Thankfully weighing in at a good two hours shorter than Branagh’s uncut 4-hour Hamlet, Michael Almereyda’s film proves that Shakespeare’s timeless play is still capable of springing a few surprises.
Ethan Hawke takes the title role as Hamlet, a student film-maker and heir to the ‘throne’ of the Denmark Corporation in present-day New York. To his disgust, his mother Gertrude (Diane Venora) has married her brother-in-law Claudius (Kyle Maclachlan), barely two months after the death of his father (Sam Shepherd) and when his father’s ghost appears and insists that Hamlet avenge his murder by Claudius, Hamlet has to decide what course of action to take.
To make matters worse, his girlfriend Ophelia (Julia Stiles) is slowly cracking up, a situation that isn’t helped when Hamlet accidentally kills her father (Bill Murray, superb as Polonius).
The basic story, then, remains largely unchanged – this is essentially an update in the same vein as Baz Lurhmann’s ‘Romeo + Juliet’ (Shakespeare’s original language is spoken throughout), only it has a more independent feel to it, and makes extensive use of video-cameras (allowing Hamlet to deliver his soliloquies as if to a video diary), close-circuit cameras, black-and-white film and various other new-fangled technologies – this is, in fact, very much a kind of ‘Techno-Hamlet’.
Thus, the ‘play’ ("wherein to catch the conscience of the King") becomes Hamlet’s student film, and Ophelia becomes a photographer, collecting photos of flowers rather than the flowers themselves. Most jarring of all, Hamlet delivers his "to be or not to be" speech while wandering around the action movie aisle in his local Blockbuster, which would be a terrific scene if it didn’t reek so highly of product placement…
The acting is superb – Hawke more than holds his own in the title-role and he is ably supported by great work from Maclachlan and Murray, but also from the excellent Liev Schreiber as Laertes – Ophelia’s brother. Stiles is excellent too, and her crack-up scene in the spiralling corridor of the Guggenheim Museum is one of the film’s highlights - in fact, the film makes excellent its various new York locations in general.
In short this is an imaginative and exciting update, lacking only the decent swordfight the ending demands. It’s only showing at one cinema in London so far, so catch it while you can.