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Exploring 'Hamlet' on DVD

John DeFore

One of Broadway's hottest tickets at the moment is a new "Hamlet" starring Jude Law. The actor earned raves when the production ran in London, but New York critics have been more skeptical.

Having seen this version (its stark, imposing set demands almost as much attention as a cast member), I can sympathize with those who find little nuance in Law's performance. It's so muscular, so consistently angry, one has a hard time believing the character truly suffers from the nagging doubts around which the play is built.

But one reason audiences return over and over to "Hamlet" is that the title role is so amenable to variation. The advantage of perpetual remakes is that no interpretation has to be perfect; even "flaws" can contribute to our understanding of the character. Looking at the versions available on DVD, Law's Dane slides comfortably into the roster of thespians who each wear this famous role with a difference.

Mel Gibson delivers the most accessible incarnation in a 1990 "Hamlet" (Warner Bros.) directed by the man who turned '60s youths on to "Romeo and Juliet," Franco Zeffirelli. A populist but sincere approach to the material, Zeffirelli's version takes liberties — slicing scenes from the play and even shuffling some of it around in an attempt to make it comprehensible to an audience unaccustomed to its language.

The effort is surprisingly successful. Though some might complain that Gibson's Hamlet is too easy for the audience to identify with — we never truly wonder if he's insane — this is the version of the play I recommended when a non-native English speaker worried whether she would understand the plot.

A few years after Zeffirelli, director/star Kenneth Branagh set out in the opposite direction: He would be the first to shoot the unabridged text, making no concessions to Shakespeare-fearing viewers. The resulting film, redundantly titled "William Shakespeare's Hamlet" (Warner), ran four hours but was surprising in its tone. Visually bright and sometimes jarringly quirky, it didn't offer the "definitive" interpretation that moviegoers settling in for such an epic screening reasonably expected. (Branagh tinkered with the Bard to much greater effect in his "Henry V.")

Branagh's light-filled staging might have been a reaction to the noir vision of Laurence Olivier, whose Oscar-sweeping 1948 film (Criterion) is just over half as long as Branagh's but has more meat on its bones, emotionally.

Not that it's above reproach. If Olivier's controversial decision to excise some supporting characters troubles viewers, they need only turn to "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead" (Image), a brilliant comic tangent hatched by Tom Stoppard and animated on film by Gary Oldman and Tim Roth. Here Hamlet (Iain Glen) is a stiff ditherer, passing occasionally through the background of the stars' perfectly delivered banter.

"R&G," of course, isn't worried about Hamlet's state of mind. Not like a fairly recent interpretation by Michael Almereyda (Miramax) that relocates the action to 20th-century Manhattan and lets Ethan Hawke wring every bit of angst he can get from the role. Sleek and savvy, the modernization wouldn't be the best choice for a first-time Shakespeare student, but it makes the drama fresh for those who've seen it a dozen times.

Akira Kurosawa took the themes further from their text in "The Bad Sleep Well" (Criterion), a loose adaptation (starring Toshir? Mifune) that plays as corporate boardroom noir. Even further from the source is, er, "The Lion King" (Disney), whose creators claimed to have been inspired by both Shakespeare's tale and the Bible.

The version of the play directed by Tony Richardson ("Tom Jones"), in which Marianne Faithfull plays Ophelia, was issued on VHS in the States but never on disc; Claude Chabrol's 1963 "Oph?lia" doesn't appear to have been released here in any format. But still in print on DVD are a relatively straightforward production starring Kevin Kline (Image) and one from experimental theater director Peter Brook (Facets). The filmed version of the John Gielgud-directed, Richard Burton-starring 1964 production was put on disc a decade ago, but good luck finding it.

Funny: After listing nearly every interpretation I've seen on-screen and mentally cataloging those I saw onstage, I'm more, not less, interested in seeing another take. Who's next?