(director/writer: Michael Almereyda; screenwriter: based on the play by William Shakespeare “Hamlet”; cinematographer: John de Borman; editor: Kristina Boden; cast: Ethan Hawke (Hamlet), Kyle MacLachlan (Claudius), Sam Shepard (Ghost), Diane Venora (Gertrude), Bill Murray (Polonius), Liev Schreiber (Laertes), Julia Stiles (Ophelia), Karl Geary (Horatio), Steve Zahn (Rosencrantz), Dechen Thurman (Guildenstern); Runtime: 110; Miramax Films; 2000)
“It is difficult to take this Hamlet in quite the same serious way it is usually presented onstage.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Inspired by the maverick Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki’s 1987 “Hamlet Goes Business,” Michael Almereyda (Another Girl, Another Planet/Nadja) directs this updated version of Hamlet with great wit, style, and immediacy. He effortlessly transfers locations from Denmark to the New York City of 2000, which shows how malleable Hamlet is that it can be taken away from its staginess and sole reliance on dialogue and made into a more cinematic experience without losing the essential Shakespearean experience. Denmark is changed from being a country to the name of the multinational corporation that must endure the slings and arrows from the pen of William Shakespeare. But what Almereyda fails to do in this slenderized (no gravediggers here) version of Hamlet, is make his modern visuals jibe with the bard’s lyrical words; therefore, the film always felt jarring. Even in some very beautifully mannered scenes, there was a note of clumsiness indicating something was missing or didn’t match about this far-reaching experimental production that bordered on mawkish giddiness. The welding together of the old-style English dialogue and the new visuals did not make for a coherent film. The visuals being spectacular while the dialogue seemed to be from another planet. I thought I would never say that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is better visually than its dialogue, but in this film version that is clearly the case.
By not changing the tone of the Shakespearean dialogue to the neurotically nasal everyday speech of the modern New Yorker, while radically altering the visual effects to fit in with the current times, the film developed a split-personality which it was never able to recover from. If you are going to change things why make half the film conform to traditional Shakespeare when you could have taken a further risk and made the entire film a glittering display of inventiveness and perhaps could have achieved a major breakthrough in how to present Hamlet to a modern audience!
This Hamlet tale concerns the political machinations of a power struggle in the corporate world and about a young man named Hamlet (Ethan Hawke) who is shocked that his mother Gertrude (Diane Venora) would marry her husband’s brother Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan), especially so soon after his death. A death that Hamlet suspects was accomplished by Claudius and confirmed by him when he chats with his father’s ghost (Sam Shepard), who is first seen on a security guard’s monitor.
Instead of the castle at Elsinore we have the Hotel Elsinore, as the business headquarters for the Denmark Corporation, which is located in the heart of Manhattan’s sleek tinted-glass world of offices. Hamlet is a troubled soul who is a struggling digital video-maker, with fits of self-importance and bouts of illusionary grandeur. All his woes are in his head and he can’t get the ghost of his father out of his mind.
Hamlet makes a fashion statement by wearing a woolen Scandinavian type ski hat with flaps hanging down the sides, something the kids in NYC’s ghetto popularized in the 1980s when their dress code had an attitude. Hamlet has such a grungy attitude.
To get a rise out his stepfather Hamlet makes a video called “The Mousetrap” and succeeds in getting his ire by showing it to him along with invited guests, in what appears to be the Guggenheim Art Museum. The video is a comically haphazard avant-garde work by the animator Lewis Klahr, showing a variety of historical film footage.
Hamlet’s main squeeze is the teenager Ophelia (Julia Stiles), who lives in an artist’s loft and suffers from peevishness. She is annoyed by Hamlet’s amorous advances not knowing what to make of them and she is also annoyed by her overbearing father Polonius (Bill Murray), who lectures both to her and her big brother Laertes (Liev Schreiber). The brother coddles her in a brotherly fashion, as all the men seek to control her. Hamlet and Ophelia are a perfectly beautiful looking but obnoxious couple, who are plagued by the modern problem of lack of communication.
Hawke is a bland but effective Hamlet; Stiles is a childish and limited Ophelia; Murray is a deliciously hammy Polonius; MacLachlan is a transparently ruthless CEO; Diane Venora is a physically manipulative Gertrude, whose performance brings out both a mother’s anguish for her son and her lust for her husband; Schreiber is simply brilliant as an affecting Laertes, playing his part more in the traditional Shakespearean mode; Sam Shepard makes for a hell of a forceful ghost; while, Steve Zahn is a sleazy Rosencrantz and Dechen Thurman (a relative of Hawke’s) is his sleazy counterpart Guildenstern.
It is difficult to take this Hamlet in quite the same serious way it is usually presented onstage, and that’s just fine. Refreshingly, this film does not have one ounce of pretension to high culture. The cast all come with their own individual ideas about the characters they are playing and offer their odd renditions for the traditional roles. Ophelia receives the news from Hamlet that she should “get thee to a nunnery” via a bevy of telephone answering messages. Hawke delivers his “To be or not to be” soliloquy in the action video section of a Blockbuster store. He prepared his first soliloquy about his father’s death on his laptop computer, as the ghost of his father is reported seen by the amiable Horatio (Geary).
The story, though almost cut in half, still is basically the same. But the dramatic effect is different. You have to lose something when you throw away all that Shakespeare dialogue. In some scenes we look through all the egotism of the characters through glass that is crystal clear and easy to shatter, and the effect is a sharpened sense of what we are seeing. But when the final tragedy unfolds there is no real emotion, as the filmmaker failed to pull us into that scene. It seemed as if the soul had been taken out. And that is the film’s major fault.
What lingers is a strong sense that we are steeped in a Hamlet who must be viewed with urgency and a sense of foreboding gloom and, at the same time, with a sense of ticklish glibness. The picture was shot in super 16 millimeter. Its NYC face is given a glossy, bluish and grayish tint, catching all the limos, glass closets, and glass high-rise structures John de Borman could film with his superlative camerawork. He nearly transforms this into a neo-noir film on his own visual terms. NYC never looked more like a glistening Denmark or a glass house, while “Hamlet” looks more like a visual work of art instead of sounding like great literature. An interesting concept, too bad Almereyda couldn’t completely pull it off. Yet I applaud the chances he took and the misses never deterred me from enjoying the film. It came awfully close to being camp, but the oddness of this unlikely cast playing Shakespeare, somehow, held the film together and made it accessible to an audience that Shakespeare might not have reached before. I actually missed Bill Murray when he departed the film after Hamlet accidentally plugs him while he’s in the closet. Even though Hawke’s Hamlet had the edge of a young man’s immaturity and impetuousness — what would have really given this film a sense of manic self-consciousness would have been to cast Sean Penn as Hamlet, though James Dean in that part would have been the ultimate coup de grace.
REVIEWED ON 7/20/2000 GRADE: B https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/