directed by Michael Almereyda
(Miramax, 2000)

Shakespeare translates well to modern times, a fact proven by countless movies and plays. But Hamlet, the 2000 film version adapted and directed by Michael Almereyda, fails at many levels.

On the surface, the new interpretation looks sound. Denmark has become Denmark Corp., a business conglomerate. When Hamlet's father, the CEO (Sam Shepard) dies under suspicious circumstances, his younger brother Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan) assumes control of the company and marries his newly widowed sister-in-law, Gertrude (Diane Venora). Hamlet is of course unsettled by the sudden turn of events, but his grief turns to vengeance after his father's ghost reveals his murderer.

The story translated into a world of three-piece suits and high-rise apartments works surprisingly well, although certain aspects of the script do not. Almereyda cut the play down considerably but did not alter the remaining words to reflect a modern era; hence, it makes little sense when Claudius and Gertrude refer to themselves as King and Queen, or when the duel with swords between Hamlet and Laertes (Liev Schreiber) suddenly erupts in gunplay. And, modern settings and costumes aside, few of the actors in this cast sound comfortable with their Shakespearean lines.

Hamlet is, of course, indecisive and slow to act, but Ethan Hawke in the title role is mind-numbingly flat and lifeless. There is little oomph to be found anywhere in this film adaptation, but Hamlet especially requires some visible emotion as he tortures himself over his father's untimely and his own inaction. Bill Murray, who can usually be counted on for a bit of zing, plays the counselor Polonius as a bland, overprotective dad.

Two actors come close to showing real guts in this movie, but neither has much to do. Karl Geary as Horatio is a loyal and supportive friend who is mostly required to stand back and watch; Julia Stiles summons real angst (rather than actual madness) as her devotion to Hamlet is shattered, but she is more a silent victim than an active participant in the story.

That said, Almereyda demonstrates a keen eye when it comes to recasting classic scenes in upscale Manhattan. Courtly proclamations become press conferences, castle ramparts becomes penthouse balconies, concealing tapestries become mirrored closet doors, plans are revealed in conference calls, a ship to England becomes a 747, and the deadly message carried by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Steve Zahn and Dechen Thurman) is now a laptop. Even much of Hamlet's famed soliloquizing is spoken into the lens of his ever-present handheld video camera; other portions are muttered or shouted into answering machines or mumbled in the aisles of a Blockbuster store.

Almereyda's Hamlet has a big vision, but its execution falls short of the mark. In a few more years, perhaps someone else will give it a try with better success.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 6 July 2002

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