Prince Hamlet of Denmark (Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy) races to his castle home by the sea on horseback, and is greeted by the news he has been dreading: while he was away, his father the King died, and to make matters worse his uncle Claudius (Mikhail Nazvanov) has taken the throne and claimed the Queen (Elza Radzina), Hamlet’s mother, as his bride. The Prince is furious at this development and can barely speak to anyone in the royal council, but as he stalks the corridors in a terrible mood he happens to meet two of his allies who have some extra news for him, something possibly even more surprising, the ghost of the dead King has been witnessed wandering outside the castle, and he might have something to say to his bereaved son...
You could accuse director Grigori Kozintsev of a certain hubris by making his own version of William Shakespeare's most famous play in the Soviet style, especially so soon after the man who was regarded as the then-greatest interpreter of the Bard Sir Laurence Olivier had crafted his own Oscar-winning film of precisely that. But the production had his blessing as he was reportedly very impressed by what they did with it, and no wonder as it appeared to have taken the Olivier incarnation as very much the template for which to fashion their own, with Smoktunovskiy's hairdo and overall appearance more or less identical to the British theatrical star's in the role. However, this was not a slavish copy, thankfully.
Still, it did emphasise the bleakness of the surroundings, in particular that (specially built for the occasion) castle on which no expense had been spared, somewhere for the players to declaim and speechify with a definite Gothic appearance, at least in a medieval style. The lead was actually a very effective one, bringing an energy to what could have been a doleful, Russian reading of the part and ensuring that even though this was a two-and-a-half hour long experience, it didn't drag, indeed it positively flew by as the pacing from Kozintsev was sprightly and urgent. Not that he was in a hurry, but with these wide, monochrome images there was a feeling that a sense of a pressing imperative was necessary to get to the end and see that terrible justice done.
Boris Pasternak, that hard done by Russian author of Doctor Zhivago, had translated the text, as he did with King Lear, another Shakespeare movie from this director, which meant that if you didn't speak Russian but did speak English, you would be reading subtitles translated from Russian back into English again, a curious state of affairs that worked out better than you would expect, depending on which interpretation you were taking in. There was something about the despair in this tale that spoke to the Soviet temperament on this evidence, with the film's sympathies lying entirely with Ophelia, Hamlet's would be (and should have been) romantic partner; where the Prince may be faking his madness, Ophelia's was the real deal and Anastasiya Vertinskaya, though still a teenager, was superb in the most fragile of performances.
Mind you, you say Hamlet was faking, but he seems to come and go as far as his sanity is concerned. When he is forcing the travelling theatre to put on the play of his own devising with which to embarrass the jovial but murderous Claudius, we can understand he is too devious to be acting under the propulsion of an unbalanced mind. On the other hand, after he accidentally murders an innocent thinking he was an eavesdropping Claudius, these are not the actions of a sane man, and little wonder when his dear old dad showed up about fifty feet high, clad in concealing armour and compelling his confused son to take vengeance for his death. That was one of a number of striking visual choices that Kozintsev made to lend his work a texture away from the looming Olivier, and in those he succeeded, in fact for some this was the definitive Hamlet on the screen and it certainly had more personality than some variations would have in the piece's future. With Dimitri Shostakovich providing a thunderous score, there was a power to this Shakespeare that the production tapped into, it really was a matter of life and death for every character, another very Russian trait.