After the stately Heritage Shoppe Hamlets from Kenneth Branagh and Mel Gibson, Michael Almereyda's new ultra-contemporary adaptation set in corporate New York City is a documentary Hamlet, a fly-on-the-wall Hamlet. It's a Hamlet in which you almost expect Nick Broomfield to wander into shot with his earphones and his microphone, saying: "Um, Hamlet, if I could just - my production company wrote to you asking if we could - um, your Highness? If I could just - when you said 'a little more than kin and less than kind', do you mean that there's a compromise between the two...?"
Actually, Almereyda cuts that famous first line of Hamlet's, with all its sneering dumb insolence, cuts all of To Be Or Not To Be except for the first line which is repeated on a kind of video loop, loses Yorick's skull, and with it - perhaps thankfully - the opportunity for quite a bit of Marilyn Manson gothery. Ethan Hawke is the sweet Prince, with a goatee, a woolly hat and, confusingly sometimes, a chalkstripe suit with no tie - looking like someone keen to return to grad school at Wittenberg University (Dr Faustus's alma mater), but unsure whether to do philosophy or an MBA.
He has returned home to find his father - the former CEO of the Denmark Corporation - dead and his mother Gertrude (Diane Venora) married to his smooth killer Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan), who has taken over the running of the firm. The tense conferences, courtly encounters and hugger-mugger whispers and assassinations are played out in a kind of bad dream along Manhattan sidewalks, suites at the five-star "Elsinore Hotel", laundromats, apartment buildings, corridors and rooftops where Sam Shepard's haggard ghost burdens Hamlet with the duty of revenge and all its moral dilemmas.
One of the wittiest scenes sees Hamlet, morose and almost torpid with introspection, drifting through a branch of Blockbuster in which every movie genre is "Action".
The original Hamlet was a scholar and bibliophile: Almereyda's Hamlet turns him into a video freak, obsessively recording everything with various DV gizmos and playing them back: his girlfriend Ophelia is a photographer, who in her mad scene distributes Polaroids of flowers rather than the blooms themselves. When it comes to the play-within-a-play which Hamlet hopes will terrify Claudius into definitively revealing his guilt, the Prince is inspired, not by a bombastic actor's verse, but by a video recording of James Dean. And he presents a video-collage of animation, old 1950s footage and 1970s porn.
This is a stylish and inventive reading of Shakespeare and Ethan Hawke plays Hamlet perfectly satisfactorily, though he turns him into a bit of an indie-band lead singer. Almereyda's direction steers him away from any of Hamlet's humour and exuberance; we lose much of the ambiguity of Hamlet's mad-act: is he pretending to be mad to evade questioning, or evade his own sense of the horrific truth about what is happening? Moreover, Almereyda persistently makes the vulgar mistake of putting soliloquies onto a voiceover over a shot of the tight-lipped protagonist, as a kind of "thinks" bubble. It was the sort of thing Polanski did with his 1971 Macbeth: a disconcerting and unnecessary trick which you just don't need on film, and which lessens the visceral impact of speech.
The supporting cast has some real gems, though: Julia Stiles, in some ways reprising her performance in the Taming of the Shrew update Ten Things I Hate About You, is excellent, as ever - sensitive, sexy, angry: surely an Academy Award nominee? A really startling success is Bill Murray as Polonius, underplaying the role - counter to the English stage tradition of portraying him as a doddery old idiot - and emerging as a foolish but plausible father-figure. Elsewhere, Steve Zahn and Dechen Thurman play a slightly Bill-and-Ted-ish Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to whose marginal existence we have learned, since Stoppard, to pay disproportionate attention. Karl Geary is a reticent and morose Horatio, accompanied (bafflingly) by silent girlfriend "Marcella", a gender transformation from the original's Marcellus. Liev Schreiber does an honest job as Laertes, but he seems to be trying for a rather chi-chi quasi-British Shakespearian accent and Sam Shepard himself has some mangled country-ish vowels, worryingly similar to those used by Michael Keaton in his dire performance as Dogberry in Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing.
The modern setting works fine, but the idea of the Corporation replacing the State - however pleasingly apposite it is, given that globalisation is the key worry of the 21st century - loses much of Shakespeare's sense of real violence and warfare raging outside, just within earshot of this Freudian family scene. When Fortinbras's soldiers overrun a Denmark whose Royal court has been transformed into a heap of corpses, Almereyda's movie inevitably transforms this into a boardroom drama; the "1945 Berlin" atmosphere is lost, and the ending depoliticised. And Almereyda has stolen the idea of making a TV newsreader into a modern chorus from Baz Luhrmann's Romeo+Juliet, here ending on a pretty banal Jerry Springer-style "thought".
But there is still so much to enjoy in this film: it plunges into the drama and the claustrophobia with terrific gusto, and the setting exhilaratingly defamiliarises both the classic poetry and the modern cityscape itself. Once again, the question presents itself: why can't we do this? Why is the British movie industry so inadequate in the face of this kind of challenge? No one could dare patronise this American Shakespeare movie when we seem utterly unable or unwilling to try anything similar, contenting ourselves all too often with sloppy gangster comedies. This Hamlet is intelligent, energetic and very refreshing.