Although largely faithful in story and setting to the play, Zefferelli has chopped and changed the text slightly. The changes make for an interesting, pacey film, that those not familiar with the text can follow, and shows he is not intimidated or overawed by the thought of taking on Shakespeare.
Even with the cuts the films still retains the themes of loyalty, betrayal, madness, life and death, and Zefferelli plays up the Oedipal sexual tension between Hamlet and Gertrude (played by Glenn Close), without it ever spilling over into being sleazy.
Much of the film was shot on location at Dover Castle in Kent, as well as several places in Scotland, and this helps to anchor the events in reality, as does a lack of any expressionistic flourishes.
Unfortunately, the main problem with this version of the story is the star, with Gibson trying too hard to be a serious actor, relying far too on raised eyebrows and bulging eyes to convey intensity and drama, leaving a performance that is ultimately earnest, but flat. In addition, Gibson looks too old to convince as a troubled youth, something only accentuated when he is next to Glenn Close (in real life there is only 10 years between them).
Thankfully there is an excellent supporting cast, led by particularly the experienced Shakespearian types such as Paul Scofield, Alan Bates, and Ian Holm, who effortlessly breathe life into the text.
Judged as Shakespeare, this is not a classic Hamlet, lacking the depth and gravitas of other stage and screen versions (particularly Olivier's 1948 film, and Kenneth Branagh's 1996 version). However, it is certainly a good introduction to the play for the uninitiated, and judged purely as a stand-alone film, it makes for entertaining, and, at times, thought provoking cinema.