrieved 20 September 2016.
  4. ^ Kent Film Office. "Kent Film Office Hamlet Film Focus".
  5. ^ ^ Cartmell, Deborah Franco Zeffirelli and Shakespeare in Jackson, Russell (ed.) The film heavily emphasized the 20th Century interpretation of the relationship between Hamlet and Gertrude as Oedipus Complex. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Screen (Cambridge University Press, second edition, 2007) p.216, quoting a Zeffirelli interview given to The South Bank Show in December 1997
  6. ^ Guntner, J. Lawrence: Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear on film in Jackson, Russell (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film (Cambridge University Press, second edition, 2007) p. 124
  7. ^ Daniel Quigley, Double Exposure, in Shakespeare Bulletin winter 1993 pp.38–9, cited by Harry Keyishian, Shakespeare and Movie Genre: The Case of Hamlet in Jackson, Russell (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film (second edition, Cambridge University Press, 2007) p.77
  8. ^ Keyishian, pp.72–81
  9. ^ Ebert, Roger (18 January 1991). "Hamlet (1990)". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 31 May 2012.
  10. ^ James, Caryn (19 January 1991). "Hamlet (1990)". The New York Times. Retrieved 31 May 2012.
  11. ^ Travers, Peter (18 January 1991). "Hamlet". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 31 May 2012.
  12. ^ "Hamlet (1990)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 31 May 2012.
  13. ^ "The 63rd Academy Awards (1991) Nominees and Winners". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 2 August 2011.
  14. ^ "1992 Film Actor in a Supporting Role | BAFTA Awards". awards.bafta.org. Retrieved 20 September 2016.

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