A modern-day adaptation of an English classic, set in New York City, starring Ethan Hawke--if you're dreading Great Expectations Redux, fear not! Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet succeeds as both an original film and an intelligent interpretation that complements the other two American-financed productions of Hamlet that have appeared in the past 10 years.
Hamlet is a different man to different people; Franco Zeffirelli followed the concept of Hamlet as a mama's boy; Kenneth Branagh filmed the play in its entirety to capture the many excesses of the thwarted prince; and Almereyda has adapted Shakespeare to bring us the melancholy Dane at his most morose. Almereyda is consistent in his portrayal of a subdued, self-reflective man who implodes from the rotten state of Denmark.
It is easiest to compare Almereyda's Hamlet to Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet. While Luhrman relished its anachronisms, playing them for broad laughs, Almereyda rarely draws attention to his alterations, matter-of-factly changing the guard Marcello to Horatio's girlfriend Marcella and Polonius' burial site from "the throne-room" to the "lobby"--without even disrupting the iambic pentameter. While Luhrman's actors took great pains to enunciate Shakespeare's verse, the words fall effortlessly off the tongues of Almereyda's cast, as if this is the natural lingo of the upper-class. They may have been helped by the experience of at least one of their cast members: Diane Venora (Gertrude) has the distinction of having played both Hamlet and Ophelia for the New York Shakespeare Festival, in addition to the smaller role of Gloria Capulet in Luhrman's opus. Her Gertrude is sexy and vibrant yet still capable of true (appropriate) tenderness for her brooding son.
To emphasize Hamlet's introspection and self-study, this new Hamlet makes him an aspiring filmmaker, with himself as his favorite subject. The famous monologues appear in snippets as he edits his own image or as moody voice-overs as he roams dark New York streets. In his adaptation, Almereyda has cut most of the humor--such as the punchlines from Hamlet's scenes with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, his antic behavior with Polonius, and the entire gravedigger scene. The only humorous presence is the filmmaker himself, who subtly inserts a Buddhist monk riffing on "to be"; a ruminating Hamlet in a video aisle labeled "Action, Action, Action, Action"; and Hamlet envying the passion of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (get it?). These witticisms do not disrupt the somber mood of the film--and make me wonder if Almereyda is a little too like his Hamlet, a self-reflective filmmaker who enjoys his own cleverness.
Luckily, Ethan Hawke has the quiet intelligence to make this tightly-wound Hamlet work. His Ophelia (Julia Stiles) shares his arty, coffee-shop style; presenting her as a photographer saves her from being totally passive. Ophelia's madness, like her lover's, is subdued and dispassionate--grief-stricken rather than lyrical derangement. It is hard to find any character who looks like "passion’s slave," rather the characters are destroyed by quiet desperation. Even the rousing, competitive final duel is restrained--literally--as Hamlet and Horatio are rigged to a narrow, electronic fencing track.
Almereyda uses technology throughout the film to highlight the impersonal, disconnection of his characters: Hamlet surrounded by his bank of video monitors, looking for manufactured images to guide him; Claudius delivering nasty orders by cell-phone; Hamlet's "Get thee to a nunnery" rants as a series of cruel, angry phone messages; Gertrude and Claudius making out while pumping Rosencrantz (Steve Zahn) and Guildenstern (Dechen Thurman) for information on speaker-phone; death edicts delivered on laptops. Claudius, Gertrude, and Polonius are always surrounded by sterile, ultra-modern surroundings. Ophelia’s mad-scene is delivered during an art opening at the Guggenheim, which embarrasses Gertrude more than it moves her.
Karl Geary's Irish Horatio adds a nice cosmopolitan touch to the bohemian younger-set as a loyal and soulful friend. Bill Murray's Polonius is an officious company man who is sincerely fond of his children though not as tender and understanding with Ophelia as he is with Laertes (Liev Schrieber), the only young person with direction (Casey Affleck's Fortinbras only appears as a TV or newspaper image). Sam Shepard's understated Ghost looks every bit the worthy yet weary older brother to Kyle MacLachlan's intensely charming Claudius.
Almereyda has crafted a worthy Hamlet, skillfully transposing the Dane to the idle melancholy of a trust-fund prince, surrounded by a sympathetic company looking for a true leader in the gloom of Manhattan.