Modern day renditions of Shakespeare have long been the purveyance of theater, but rarely work in film. While cash-strapped college productions can save money on costumes by putting the Bard's characters in 20th century business suits, movies have fewer budgetary restraints and thus indulge the "historical epic" quality to the fullest. Hose and corsets are the watchword of Shakespearean film, centuries-old aristocracy the focus. They fit with the language, after all, and if you have the means, why not make a costume drama?
So it remained until a few years ago, when Baz Luhrmann's kinetic Romeo + Juliet brought Shakespeare into the 20th century. Loud and brassy, filled with MTV imagery and the hot young face of Leonardo DiCaprio, Luhrmann's rendition made a big splash, but failed to truly marry its post-modern setting with Shakespeare's artful tongue. It took another effort to really nail it, to render on celluloid what community theater had managed for years. It took something like Michael Almereyda's Hamlet.
Every high school English student knows the story, of course: the plotting king, his incestuous queen, and the brooding title character who can't quite summon the nerve to do what he must. In Almereyda's hands, however, it takes on a fresh new life without sacrificing the Bard's original intent. The setting here is New York, where something is rotten in the Denmark Corporation. The company CEO has died and his young brother Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan) has taken the reins of power. He holds press conferences at the Elsinore hotel, trumpeting his new marriage and laughing at Fortinbras' hostile takeover attempts. Meanwhile, his moping stepson Hamlet (Ethan Hawke) -- an aspiring filmmaker and every inch the Soho artiste -- mourns the late CEO and pines for Ophelia (Julia Stiles), the photographer daughter of Denmark Corp's chief executive Polonius (Bill Murray). His suspicions rise, however, when his father's ghost (Sam Shepard) makes a chilling appearance in his hotel room, insisting that Claudius had him murdered.
The drama takes a little time settling in: contemporary New York isn't an easy fit for Shakespeare and the dialogue tends to jar for the first half hour or so. But once you become immersed in the language, the awkwardness fades and the film's real strengths take over. Hamlet makes an asset out of the 20th century, using modern culture and technology to enhance the play's natural drama. In one instance, Polonius forces Ophelia to wear a wire, punctuating his callous manipulation of her love for the prince. Hamlet himself broods over video images of his father, whose ghost first appears on a security camera. Fortinbras' advances are trumpeted on the cover of USA, while the traveling actors who "catch the conscience of the king" have become a short film called The Mousetrap which Hamlet produces. The effect enhances the play's timelessness without sacrificing the original intent. While a few scenes are a tad heavy-handed, Hamlet seems as natural here as it would in 15th century Europe.
The setting also gives the cast a chance to speak Shakespeare's dialogue without putting on false accents. Americans have always been a bit awkward around the Bard, leaving it to proper Brits like Branagh and Olivier to put on "properly." Here, however, they can speak in brash colonial dialect without rupturing the drama, allowing them to focus on character rather than pronunciation. The entire cast shines with exuberance. Hawke is that rare Hamlet who actually looks young enough to be a student, and plays the mournful prince with the right amount of petulance and grief. Venora gives Gertrude a canny streak that few portrayals of the queen have evoked, and Murray shows once again that he is far more than just a cheap comic. Even the small roles are picture perfect, from Sam Shepard's laconic ghost to Steve Zahn's wonderfully flaky Rosencrantz. There's nary a continental in sight in this ensemble and Shakespeare has never sounded more at home.
While not in the same league as Kenneth Branagh's masterful 1996 version, the latest rendition of Hamlet has a unique appeal all its own. Smart, edgy and deftly original, it launches Shakespeare into the 21st century without sacrificing his timeless appeal. The brilliance of Hamlet as a play is its ability to weather the centuries unchanged. Michael Almereyda & Co. are smart enough to know that, and the melancholy Dane is all the richer because of it.