Promise you won’t go away if I let on that in Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet — the 44th film version of Shakespeare’s tragedy — the “To be or not to be” speech is delivered at a Blockbuster Video outlet, under a sign that reads “Go Home Happy.” Hamlet has been updated to death, and at first blush even Almereyda, a director not known for taking the trodden path to anywhere, seems perilously headed for postmodern cliché. The power hub of his Hamlet is a sleek and sleazy contemporary Manhattan, very American Psycho, a media-saturated hell of gleaming blue surfaces, penthouse swimming pools and flickering computer screens. And when young Ethan Hawke, clad as always in 5 o’clock shadow and a face full of unearned angst, pitches up in leathers and a woolly cap as the luckless young heir apparent to the “Denmark Corporation,” one begins to fear the worst. Wouldn’t you know it, the prince is also an aspiring filmmaker (experimental, it goes without saying) who’s using computer imaging to work through his grief over the murder of his CEO father (Sam Shepard, a ghostly visitor in a battered raincoat). Add to that the casting of Bill Murray as a deadpan Polonius (though no less a fussbudget); a schleppy, beer-swilling Steve Zahn as Rosencrantz; Julia Stiles’ Ophelia in East Village baggies; and Diane Venora and Kyle McLachlan in pricey uptown basic black as the treacherous Gertrude and Claudius, and the movie appears primed for a particularly poisonous brew of pretension and dumbing down.
Except that Almereyda is a very old head on young shoulders, an avant-gardist who bows low before cultural tradition even as he wields the Pixelvision toy camera that has made him a hero to fledgling no-budget filmmakers. Almereyda’s sources are surprisingly classical: His first short film, A Hero of Our Time, was based on the novel by Lermontov, and anyone who has seen Nadja, with its fluid cinematography, will recognize that his visual roots lie as much with Jean Vigo as they do with David Lynch. (Almereyda, an assumed name, is lifted from Vigo’s anarchist father.) His movies — deliriously poetic, elliptical and tough — reflect a strange and beautiful tension between reverence and rebellion. So it figures that from the great mountain of Hamlet adaptations, Almereyda has drawn his inspiration not from Olivier or Tony Richardson or (heaven be praised) Zeffirelli or Branagh, but from Tarkovsky’s late-’70s stage production and Finnish prankster Aki Kaurismaki’s 1987 Hamlet Goes Business, which cast the hapless prince as a bumbling entrepreneur who has poisoned his father himself.
Almereyda’s Hamlet is cast for fun, and the whimsy is enjoyable both for its parody of heavy-handed “relevant” updates of the play, and as a liberation for Hawke from the bogus existential gloom that often bogs down his acting. But the movie is no caper, nor does Almereyda merely pillage Shakespeare for parallels with the present. For the most part he hasn’t tinkered with the text. Instead he sets Shakespeare’s timeless poetry against a collage of the computerized imagery that clogs modern life, making it nigh on impossible for anyone to “thine own self be true.” This Hamlet’s agony of indecision about whether and how to seek vengeance on his mother and stepfather is propelled, as much as anything, by information overload. Absolute power may corrupt as absolutely in corporate America as it did in feudal Europe, but its forms are different. In the Denmark Corporation, there is no power without propaganda: Gertrude and Claudius protect their dirty secret more by public relations than by brute force. A confrontation between Hawke’s rumpled, red-eyed Hamlet, Stiles’ depressed Ophelia, and Venora and McLachlan’s smooth-talking elders is staged at the Guggenheim. And Hamlet broods on strategies for revenge in front of a tiny TV screen flickering with the Bloomberg Channel’s endless financial updates.
Still, for Almereyda the filmmaker the image must also be a source of hope and knowledge. If moving pictures oppress and overwhelm Hamlet, they also free him up for action. When the time comes to let his mother and uncle know he’s on to them, he shows them his completed film, a hilarious and menacing collage that sends them into a nervous flurry of spin control.
Though bloody enough (and funny — who but Almereyda would have Paul Bartel refereeing Hamlet’s duel with Laertes?), the climactic orgy of destruction is more elegiac than apocalyptic in tone. The movie’s final scenes offer less a discourse on the politics of vengeance, as so many readings would have it, than a meditation on Shakespeare’s core insight — pre-empting Freud by several centuries — that the oedipal triangle has a lot to answer for, and that life at its most tragic, and comic, is powered less by the murderous wish become the deed, than by the unintended consequences of both. That’s the human drama in a nutshell. The rest is silence.