Michael Almereyda’s already-famous adaptation of “Hamlet,” set in 2000 in New York City, is much like the play itself: flawed and brilliant at the same time, and, when it really hits its stride, absolutely mesmerizing to watch.
Most of the minor details of the play translate well enough into modern times. Denmark is a corporation, and jealousy and greed are just as much factors in the business world as they were in monarchies; Elsinore is a luxury hotel; instead of Polonius and Claudius eavesdropping on Ophelia’s conversation with Hamlet, they wire her with a hidden microphone; Hamlet makes an artsy film instead of hiring actors to do a play. We don’t call heads of corporations “kings,” but if you can accept that metaphor, everything fits nicely.
And the details that wouldn’t work for the year 2000 — like the sea pirates, for example, and poison-tipped fencing swords — are just omitted. (Something had to be omitted anyway. The original language is preserved, and no one wanted another four-hour version of “Hamlet,” I’m sure. At least I didn’t.)
This version is as lyrical and beautiful as “Hamlet” is supposed to be, often visually striking in a way Shakespeare could have only imagined in his wildest dreams, being constrained as he was to the limits of live theater. Music evokes moods, characters’ thoughts are heard, and the climax is truly operatic in every sense of the word.
Hamlet (Ethan Hawke, with a perpetual “I defy you to make me have a thought” look on his blank face) has returned from college to find his father deceased and his uncle Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan) now married to his mother, Gertrude (Diane Verona). Claudius is also the new president and CEO of the Denmark Corporation, and Hamlet’s suspicions of foul play are confirmed by a visit from his father’s ghost (Sam Shepard).
You know the rest, although if you don’t, this movie is easy enough to follow, so Shakespeare novices shouldn’t fear it. There are some wonderful moments, including Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech being delivered in a Blockbuster video store — in the “action” section, appropriately, since that speech (and indeed his whole character) is all about whether or not he’ll ever take action in his life. (Why “Gone with the Wind” can be seen on the “action” shelf is a mystery to me, but watch for it; it’s fun.) Everything with Polonius, played with unctuous insincerity by Bill Murray, is also a treat.
The major problem here is Ethan Hawke, who was cast in the role of Hamlet apparently because a block of wood was unavailable. The man simply doesn’t emote, doesn’t give us much more than blank, slack-jawed looks. His scene with his dead father is ALMOST emotional, and the closest we come, but it doesn’t quite make it there.
It doesn’t help any that most of his monologues are delivered as his thoughts, rather than out loud. That might be more realistic than having him talk to himself, but some of those soliloquies are extremely important. One needs to see the actor’s facial expressions and body movements as he undergoes this racking of his very soul in order for it to have any impact on us. Ethan Hawke’s voice alone just doesn’t convey enough emotion, and while I doubt the cement-faced actor would do much more if he were acting out the lines, at least it would be something.
There’s also a problem with Laertes, played by Liev Schrieber. Schrieber seems not to have gotten the memo that this was being done in modern times, as he’s the only one in the cast still speaking in that “Shakespearean” voice (it’s called “American Standard,” and it’s the one that sounds almost British but not quite). Everyone else uses their natural speaking voices, but Schrieber is auditioning for the Royal Shakespeare Company, apparently.
Never mind him, though, and get as much out of Hawke as you can. Everyone else is fantastic, from the soulful Karl Geary as Horatio (Hamlet’s heartbreakingly loyal best friend) to ultra-hip Julia Stiles as Ophelia. The play’s dreariness and Hamlet’s feelings of isolation and inaction are powerfully conveyed in what is truly a remarkable film.
B (; )