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 contemporary setting.
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 finis
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