- Hamlet 2000
Dir: Michael Almereyda
(Warning: plot discussed in detail--though this is "Hamlet," after all; who'd still be unfamiliar with the story anyway?)
There's something to filmmaker Michael Almereyda's idea of situating "Hamlet" in midtown Manhattan (he did the oddball "Twister," and the black-and-white vampire flick "Nadia" (LALI, PLS. CHECK THE SPELLING OF THIS FILM) ). Aside from lending fresh urgency to this hundreds-of-years-old play, it gives the Prince of Denmark a new milieu upon which to ponder the state of rottenness, and us new reason to marvel at how Shakespeare can translate into almost any time, or place, or culture.
But for a "Hamlet" set in the new millenium to really work, we need to see changes that make the transposition not only credible but also inevitable. We need to see how the Denmark Corporation is the modern equivalent of the state of Denmark, how its corporate machinations resemble the intrigues of the Danish royal family. The film starts cleverly enough--with Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan) announcing his wedding to Gertrude (Diane Verona) at a press conference, and Hamlet (Ethan Hawke) prowling around the conference, playing with his handheld video camera--but beyond that, and beyond the takeovers that begin and end the picture, the corporate metaphor isn't really developed. You don't see the inside of a single board meeting (the perfect place for all the court scenes to happen); you don't see Claudius coming out of meetings with his officers (except for Polonius, who's really more of a personal assistant), or at least using a cellphone to close a crucial deal. The feel of a corporate environment just isn't there, or isn't complete; what's left is this great new setting upon which the play takes pace, and while that's not nothing--Almereyda develops a few other interesting ideas along the way--it means this latest "Hamlet" doesn't totally justify its update. The potency of the metaphor is lost, somewhat.
Almereyda's other changes work, with varying degrees of success. The play-within-a-play becomes a video Hamlet is working on, and which he exhibits to the court at a private auditorium. Ophelia is wired for sound, and when Hamlet feels her up and discovers the microphone, this becomes a perfectly good excuse for his sudden hostility towards her. Hamlet receives the invitation to duel with Laertes via fax machine (you want to ask, though, why not cellphone or email?).
Some of the less successful changes (or lack of) include Rosencrantz and Guildenstern--I've always thought Claudius' plot to have Hamlet sent to England with those two incompetents so he can be killed was too complicated by half; both Richard III and Macbeth hired assassins and left it at that. Almereyda updates the action by putting the three on a transatlantic flight, then having Hamlet hack into their floppy disk file and change the orders for his execution (delete 'Hamlet,' insert 'Rosencrantz' and 'Guildenstern')--and it still doesn't feel right. Claudius could have had Hamlet murdered much more easily and conveniently in Manhattan (it could be staged as a mugging gone wrong); at the very least he could have put in a long-distance call to England, instead of relying on those silly floppy disks. Telecommunication and computer technology in this film seems stuck in the '80s (though at one point we hear the internet log-on signal)...which would have been all right, if Almereyda had been more careful to tell us that the play is set during this period of massive hostile takeovers.
The final scene feels botched--though to be fair, the final scene of "Hamlet" is fiendishly difficult not to botch, what with all the dead corpses littering the stage; Almereyda cuts the elaborate duel short with the blunt introduction of a gun. To his credit, he gives Gertrude a lovely moment of heroism before she dies, splashes more blood around than is customary (poison is so unphotogenic), and reduces Hamlet's long death speech to a terse yet eloquent "the rest is silence." Right on.
Kyle MacLachlan plays the role of ruthless corporate executive well, meaning he is an excellent Claudius for this picture; when for one moment his professional fa�ade cracks and we see glimpses of the guilt-stricken man inside, the effect is so unsettling it isn't difficult to understand why Hamlet would hesitate to take revenge. Diane Verona is a beautiful, passionately hungry Gertrude, a fitting trophy-wife for Chief Executive Claudius and a fitting object of both obsession and despair for Hamlet--you can see how she would drive any reasonably sexual young man up the Oedipal wall. Julia Stiles as Ophelia is a less happy choice--Stiles is emotionally opaque, more fit to play alienated teenagers than a young and vulnerable girl in love with a madman. Liev Schreiber has a tall, glowering presence, and makes for an effectively intense Laertes. Bill Murray should have been perfect for Polonius and does get a few laughs, but you expect so much subversion and surprise from this brilliant comic that it's an acute disappointment when the role only works, and doesn't take off into the vapors.
As Hamlet, Hawke is for once (unlike Branagh, Olivier, or a dozen other actors onscreen or on stage) the right age--with the same sense of neurotic awkwardness that comes with being young, sensitive, intelligent and privileged, all at once. Hawke only falls short when the monologue scenes begin to run on, and we miss the skill and familiarity and sheer charisma that actors like Branagh and Olivier use in holding our close and undivided attention for minutes at a time.
Almereyda adds one intriguing detail to Hamlet's character: we hear snippets of his "To be or not to be" soliloquy earlier on video, suggesting that he had recorded himself saying it and was playing it back, over and over again. As if the ideas in the speech--that everything about death is desirable except its unknowability--have been living inside his head for a long time, where he has been trying to perfect them. When he finally delivers the speech it's while stalking the aisles of a Blockbuster Video store, row upon row of videocassette covers lined up behind him like empty coffins. Almereyda's "Hamlet," for all its flaws, is worth watching, if only to catch images as potent as this.
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