Hamlet (2000)
Director: Michael Almereyda. Cast: Ethan Hawke, Kyle MacLachlan, Diane Venora, Julia Stiles, Bill Murray, Liev Schreiber, Karl Geary, Steve Zahn. Screenplay: Michael Almereyda (based on the play by William Shakespeare).

Michael Almereyda's Hamlet has more flubs and inconsistencies than either of the major film adaptations produced in the last decade: the 1990 Franco Zeffirelli-Mel Gibson project and the four-hour Kenneth Branagh extravaganza from 1996. Almereyda's film makes almost every kind of gaffe, from entire scenes that seem dramatically misconceived to three separate entrances of the boom mike into the top of a frame—didn't anyone think to wake up the grips? Nonetheless, these mistakes are generally the hallmark of an ambitious, difficult project; though some of the risks do not pay off, many of them do, and so I liked this film better than Zeffirelli's and Branagh's far more conventional takes on the play. The chief lesson Hamlet must learn during this story is to take action even when success and safety are not guaranteed. Director Almereyda and his collaborators have made an uneven but highly interesting picture, one in which they all commendably practice what the screenplay preaches.

This Hamlet, which begins with a shot of the Manhattan skyline as seen through the sunroof of a car, takes three primary risks. The first is to update the story to the milieu of modern New York City, where the titanic, fictional Denmark Corporation has recently lost its CEO and "king" and passed into—or, as centuries of readers have discovered, may have been quite actively grabbed by—the hands of Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan), the late tycoon's brother. I won't recount the well-known particulars of the story here, but rest assured that Almereyda preserves most of them, even when the new context affects how we understand them. The swift marriage of Gertrude (The Insider's Diane Venora) to Claudius, her brother-in-law, represents in the new setting a kind of corporate merger: there is less of a sense here than in the play that Claudius had to marry Gertrude to rise professionally. Hamlet (Ethan Hawke) is still the resentful, suspicious brooder we expect, though we find him not as an offended heir but a totally incognito outsider from his family's power network. He is an experimental filmmaker dodging among the city's dive cafés, East Village lofts, and Blockbuster stores, and he shares both his artistic aspirations and his outward rejection of inherited wealth with Ophelia (Julia Stiles), a sort-of-beatnik who develops her own photos in a grungy studio apartment but nonetheless has enough Prada ensembles that we doubt whether she has fully renounced her family's financial advantages.

Updating Shakespeare to modern settings, of course, is not only un-revolutionary but has actually become its own form of banality. One has to be sure that the selected context carries a particular resonance with the material or the whole project seems like a desperate overreaching, an empty gesture of deluded radicalism. Thankfully, Almereyda's modernization plays well visually and thematically. New York looks fabulous in this picture, especially because the filmmakers have been so clever in choosing where to shoot their scenes. Everything from the Guggenheim Museum to the aisles of a video rental provide telling visual complement to the action that occurs in those locales. In fact, the transplantings are so successful that the staging decisions which don't attempt any transformation—for example, the climactic swordfight between Hamlet and Laertes—come across as shockingly uncreative and out of place.

On the conceptual level, the city becomes a living emblem of the tense coexistence of art and corporatism, an uneasy relationship which Almereyda emphasizes—and here is the film's second big risk—as the core conflict of his picture. This debate is not a major one in Hamlet the play, though the broader, related oppositions of ideas versus actions, or of appearances versus reality, certainly are. Part of Hamlet's problem is that he thinks too much like an artist, a poet—relying on words as his weapons, worried about ethics and implications, but convinced that phantoms exist and their words must be heeded—and he therefore proves no match, for a while, for the swifter, more cutthroat tactics of palace/corporate power players. This film stresses that Hamlet lives, problematically if not paradoxically, at the very threshold of these two worlds. He attempts to make art with digital cameras and computerized film technologies—gadgets that Almereyda himself champions, and uses in this very film—even as he realizes that all these pricey contraptions are paid for by the business enterprise he scorns. He and Ophelia share the youthful trait of disavowing their heritage except at the moments when it meets one of their needs.

Hamlet itself acknowledges this same divided loyalty between art and commerce, updating the most canonical play in Western literature but making no attempt to disguise the corporations and merchandise brands (Pepsi, Blockbuster, etc.) whose funding enabled this project. Does it make more sense to disclose one's corporate dependencies, as the film does, or to avenge the assault on one's sense that art, love, family, etc., should exist freely of money, power, and worldly concerns? There is much to be said for Hamlet's loyalty and his growing ability to act out his moral convictions; there is also much to be said for the fact that Hamlet's outrage leads to the deaths of at least eight people. Of course, there are no answers to these questions, but Almereyda's film and his choice of milieu provide new ways of asking the same abiding questions. For this, the picture deserves acclaim, and accomplishes much more on the play's behalf than all manner of Kenneth Branagh's grand but self-aggrandizing splendor.

The third major gamble ventured by Almereyda's Hamlet is the casting of actors whose credentials as Shakespearean interpreters are, to different degrees, hardly certified. The most proven in this line are Diane Venora as Gertrude and Liev Schreiber as Laertes. Both actors have played Hamlet himself, Venora in a famous and, in obvious ways, iconoclastic performance about a decade ago, and Schreiber just last season in Manhattan; not surprisingly, they acquit themselves well here in their smaller roles, and I remain hopeful that each actor will keep adding further and bigger parts to an already-impressive résumé.

All the same, neither Venora nor Schreiber is ever so vivid in any one scene that our concentration is wrested from the scenography and the conceptual project. Venora comes closest in a brief moment of drunken stumbling out of a limousine; she is somehow elegant in her dissipation, a unique talent in several of her roles. Indeed, though, all of the actors, however good at isolated moments, face an uphill battle of competing with Almereyda's rotating filmstocks, panoramas on the city, and inventive set-pieces. Hawke, in the starring role, gave what I considered the best and most involving performance, perhaps because this famously cerebral, occasionally pretentious actor is a perfect match for a film whose intelligence and skill sometimes come at a cost of smug self-consciousness. Kyle MacLachlan as the usurping Claudius and Bill Murray as the blowhard Polonius give nice turns to a few of their lines, but they both seem cast less for their acting than for how exquisitely they look their parts—the unctuous corporate raider and the daft, high-level corporate flunky. This prioritizing of appearance over technique certainly manifests itself in the case of Julia Stiles' Ophelia. Her pouty, fashion-plate face saves Ophelia from the wispy martyrdom to which so many performances consign the role; still, the actress is clearly the ingénue of the cast, and she mugs too much with her eyes and her body at moments when less almost certainly would have been more.

There is plenty more to say about this new Hamlet, both in praise (the opening scenes during and following Claudius' press conference are smashing) and in outrage (what's with hiring only two black actors, and casting them as a security guard and a gravedigger?) What I appreciate about this picture is that there is so much to say, period. Olivier and Branagh's versions were so overweening in their theatricality that they seemed like tributes to their own dramatic exuberance as much as they were to Shakespeare. Zeffirellli's version was a strictly by-the-numbers affair that made no real case why it had to exist, except to pave the way for a great one-liner in Clueless. This Hamlet, for all its missteps, actually walks a path toward genuine conversation about the play, about the filmmaking, about the experience of watching a movie that takes chances. I am not in a rush to see the movie again, but I am very pleased for the chance to see it once. B

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