Stoker: A Hamlet Story

One of the first things people always seem to know about Hamlet is Freud’s Oedipal interpretation of the play. Freud argues that Hamlet cannot kill Claudius because his uncle has done what he himself subconsciously desired to do. That is, to kill his father and to marry his mother. The many parallels and contrasts drawn between Claudius and Old Hamlet ("Hyperion to a satyr" etc) make them twins as well as opposites. One could suggest that Hamlet has split his father into two: the good side and the bad side. With the good side (Old Hamlet) dead, the son is allowed, in good conscience, to go into battle with his father, to compete with him for the mother’s affection; to ultimately defeat him. This is certainly the way in which psychoanalysts view the mother in fairy tales. The child’s ambivalent attitude to the mother is explored by splitting her into the good,  dead, true mother, and the wicked, living step-mother. By making the evil part of the mother “step”, an interloper, not the biological mother, any anxiety or guilt around the daughter’s supposed struggle to defeat the mother is alleviated. In the same way uncle is a safer cipher for father.

Whilst watching Stoker, starring Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode, and Mia Wasikowska, this interpretation of Hamlet came strongly to mind. Just as in Hamlet, the father is dead and an uncanny uncle quickly moves in on the kingdom, wife, and child left behind. Kidman plays Evie, the widow, and it’s the chilly part she was born to play. She is driven by her desire for attention and is keen for Charlie (Goode) to fill the void his brother has left. Evie’s sticky, desperate sexuality as she tries to ensnare Uncle Charlie is reminiscent of Hamlet’s condemnation of Gertrude’s blind desire for Claudius, and I could not help but see Gertrude in the precarious Fools’ Paradise that Kidman’s Evie created for herself. Goode’s chilly smile left no one in doubt from his first appearance that he was a “smiling, damned villain”; his wicked, big, bad wolf performance bordered on the camp, but was saved by its menacing charisma. With dexterous speed he usurps the role of his brother, living in the house with Evie and her daughter India (Wasikowska). Subtly unnerving is Charlie’s choice to ‘borrow’ his dead brother’s clothing, which is slightly too large for him. Just as in Hamlet the entire plot ends in a pile of bodies and the vague feeling that this wasn’t the story you were expecting to be told.

The child in Stoker is a ‘she’, not a ‘he’. India is the gloomy, adolescent offspring who was so close to her father and rejects her mother and her mother’s new squeeze, her uncle. Gradually, though, India is wooed by her uncle-in-her-father’s clothes. This brush with the Oedipal (Charlie is her other father, the father to her darker side) brings out India’s forbidden and previously unconscious desires in a way that delves into the taboos of sex and death. Anyone with a well-leafed copy of Freud’s work on the Oedipus complex and beating fantasies would make short work on what goes on between India and Charlie as he tries to seduce her into becoming his daughter-heir-lover, and literally offers India her mother’s head.

But this isn’t a fairy story. India doesn’t destroy the vacuous mother in order to enjoy a happily married adulthood with the prince-father. No. This is a Hamlet story in which the heir struggles with the interloper.  In Hamlet the young prince only truly becomes his father’s heir on his return, when he proclaims himself “It is I: Hamlet the Dane” and takes up the active role to which his father’s ghost urged him. India has to decide to which Stoker she is heir, her father, or Charlie: the good father or the bad father. India kills Charlie and spares her mother. At the end of the film she drives off, possibly on a killing rampage. Unlike Hamlet, India is comfortable with the sides of herself that are like her bad father and she embraces them. Hamlet is not, he cannot stand the seeming and treachery of Claudius, but ultimately he must use these same weapons. So Hamlet dies, the poison of his foes having spread to him, and India lives. Despite the catalogue of bloody killings, incest and near monochrome palette, Stoker ends on an upbeat note. India will be alright and is triumphant (even if she is going to live as a homicidal-maniac-con-artist). Herein is the other major difference to Hamlet:  Stoker is only about a family and individuals, Hamlet is about the state too. India can live and drive away in her uncle’s convertible, but Hamlet cannot live and reign because a monarch cannot be tainted in the way he is; it would disease the state. In Stoker, with its laissez-faire attitude to homicide, we are all tainted, and we’re far better off knowing it.

For another angle on Stoker, have a look at Assorted Buffery's review.


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