Hamlet/Horatio (Warner, 2021)

This review will be one of those pieces where I spend 80% of the space being critical of the film in question but nevertheless recommend it. I don’t normally like structuring a review that way, but Paul Warner’s Hamlet/Horatio manages to provide a serviceable rendition of Hamlet while never quite following through on its premise of being through the eyes of Horatio.

The premise of Hamlet/Horatio is intriguing. There have been scores of interpretations of Shakespeare’s play, and even multiple retellings through the eyes of minor characters. Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is probably the gold standard of such takes because it makes us see the events of the play in a new light. Details that get lost or overlooked when the spotlight is on the titular character suddenly make us reconsider what we thought we knew about the principal participants. Stoppard’s play draws our attention to the unquestioned relationship between servants and masters, and recent works focusing on Ophelia help us to see the impossible double standards imposed on women both in the past and in the viewer’s present.

One would expect a film called Hamlet/Horatio to do something similar with the theme of friendship. How does power and privilege, rank and wealth, complicate a universally experienced human relationship? How might Horatio’s actions look and feel different if they were thought to be motivated by fraternity to a friend rather than loyalty to a prince? These are interesting questions, but the film doesn’t really latch on to any of them. It settles instead for making Horatio the scribe (or filmmaker) who tells Hamlet’s story rather than the friend who has his own take on it. Once the narrative frame is established–Horacio is a film director making a movie of Hamlet’s tragic end–the tale itself retains the plot, speeches, and emphases of the Shakespearean play.

Yes, there are homoerotic insinuations about the titular pair, but even that idea isn’t really developed beyond the pitch stage. What if Hamlet were gay? Shouldn’t that change his scenes with Ophelia and Laertes and Claudius every bit as much as his scenes with Horatio? If Horatio loved Hamlet, shouldn’t that mean something more than longing gazes? The implied incest between Ophelia, Polonius, and Laertes actually crackles more than anything involving the title characters, and the performers do a better job of making these characters simultaneously familiar and fresh.

It is Phage Nolte’s Ophelia and Andrew Burdette’s Hamlet that ultimately carry the film. Occasionally, the Shakespearean dialogue is slowed to the point of stiltedness, but more often than not they find nuances in well-known lines that don’t simply mimic past performers. I realize, of course, the irony of saying that the lead performance is the main thing that a production of Hamlet has going for it, but Hamlet/Horatio is marketing itself as something other than simply another production of Hamlet. When judged as an attempt at innovation, the film never really fulfills its potential. But when looked at as a new generation’s attempt to tell a classic tale well, the film earns praise. Hamlet is a great and beloved play, but its very familiarity makes it extremely hard to do well.

Hamlet/Horatio premieres June 1, 2021 on Cable VOD and Digital Streaming.

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