Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced
The scene in which Ophelia tells Polonius of Hamlet's apparent madness is an interesting one, not only for the varying ways it has been staged, but also for the way in which the scene sets up some intriguing parallels and ironies. For instance, the first thing Ophelia cites as evidence of Hamlet's madness is his wardrobe, yet in Hamlet's first major speech ("Seems, madam? nay, it is . . . [I.ii.76-86]) Hamlet himself warns that clothing can be, and often is, misleading. Secondly, Ophelia's comment that Hamlet looks like he has been loosed from hell is all too accurate; surely Hamlet has been loosed from hell by the words of the Ghost, himself literally loosed from hell--a grim parallel between the two Hamlets. Thirdly, a close examination of the subsequent description of Hamlet's actions (II.ii.84-97) suggests that Hamlet is contemplating taking her into his confidence, but reluctantly concludes that she unsuited for such intrigues; all he can do raise "a sigh so piteous and profound / As it did seem to shatter all his bulk," realizing that Ophelia is bound to get hurt because he can't put his love for her ahead of his need for revenge. And finally, it is our first indication of Ophelia's major problem--unaccustomed to courtly intrigues, she accepts everything at face value.
Olivier stages the scene in a manner that, although probably be quite effective on stage, falls flat on the screen. He combines a closeup of Ophelia speaking with a flashback of the event being recounted. However, the movements of the characters in the flashback do not accurately parallel the actions Ophelia is describing: They are overly stylized, with careful, measured steps and gestures, to the point that they resemble nothing so much as a bad ballet troupe. The conflict between Hamlet's love for Ophelia and his quest for revenge become utterly lost in the shuffle, so to speak. And, for Ophelia's part, who wouldn't be upset if a loved one suddenly started walking like a Twyla Tharp reject? I am probably exaggerating here, but Olivier consistently has difficulty making an effective transition from stage director to screen director, and this is a good example.
Zeffirelli decides to eliminate the middleman, as it were. He eschews Ophelia's speech and instead presents us with the event itself. The scene is quite effective in giving us an idea of what is going on in Hamlet's head--it is one of Gibson's stronger scenes. We see what the text implies: Hamlet desparately wants to explain his actions to Ophelia, but ultimately cannot take the risk that Ophelia will unwillingly or unwittingly betray him. But while this presentation brings Hamlet's inner conflict into sharper relief, it does so at the expense of Ophelia's characterization. Instead of a young woman trying to describe something she doesn't understand, Ophelia is simply a mute observer.
Branagh, of course, "just" does the text, as does the BBC production. Working the straight text makes the scene a showcase for the person playing Ophelia; she has to not only convey Hamlet's appearance and actions in such a way that the audience can understand what is going on in his head, but she must also convey her confusion in such a way as to keep the audience from concluding that she's an empty-headed twit. Kate Winslet positively shines in this scene--Branagh does a very effective job of twisting the thumbscrews on the poor girl throughout the movie. Lalla Ward in the BBC production is OK in this scene (though she is chilling while playing the mad Ophelia).
Back to Hamlet