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movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Hamlet

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Julia Stiles
Director: Michael Almereyda
Rated: R
RunTime: 113 Minutes
Release Date: May 2000
Genre: Drama

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Shakespeare located many of his romantic and revenge- filled plays alike in Italy because in his day its city-states were considered exotic. Most people would never guess that he had never been there. That's not all. The playwright had not seen New York City either and yet as you watch Ethan Hawke go through the title character's doubts and duties in "Hamlet," you'd not be surprised that The Great Playwright situated his best known drama in the Big Apple, also considered by him to be an exotic and mysterious place crammed with stories of romance and violence. You say that this cannot be--that Shakespeare is not alive except in spirit? You protest too much, methinks, but you're partly correct. He is today as alive in essence as Hamlet's spirit and has communicated his new vision of perhaps his most poetic play through director Michael Almereyda.

Almereyda did some things right, others wrong in transliterating the poet's words to the New York of the year 2000. "Hamlet" is no more "universal" than Clifford Odets's period pieces "Waiting for Lefty" and "Awake and Sing!" Both "Hamlet" and "Lefty" have themes of love, violence, envy, loyalty, ethics and government, so that to say these themes are universal is irrelevant. Despite the presence of universal themes, "Waiting for Lefty" communicates only to the diehard Old Left in America today just as "Hamlet" most authentically communicates to kids on their college fencing team. Since the vocabulary and idioms and reference points of Elizabethan England are largely foreign to a contemporary audience in America, the times are out of joint. Almereyda does the right thing in changing locations and centuries because--as it turns out from watching this current production--we can understand the author's meaning better by (as an example) making Denmark the name of a modern American corporation with great power to influence the minds of the people under its "jurisdiction." Almereyda is nothing if not imaginative. The ghost of Hamlet's murdered father appears, then evaporates not into the mist but into a Pepsi machine. Daddy is a spiritual being, Pepsi is material. What a splendid irony--the spiritual has been replaced today by the seductive trappings of Pepsi Cola, Adidas, and cell phones to whose rule we have lost much of our spiritual selves. To symbolize the prison that was Denmark, Almereyda states in the press notes that brand names and logos and billboards and noise are today's prison. (That's a stretch.)

There's much that's wrong with this production of a play that has already been filmed some thirty-odd times. Squeezing the material that took Kenneth Branagh 247 minutes to get across in his 1996 film, Almereyda's 112-minute rendering leaves important scenes on the cutting room floor, adds a few pieces of silly modern dialogues, and transposes the sequence helter-skelter in such a way that confusion reigns. Though Ophelia (Julia Stiles, no less) makes a phone call, getting the response "Hello, and welcome to Moviefone!" eliciting the only intended laugh from the audience, Almereyda ompletely abandons the humorous graveyard scene, thus forcing the drama into an even more solemn concoction than the Bard intended.

The real flaw in this production is that despite our awareness (from our high-school reading) of Hamlet's need to avenge his father's murder, nothing important appears to be at stake in this movie. The performers go about their duties in a stolid manner, reciting the words as though a requirement of their high-school English teachers but without recognizable passion. The element of fear is missing. Hamlet's father appears as a ghost (Sam Shepard) who is simply not frightening--though Shepard is the only actor in this case who transmits Shakespearian depth. I recall one production in which the ghost remained unseen within Hamlet's body as though directed by William Friedkin, his words actually coming through the young man's mouth. Only an exorcism could free both Hamlet and his father to set the universe right. Now, this was scary. My mind summons a staged production in which the ghost appears like a nine-foot tall golem, similarly scaring the hell out of the audience as well as Hamlet and his pal Horatio. But Shepard's character has been directed to reveal himself in a manner as bland as Cream of Wheat, even more human than the rest of the ensemble, his evocation of the need for vengeance as tepid as a cup of McDonald's coffee left to chill out to avoid a lawsuit.

Much is made of Ethan Hawke's age. Hawke, who is 29, may be the youngest Hamlet ever filmed--which is realistic since the prince of Denmark would be of his generation. But Hawke, a splendid preppie in his career-making movie "Dead Poets Society" and a hip 20-something in "Reality Bites" does not have the depth for the role. What makes "Hamlet" a masterful play rather than a Jacobean revenge potboiler is the complexity of its central character. Hamlet is morose, sure, but he is a scholarly person in conflict with himself. Hamlet grieves for his dead father, he is disappointed with his mother's conduct, he wants a revenge so complete that it will reach the soul as well as the body of his villainous uncle. Hawke is simply a sullen adolescent, never smiling. He mopes. He's not a lad fighting moral demons A high-school kid could do a better job of playing a looney tunes as well, but this could be the fault of the director who appears to want every emotion understated. Polonius, who is King Claudius's Lord Chamberlain, is a meddlesome father to Laertes, but Bill Murray in the role looks like a man with such a sense of humor that he is ready to burst out laughing as he intones the now-famous advice between the generations, "This above all, to thine own self be true..." (For some reason he forgets to say "And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.") Liev Schrieber, who is popping up everywhere, was better in the title role at a recent performance in New York's Public Theater than he is as Laertes. Here's another guy who never smiles, who mumbles affectionate words to his sister but who in no way seethes with a desire for revenge against his own father's slayer. Kyle MacLachlan is a bored and bland corporate head, Claudius, in the style of Michael Douglas early on in "The Game." When Claudius's wife Gertrude (played passionately by Diane Venora as a woman who dotes on his son, refusing to give his secret away to her husband) drinks the poisoned wine, MacLachlan looks as though his company's stock just went down 1/8 of a point.

To make a long story short, Almereyda overworked his editor, Kristina Boden, but allowed his photographer, John de Borman, to shoot some impressive New York scenes from the skyscrapers at night to the sales signs at the neighborhood Key Food supermarket to the Blockbuster video store. I say, read the book and let your imagination do the photography. But then as any critic knows, nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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