Having been out of circulation for so many years gave Grigory Kozintsev’s 1964 adaptation of “Hamlet” the tag of being a classic by reputation – its greatness was only confirmed by those who were fortunate enough to have seen it during its original theatrical release or very rare film society revivals. Now that it has finally arrived on DVD, its greatness can truly be confirmed by a wider audience.
The film is generally considered to be among the finest works of Soviet cinema and Shakespearean cinema. Both titles are without dispute. Kozintsev worked from a translation of the play by Boris Pasternak (who was still a taboo presence in Soviet culture of that time and, thus, is not cited in the film’s credits) and, not unlike the 1948 Laurence Olivier version, pared down the work into something manageable for cinematic presentation. But Kozintsev goes further in bringing long passages without words to the screen – the absence of Shakespeare is filled with the glory of Dmitri Shostakovich’s symphonic score, which brilliantly mirrors the tumultuous emotions of the classic work.
Kozintsev’s “Hamlet” is also a reflect of where and when it was made. Soviet audiences could easily have appreciated the view of Elsinore as a reflection of the USSR: a massive fortress, shut off from the rest of the world, where armed guards and oleaginous spies keep tabs on those around them. The stark black-and-white cinematography by Yonus Gritsius presents doom-and-gloom with striking artistry – it is an environment of harsh passion, where emotions are so strong that they transcend the lack of colors.
Also taking a page from Olivier, Kozintsev presents some of Hamlet’s musings via the soundtrack while his star, the brilliant Innokenti Smoktunovsky, quietly conveys the maelstrom of feelings that implode within Hamlet’s soul. The “to be or not to be” soliloquy is presented against a vast seascape where waves crash wildly into massive shoreline stones. The fury of nature is balanced remarkably against the wavering weakness of Hamlet, offering a subtle juxtaposition of man at loss in his environment. But when the final riot of emotions is ultimately unleashed, the result is devastating.
Admittedly, reading Shakespeare via English subtitles will require more patience than usual, but it is worthwhile to find that patience and discover this extraordinary achievement.