The big struggle for a filmmaker looking to adapt a classic (read: old)
literary work for the screen is to make it accessible to contemporary
audiences. The trend these days appears to be translating the story into
modern times--or, more accurately, transplanting the story, leaving the
original language intact. The intent of the shift is obviously to put a
fresh spin on a familiar tale, but in the case of Michael Almereyda's
revisionist take on William Shakespeare's oft-filmed _Hamlet_, the move
feels more a lazy gimmick than an inspired dash of creativity.
I was no fan of Baz Luhrmann's surprise 1996 hit
_William_Shakespeare's_Romeo_+_Juliet_, which pioneered this
Elizabethan-language-in-the-modern-world approach for the cinema. But
that film, set in the mythical Florida town of "Verona Beach" in an
undisclosed year, had enough of a surreal gloss to make the anachronistic
speech go down a bit easier. The action in this _Hamlet_ explicitly
takes place in "New York City, 2000," and as such, the language cannot
help but clang.
And when familiar soliloquies are delivered in locations such as, say, a
Blockbuster Video store--which is exactly where Hamlet (Ethan Hawke)
recites the famous "To be or not to be..."--the audience is overwhelmed
by the contemporary trappings. The new setting distracts from, rather
than enhance, Shakespeare's story about a Danish prince out to avenge his
father's murder at the hands of Hamlet's uncle Claudius, who, in turn,
has married Hamlet's mother Gertrude. This is largely because the
alterations made to the set-up never take hold. Fresh-out-of-school
digital filmmaker (no joke) Hamlet is the son of the dead "king" (Sam
Shepard, who also played Hawke's deceased father in
_Snow_Falling_on_Cedars_) of the Denmark Corporation. The shift to the
business world fails to add anything new; instead of using Shakespeare's
themes of treachery, deceit, and revenge to make an interesting statement
about cutthroat corporate tactics, the change is merely an incidental
one, with no clearcut connection to the text. If anything, it just gives
Almereyda the chance to set scenes in sleek and shiny buildings (Gideon
Ponte's production design is indeed impressive--perhaps the only thing in
the film that is a complete success).
Slick surfaces aside, this _Hamlet_, in maintaining the Bard's original
language, covers all the familiar plot points and scenes. Claudius'
(Kyle MacLachlan) advisor Polonius (Bill Murray!) still advises son
Laertes (Liev Schreiber), "To thine own self be true." Polonius'
daughter Ophelia (Julia Stiles) is still Hamlet's true love, and he still
eventually orders her to "Get thee to a nunnery." Of course, there are
added Y2K wrinkles: Hamlet tells off Ophelia on her answering machine;
Hamlet's soliloquies are largely confessionals given to his video camera
as part of a diary document of sorts. These admittedly interesting
touches cannot make up for the lack of verve in the entire film.
The sluggish vibe is set by Hawke. While some in the cast, MacLachlan
and Diane Venora (playing Gertrude) in particular, nimbly handle their
roles and the Bard's words, they are, of course, secondary to the prince
of Denmark himself, and Hawke proves incapable of handling the task. Not
only does he have the same slacker look he sported in the Gen-X comedy
_Reality_Bites_, but the same laid-back, forceless attitude. Hawke has
said that he wanted to be part of a _Hamlet_ that wasn't about the
central performance, but without some intensity from the lead, the
character and his story easily gets overshadowed by the gimmick of the
Maybe that was Almereyda's point all along, to show how modern
technology overwhelms contemporary lives. If that's the case, then why
adapt Shakespeare's play if the intent is to obscure it? Whatever his
reasoning, just the basic idea of Almereyda's _Hamlet_ makes little
sense, and so does the finished film.