Shakespeare's tragedies would go straight into the Horror section of the video store today. They overdose on melodrama, but because they can also be found on the Classics shelf, high body counts are acceptable and so this bloodstained dysfunctional masterpiece is given the ultimate family accolade - a PG certificate.

Franco Zeffirelli is known for his operatic style. He likes to dress sets with colour and fill them with bustling humanity. Italians are neither cold, nor withdrawn, and yet the chill winds around Elsinore and the long dark Danish winters are harsh indeed.

The rumbustious clamour of The Taming Of The Shrew and the passionate romance of Romeo & Juliet is Zeffirelli's natural habitat and yet neither of these cinematic adaptations made critics jump for joy. When homegrowns (Olivier, Branagh) tackle the Bard, they are shoulder hoisted. When others (Welles, Polanski, Zeffirelli) have a go, they are patronised and softly rebuked.

Hamlet is almost holy. Touch him and you die. When Zeffirelli announced his cast, everyone giggled. Mad Max as the prince? The curly haired adulteress from Fatal Attraction as his mum? Was this a cynical gesture to gain box office brownies?

There are two dangers with Will, taking him too seriously and thinking the RSC has performance rights. Zeffirelli avoids both and triumphs. His enormous risks look neither enormous, nor risky. Even filming in a ruined Scottish castle gives a powerful, rough-hewn solidity to the shape of the film, when a studio mock up would have been easier, prettier and more malleable.

Franco the Fabulous has learnt to listen. Still the light is liquid, still the carpets and wall hangings flatter, still the clothes have fashion beyond their practicality. Now he lets language and players unite, without a rush towards new interpretation, avoiding chorus clutter, emphasising purity, feeling the sense and letting the poetry go.

Bringing weight into the support section is a clever move. If the star signings fail on the day, these stalwart thespians will hold the line. And so they do. Paul Scofield's ghost gives dignity back to dead people and Ian Holm scuttles about as Polonius, pressing for advantage with such delicate sycophancy that manipulation is only a pleasure.

Ophelia's role has never been more than a peg upon which to hang "Get thee to a nunnery!" with damaged dreams of adolescent love. Usually she wafts, like a vision of Millais, into lunacy and the duck pond, so beautifully doomed she never lives. Helena Bonham Carter has strength beneath that longing, intelligence behind those wide wet eyes, desires beyond redemption. She is no pullet. She has hawks' blood in her veins.

Claudius marries for position and power, with his brother's body only a month in the ground. While his nephew Hamlet sulks in his room, upsetting his mother and annoying Ophelia, he's not threatening anything except his own peace of mind. Only later, after his father's ghost tells him the nature of his murder, does he become a serious liability, forcing Claudius to make his move.

Alan Bates takes care with this man, never slipping into absurdity. His affection for Gertrude assumes a tactile familiarity, assuming the lover's pose. Bates has such perfect balance. He walks the wire without fear and gives credence to a villain who, otherwise, might have worn a black hat and sharpened his teeth on the bones of wild boar.

Glenn Close brings more sexuality to Gertrude than she did to the Marquise de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons. Her love for Hamlet is as close to incestuous as the Elizabethan censor will allow. Or is it guilt that spurs her to passion? Claudius is hungry for reassurance, while Hamlet starves in his father's shadow. She, the queen, must satisfy both. The charm that heals also clothes the cunning. And this lady understands.

Hamlet's heart may be broken and mind messed up by his mother's betrayal, yet he appears careless of his own protection. Mel Gibson lets him play, fooling with his friends, teasing Ophelia, never allowing them to know what he's really thinking, tearing pages out of books to shock the learned Polonius, twirling his sword like a Danish Billy, as wild as brambles.

Gibson's courage captures criticism. He leaps at the role with such raw excitement that comparisons are superfluous. He is physical; he is irresponsible; he is FUN!

Zeffirelli's gamble pays off. Beneath the skin of the road warrior is a true prince of Denmark.

Reviewed on: 19 Dec 2005
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Mel Gibson brings a lighter touch to the anguished prince of Denmark
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Director: Franco Zeffirelli

Writer: Christopher De Vore, Franco Zeffirelli, based on the play by William Shakespeare

Starring: Mel Gibson, Glenn Close, Alan Bates, Paul Scofield, Ian Holm, Helena Bonham Carter, Stephen Dillane, Nathaniel Parker, Sean Murray, Michael Maloney, Trevor Peacock, John McEnery, Richard Warwick

Year: 1990

Runtime: 130 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US/UK/France

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