Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a four hundred year old classic that plumbs emotional depths of human experience with drama and poetry of such enduring and universal appeal that every generation feels called upon to reinvent it. Purists and scholars quibble endlessly over each reinterpretation, but Shakespeare himself was down to earth and (to use current parlance) market-oriented and market-driven. Engaging the theatergoer was part of his great skill and one would like to think he would be pleased at innovative attempts to bring his work to contemporary audiences.
The IMDB listing of Hamlets on film goes back to a 1900 silent French version in which the legendary Sarah Bernhardt assayed the role. There are dozens more over the years, including benchmark performances by the greats (Olivier, Burton, Branagh) and lesser efforts by the not-so-greats (Mel Gibson’s misguided 1990 try under Zeffirelli).
In a new release, director Michael Almereyda places the action in today’s New York City. The King (Kyle McLachlan, suitably calculating and oozing with corporate smarminess) is a king of industry, heading up the Denmark Corporation, which, of course, he has taken over from his recently murdered brother (Sam Shepard as the Ghost), even as he takes the widow Gertrude (Diane Venora) to wife. Enter the distraught prince (Ethan Hawke), a disaffected son-of-wealth with all the appropriate toys (computers, Palm Pilots, video equipment, an ill-kempt but glossy highrise apartment) and wearing a funky knit ski cap to signify his youthful rebellion against the high fashion and stretch limos of the family’s economic empire.
In this up-to-the-minute setting, with edgy and stylized cinematography, the words remain Shakespeare’s great poetry and, if the overall result is highly uneven, some of it works well enough to lead to disappointment that it isn’t more consistently effective. Hawke, understated to the point of effacement in last year’s Snow Falling on Cedars, handles the iambic pentameter with reasonable facility, particularly when Almereyda doesn’t drown him in directorial overindulgence. "What a piece of work is man…" recited on a video is not per se objectionable, but interrupting it with the ringing of a cell phone is too clever by half.
On the other hand, Hamlet’s scene with the Ghost of his slain father, without gimmicks to muck it up, is grippingly played and deeply involving. Both Hawke and Shepard demonstrate mastery of their roles here; the drama stays in the forefront and the anachronistic contrast of language and setting fades into unimportance. In a later scene, Hamlet speaks in voiceover ("a father killed, a mother stained…") while walking down the aisle of a plane, reaching his moment of resolution while peering into a mirror in the rest room – and it works.
If Almereyda had only had the confidence – or the restraint – to keep the rest of the film as focused, this Hamlet would have been a major accomplishment. Instead, each clever or imaginative conceit becomes overdone and an excess of gimmickry repeatedly interferes with the drama. Shakespeare gets buried in a barrage of faxes, videos, jumpcuts, and product placements.
The performances, too, are wildly uneven. Venora’s Gertrude is credibly troubled, and Liev Schreiber is convincing and intense as Laertes, but Bill Murray seems uncomfortable and miscast as Polonius and exhibits no sense of the flow of Shakespeare’s lines. Julia Stiles’ Ophelia is of the knit-brow-and-pout school of ingenue nonacting; her performance is an embarrassment.
Fortunately, Hamlet has survived even more misguided productions than this one and will assuredly continue to fascinate generations even after this particular celluloid has melted, thawed and resolved itself into a dew. Perhaps – dare we hope! – some young people will see the film and become sufficiently interested to read the play.