In Denmark, Prince Hamlet finds himself involved in a conspiracy of power to the royal palace. Cruel uncle Claudius kills his brother and takes the power of the kingdom. After an encounter with the restless ghost of his murdered father, Hamlet feigns madness and plots to take vengeance.Mel Gibson as Prince Hamlet
Glenn Close as Queen Gertrude
Alan Bates as King Claudius
Paul Scofield as the ghost of King Hamlet
Ian Holm as Polonius
Helena Bonham Carter as Ophelia
Stephen Dillane as Horatio
Nathaniel Parker as Laertes
Michael Maloney and Sean Murray as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
Trevor Peacock as The Gravedigger
Pete Postlethwaite as the Player King
Christopher Fairbank as the Player Queen
John McEnery as Osric
Richard Warwick as Bernardo
Christien Anholt as Marcellus
Zeffirelli announced production of the film in April 1989 at a press conference in Los Angeles. Mel Gibson was at that same press conference, where it was announced that he would play Hamlet. Zeffirelli had set out to make a Shakespearian adaptation that would be accessible and appealing to younger viewers, and casting Gibson was considered an intent to lure said audience into seeing it. Glenn Close was another obvious choice, having had recent box-office success with such Hollywood thrillers as Jagged Edge and Fatal Attraction.
Financing was provided on loan from a Dutch bank by Carolco Pictures, Barry Spikings' Nelson Entertainment, and Sovereign Pictures, to the tune of roughly $16 million. Filming was set to begin on 23 April 1990, with an 11-week shooting schedule.
Dunnottar Castle, Stonehaven and Blackness Castle were used as locations in the film. Dover Castle provided the main location for Elsinore Castle, the home of Hamlet and his family. Interiors were filmed at Shepperton Studios in London.
Norma Moriceau was the project's initial costume designer, but quit for unknown reasons, to be replaced by Maurizio Millenotti. Tailors from Shepperton assembled the costumes.
The film attracted little attention from major Hollywood studios, until post-production, when companies such as Warner Bros., Paramount, and Orion expressed interest in purchasing the film. Nelson Entertainment, which held the North American distribution rights, licensed theatrical exhibition to Warner as part of an incentive to lure Gibson into making Lethal Weapon 3. Despite Nelson owning a home video arm, they sold the video rights to Warner as well. Warner Bros. attempted to attract high schools with study guides and vouchers for students. An hour-long educational video titled Mel Gibson Goes Back to School was released in conjunction with the film, showing the actor lecturing Hamlet to a group of high-school students in Los Angeles.
Film scholar Deborah Cartmell has suggested that Zeffirelli's Shakespeare films are appealing because they are "sensual rather than cerebral", an approach by which he aims to make Shakespeare "even more popular". To this end, he cast Gibson – then famous for the Mad Max and Lethal Weapon films – in the title role. Cartmell also notes that the text is drastically cut, but with the effect of enhancing the roles of the women.
J. Lawrence Guntner has suggested that Zeffirelli's cinematography borrows heavily from the action film genre that made Gibson famous, noting that its average shot length is less than six seconds. In casting Gibson, the director has been said to have made the star's reputation part of the performance, encouraging the audience "to see the Gibson that they have come to expect from his other films". Indeed, Gibson was cast after Zeffirelli watched his character, Martin Riggs, contemplate suicide in Lethal Weapon. The fight between Hamlet and Laertes is an example of using Gibson's experience in action movies; Gibson handily depicts Hamlet as an experienced fencer.
Initial reviews for Zeffirelli's Hamlet were mixed. Noted critic Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times awarded the film three-and-a-half out of four stars, calling Mel Gibson's portrayal of the Danish Prince "a strong, intelligent performance." Caryn James of The New York Times praised Zeffirelli's "naturalistic, emotionally-charged" direction and also commended Gibson's "visceral" performance, describing it as "strong, intelligent and safely beyond ridicule." Peter Travers of Rolling Stone gave the film a negative review, calling Gibson's performance "an earnest but pedestrian reading." A Los Angeles Times review stated that either Kenneth Branagh or Daniel Day-Lewis would have been preferable to play Hamlet than Gibson, and a later editorial in the same paper would refer to Gibson's performance as "the most unaffected and lucid Hamlet in memory."
Hamlet currently holds a 76% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes with the consensus, "It may lack some of the depth and complexity of the play, but Mel Gibson and Franco Zeffirelli make a surprisingly successful team."
The movie received two Academy Awards nominations, for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design (Dante Ferretti, Francesca Lo Schiavo). Sir Alan Bates received a BAFTA nomination as Best Supporting Actor for playing Claudius.