I confess to feeling a certain dread when I first heard that Ethan ("I have this planet of regret") Hawke was starring in Michael Almereyda's updated-and-abbreviated Hamlet. But after a few minutes of watching Hawke's scruffy, way-too-weary face, you get the feeling that he is not just a good choice for the part, but an ideal one. His very lack of polish and overt skills make him a particular kind of tragic hero, that is, not heroic or even very compelling. And so, perversely, he becomes compelling: Shakespeare's exalted language spills from his lips, and you begin to feel like you can't look away from this car-wreckish paradox. Small, sad, and fretful, Hawke's Hamlet is by turns gloomy, restless, and distrustful, a corporate scion and rich latchkey kid turned aspiring filmmaker, with insomniac-red eyes and a persistent feeling that someone's watching him.
But are you paranoid when someone's really after you? Poor Hamlet is living in 21st-century Manhattan, where video and electronic surveillance is the norm: cameras find you on sidewalks, stores, offices, elevators. There's no place where you're not on screen, performing consciously or unconsciously for someone's leering and likely profit-minded benefit. "Reality TV" rules: The Real World, Making the Band, Letterman's hijacky street-interviews, Cops, and the upcoming, much-discussed-already Big Brother. There are cameras everywhere.
And so, Hamlet slouches. Shuffling and shifting, unconvincingly hipster-cool in his Peruvian knit cap and baggy jacket, this perpetual college student sullenly recites those requisite famous soliloquies in voice-over, hunkered down in his bedroom while peering at computer screens and TV monitors, or — most appropriately — in the neighborhood Blockbusters Video. Searching the "Action" stacks for what might prove at least a brief distraction, Hamlet is suddenly struck as if by thunder. There's no way out of this performance called sentience. "To die, to sleep; To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub." He's contemplating his limited options — suicide or homicide? — just as the shot cuts to the store's TV screen, where Eric Draven (Vincent Perez) contemplates one of his own vengeful murders in The Crow Part 2. This reference could not be more astute, not only because the movie features a pissed off dead guy assassinating his own killers, but because this sequel in particular — following Brandon Lee's terrible on-set death in the original Crow — is all about burdens, of history, consumption, and youthful angst, you know, exactly the issues troubling our boy Hamlet.
The film opens as he's making yet another of his many confessional video "documents," the kind that film students make when they're trying to find their subjects and themselves. You're not even seeing him, per se, but his onscreen close-up. His grainy black-and-white but mostly gray features seem as out of joint as the time he's supposed to be putting right. Specifically, he's vexed by his father's vengeful ghost (Sam Shepard, craggy and glum), who appears on surveillance monitors, through windows, drifting into Pepsi machines. Despondent and theatrical, Hamlet's taken to wandering the nighttime streets or the Guggenheim Museum: he's threatened by architecture, grim, glassy erections and white, bleak roundness. Several of the buildings are now owned by his family's global enterprise, the Denmark Corporation, now run by his Uncle Claudius (a suitably stiff Kyle MacLachlan), new husband to Hamlet's widowed mom Gertrude (Diane Venora, who played Hamlet in Joe Papp's NY Shakespeare Festival). It's not a little upsetting that this arrangement has turned her all cooey and sexed up; clearly, uncle's taking care of her in ways that dad didn't quite. Read: too much information.
And of course, all this domestic drama is piled on top of Hamlet's own boy-into-man self-image issues, not least of which is what to do about the fair Ophelia (Julia Stiles), who's been hanging around. In this speedy Hamlet, she dresses club-kid style, in huge-wide jeans and cute little tops, and has a penchant for gazing into fountains and swimming pools. Besides being adorable and a bit moony, Ophelia is also beguilingly intelligent, poetic, and naive, all of which makes her the exemplary muse for a wannabe artist. Though, as she puts it, she "was the more deceived" by Hamlet's elaborate neediness, she still wants to believe that both he and her father — the suck-up Polonius (Bill Murray) — mean well. And it doesn't help matters that her upright/uptight brother Laertes (Liev Schreiber) is telling her to steer clear of her maybe-beau Hamlet, as this only makes him seem more enticing (and truth be told, who can resist his pouting and pacing?). No one is more horrified than she is when Hamlet discovers the wire Polonius has affixed to her body, in order to discover and record Hamlet's plot against the bossman Claudius. In this moment, as Ophelia's face twists and her body seems to be collapsing in on itself, the film's interest in abusive fathers (and father-figures, if you're counting wily Claudius) is all too plain. These kids are screwed, and not just because Hamlet's not making a decision he can stick with.
Selfish parents are always wrecking their children's lives in Shakespeare. The adults demand unreasonable loyalties and arrange just awful liaisons for the sake of shoring up property. Traditionally, high school classrooms are the tedious forums for initiating kids into these complicated themes and exquisite poetry: it's a good thing when mass media can accelerate and enhance this introduction. Certainly, this is the most emphatic point made by Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet: the Bard speaks as clearly to teens as to their stuffy elders. Almereyda's movie makes a similar pitch, but with less hysterical visuals and more accent on the protagonist's angsty internal life. This would be where his inability to articulate — despite his incredible access to poetry, which spews uncontrolled, rushing, as if from deep inside his wack psyche — makes sense, and Hawke's reading of the character as crude rather than elegant, also makes sense. Hamlet is always and forever, of course, in dire turmoil, all hepped up about the corruption he sees embodied by the folks around him, the increasing visibility of ambition, paranoia, responsibility, and fearfulness that attends growing up and dealing with adults who've forgotten what it's like to be young and full of hope and anguish at the same time.
This film is not so grandly explosive or entertainingly cartoony as Luhrmann's, and it's certainly not so narcissistic or literal as Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet. Instead, Almereyda and DP John de Borman focus on the play's relentless interiority in a way that makes it all about surfaces: the raging lustrousness of office buildings, the creepy shadows in board rooms, the click-clacking of high heels on polished floors, the claustrophobic familiarity of dorm rooms. in these spaces, the characters can't help but be strange and annoying. "To thine own self be true," says Polonius most famously. And yet, as uttered by Bill Murray, the line is almost alarming, funny and insightful and ugly: what selves exist here, to which anyone might be "true"? Claudius is most obviously concerned with appearances: watching Hamlet's experimenty and accusatory student-film, "The Mousetrap," sends him into an evident panic in the back of the theater, while Hamlet and Ophelia nuzzle and fuss in the foreground.
But Claudius is not the exception, only the most extreme. Everyone in this mercenary universe believes in the power of images and the righteousness of paranoia: the Ghost makes theatrical entrances and exits (using Pepsi machines and smoky effects), the gravedigger (Jeffrey Wright) sings a few bars of "All Along the Watchtower," and consummate corporate wife Gertrude is ever ready for public displays, her face always on. The film is populated by bad readers: characters who don't understand the surfaces that surround them: Hamlet's friends — the usually male Horatio (Karl Geary) and the unusually female Marcella (Paula Malcomson) — pop in occasionally with updates on the surveillance cameras that originally spot the Ghost, and worry that Hamlet isn't looking well but don't grasp the depth of his floundering or his stepfather's (their employer's) deviousness. Likewise Rosencrantz (Steve Zahn, goofy as ever) and Guildenstern (Dechen Thurman), busy themselves with spying on Hamlet for Claudius, imagining that they're doing the right thing but misperceiving circumstances so badly that they bring on tragedy in spite of themselves (the film occasionally reduces their appearances to phone calls and faxes, such that their mediations become characters and vice versa).
The hyperself-conscious Hamlet will never fathom the survival strategies that allow his friends to go on about their business, the performance of everyday life. The clues are all around him — his own video confessionals articulate the point perfectly, as do the various TV images that show up in backgrounds: James Dean looking profound and surly, a monk who offers this zen-nugget, "To be therefore means to inter-be." This mopey Hamlet's tragedy is transformed into watching too much, consuming too much, and not being able to see anywhere near inside, until it's too late: "I know not 'seems,'" he rails against Gertrude's satisfaction with veneers and self-displays. But the film is about his inability to figure out any other way of being, he can neither rid himself of his "too too solid flesh" nor comprehend and use it like the action hero he might imagine himself. BY the time he reaches the anti-climatic duel finale — on a rooftop, fencing in an electrified suit with the grieving and crazed Laertes — Hamlet's self-indulgence is all played out. The film refuses the nobility of the moment: news anchor Robin MacNeil signs off as the Player King, commenting — of course — from a TV set. The whole business ends without resolving a thing.
It's true, the movie is not the play, leaving out some two and a half hours worth of action and speech, but the essential plot yet swirls around Hamlet, available only in a kind of bare bones version, speeded up and out-of-focus-fuzzy. While such economizing loses some linguistic detail, it also dense-packs other, visual detail, urging you to read the reflecting surfaces and commercial excesses that so perplex Hamlet. The movie remains incongruous, at once skeptical and respectful of the contemporary pop culture that shapes it.