MELANCHOLY is part of the Hamlet ethos; withdrawn navel-gazing is part of Ethan Hawke's. And in Michael Almereyda's adaptation of the Shakespeare play, the conflation of the two is somehow mytho-poetic.
Poured all over the nooks and crannies of Manhattan, circa now, this "Hamlet" finds in Hawke's greatish performance a Great Dane for this, or any other, modern moment. This one is clad in hooded sweatshirts covered in a leather coat topped with a flop-eared knit beanie. He's ready for the opening of his latest film and for his girlfriend's funeral.
A pensive filmmaker whose style leans toward Bruce Conner-esque montage, Hamlet captures his malaise with a PXL2000 camera and loops his footage over and over on his Mac, while ruminating on the ghost of his murdered father (Sam Shepard) in the voice-over.
There's a poster of Che Guevara and a postcard of Malcolm X on his wall; could a thing for hemp and music by Ben Harper and Rage Against the Machine be far behind? Because Almereyda has opted, wisely, to keep Shakespeare's language intact, while making a statement, he fills the holes with cultural semaphores of our consumerist, media-saturated clime: Eartha Kitt's seatbelt purr wafts through the backseat of a taxi; stock tickers race behind Claudius (Kyle McLachlan); Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Steve Zahn and Uma's brother Dechen) are Bill and Ted; Jeffrey Wright, barely visible as the Gravedigger, hums "All Along the Watchtower" in a ditch; and Shepard's Ghost disappears into a Pepsi machine.
If a soulessness creeps into Almereyda's "Hamlet," it's more because the bounty of this project is richer than he's prepared to tackle. Its timelessness and timeliness seem to be dueling for primacy as though one or the other has to win. Is the film the moodiest, most atmospheric, audacious Ethan Hawke movie ever - or an inventive recalibration of Shakespeare to comment on a corporate culture? Sometimes the film manages to be a heated synthesis of the two, perhaps aided by Almereyda's minced, pan-and-scan handling of the text versus Kenneth Branagh's four-hour letterboxed version.
But it seems to be Almereyda's wish to turn the play less into a diatribe against consumerism (although there is some inspired product placement) and more into a love sonnet for New York, an organism here as temperamental and somber as the players populating it. The characters often speak in hollow spaces where the acoustics seem to give the words lives of their own. Bill Murray, doing a beautifully solemn rendition of Polonius, gives the "brevity is the soul of wit" speech on the deck of the indoor pool in Gertrude (Diane Venora) and Claudius' penthouse overlooking Central Park and the phrases bounce off the windows. His language is measured, the insouciance in the monologue dried into the business of his daughter Ophelia's (Julia Stiles) affair with their son. Polonius is a clown who's traded the circus for fatherhood and an Alfred Dunhill suit. Ophelia, who is wiretapped and forced to end things with Hamlet, begins unwinding inside the spirals of the Guggenheim Museum, her shrieks reverberating through the coiled
space like electricity.
Ophelia seems more the pawn than she's been before. Stiles looks tortured, despondent, angry, feral on the inside, her words hardened into wood. Outfitted in downtown Euro-chic (tiny T-shirts, nylon parachute pants and a messenger bag), she's like a gorgeous piece of mise-en-scene. Shepard, on the other hand, unlocks the text with patient, hushed danger. He gets behind the words and pours gasoline over them, then rocks the Ghost's fury and betrayal.
The interplay of location and language gives the play its umpteenth life. It's "Hamlet Unplugged," stripped-down and heady. And as a cosmetics-first experiment in atmosphere, "Hamlet" is almost daring. Almereyda, who has done some groundbreaking work with a Fisher-Price Pixel-Vision video camera, encourages his crew to emphasize the upscale glamour as a counterpoint to the ugliness in the story, though Hamlet's fencing duel with a fire-breathing Laertes (Liev Schreiber) and the gunplay that ensues is almost ruinous, too indulgent by half.
But Almereyda does a wonderful thing with the "To be or not to be" soliloquy, using the words of pacifist Buddhist guru Thich Nhat Hanh ("You need others to be") - who appears in a video monitor - in order to combat Hamlet's sullen-murderous-suicidal thoughts. Shakespeare's ideas of ontology and existentialism are pitted against the Zen variations. But what difference does it make to a Hamlet who spends his evenings alone, trolling the aisles of his local Blockbuster, waxing about "the insolence of office?" He's the only guy in the store who refuses to go home happy.